A Stoic Approach to Conflict

Mastering the Power of Perspective

JC Dela Cuesta via Unsplash

When many of us hear the word “conflict we may tense up, begin to sweat, start to put on our mental (or physical) battle armor, or look for the closest exit to get as far away from it as possible.

However, the reality is that conflict, when it’s healthy, productive, and progress-focused, can be an amazing tool in your toolbox, whether you’re dealing with it in your personal life, or with your colleagues and within your team.

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One of the primary reasons why conflict gets a bad rap is that we tend to almost solely approach it through our own lens, exclusively. And, the truth is, our lens is very much skewed in our favor.

It’s what’s referred to as Fundamental Attribution Error.

Fundamental Attribution Error 101

According to psychologist Lee Ross, Fundamental Attribution Error is the tendency to think that other’s actions reflect their character, while our own actions are most often circumstantial.

In short, we have a distorted perception in interpreting behavior, thinking they are our objective thoughts when in reality, they are heavily biased.

We feel righteous when we perceive others as in the wrong and justified in our retaliation since we view our response as punishing them for their perceived bad or incorrect behavior and character. It’s easy for us to justify our own feelings or responses, but dismiss or be critical of those of others.

Just think about the last time you were out shopping. Maybe it started even before you got into the store.

Let’s say you’re driving around the parking lot looking for a space and — Huzzah! — you find the perfect one. You mentally high-five yourself and proceed to inch toward the space. Then, out of nowhere comes some inconsiderate, selfish, crazy driver who cuts you off and takes your space! Ugh! Millennials…am I right?

It was yours! You saw it first — fair and square. You have been wrong — deeply — and are stewing and slowly plotting your revenge. Do you tell them off? Do you key their car? Do you devise a plan to stalk them in the store, giving them your best Wicked Witch of the West impression? Or do you let it ruin your day?

The Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz saying “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too!”
The Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz saying “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too!”

Pause & Inspect Your Initial Impression

Now, what happens if you pause for a minute before you leap to conclusions?

Moira Rose from the show “Schitt’s Creek” saying “And You Immediately Leap to Conclusions”.
Moira Rose from the show “Schitt’s Creek” saying “And You Immediately Leap to Conclusions”.

In his Discourses, Epictetus advises us to “not let the force of an impression carry you away. Say to it, ‘Hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from — let me put you to the test’.”

What he’s saying here is to stop and verify your assumptions and bias before plowing ahead with your judgment and punishment.

Test Out a New Perspective

There are four ways you can challenge your own preconceived ideas or conclusions — to view the situation from a few different perspectives:

  1. Question Yourself
  2. Take the Other’s Viewpoint
  3. Become an Observer
  4. Take a View from Above

Now, you don’t need to do all of these for a single event, but you may find that — depending on the situation — there are one or more of these perspective positions you can take to help test your assumptions before assigning judgment to another.

Let’s dive a little deeper into each one.

Question Yourself

Your preconceptions can many times be a liability. That’s why it’s important to challenge your own automatic thoughts. ask yourself things like:

  1. Is this really so bad?
  2. Why do I have this feeling?
  3. What do I really know about this person or situation?
  4. What haven’t I considered?
  5. Is my judgment or response helping the situation?
  6. Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?
  7. Could I be wrong here?

If you think about our parking spot scenario you can identify that, while the spot you found was great, there are others not too far from it. Also, did this spot have your name on it? What makes you think you were somehow entitled to it? How true is it that the person who took the spot meant to do so? Maybe they didn’t even see you. Is your reaction going to help you get your shopping done better/faster? Or is your chosen feeling of righteousness now turning your fun shopping experience sour? Could they maybe have spotted and been moving toward the spot before you had, and you was the one who didn’t notice them?

Be willing to acknowledge what you do not know.

Now, let’s explore our next perspective position:

Taking the Other’s Viewpoint

Think back to question 3 from earlier: “What do I really know about the person or situation?”. In order to best answer that, we need to, essentially, step into the other person’s shoes.

In his now-famous 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College titled This is Water, David Foster Wallace talks about how each of us has a choice to determine how we look at others and their behavior.

This is a powerful speech. Watch the whole thing…it’s worth it!

The point here is that, when you pause and attempt to take the viewpoint of another, your willingness to accept what is increases. In other words, rather than viewing their behavior as a testament to their moral character, you’re able to judge it similar to your own — based on circumstance.

In our parking spot example, you may pause and ask if you’ve ever taken a spot from someone else? Do you even know if you have? Was it intentional? Were you maybe distracted with a passenger or crying child in the car? Were you on a distressing phone call?

If you can ever answer yes, regardless of whether you knew you parked in a spot unaware of your surroundings, then how can you reasonably fault someone else for doing the same?

Epictetus refers to this as Empathetic Understanding, challenging us that, “When you witness someone apparently doing something badly, abandon your value judgment…because you cannot know what he did was bad without knowing his judgments or intentions.” Basically, you’re not a mind-reader, so stop acting like one.

And, even if you are somehow able to accurately conclude that they did intentionally take your spot, you have the ultimate choice to decide whether you let it ruin your day, demeanor, or paint job. You don’t need to go around ‘Towanda-ing’ whenever a situation where you felt wronged may present itself.

As much as I LOVE this scene, it’s not exactly the best way to handle the situation…

Now, let’s move on to Perspective Position #3

Become an Observer

In this position, you completely remove yourself from the situation, taking a 3rd party narrator or counselor point of view. Think of J.M. Barrie with Peter Pan, J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, or the blogger in Gossip Girl.

To practice this perspective:

  1. Pick a problem you’ve already encountered or something you’re worried or burdened by in the future
  2. Identify what you feel in response to the problem, but as if it were happening to someone else.
  3. Give yourself counsel, encouragement, or advice

For example, with our parking spot scenario, it may sound something like this:

“Amy, it seems as though you were excited about your shopping trip and felt like you were rewarded with that primo spot in the lot. When that other driver drove into the spot, you immediately felt jilted and as if this reward was stolen from you. However, without knowing exactly what the intention was of the other driver, if at all, it doesn’t serve you well to jump to a presumed conclusion. They may have been distracted or simply didn’t see you. Don’t let this ruin this shopping experience you’ve been looking forward to all week. You’ll find another spot easily, and then you can park and leave that frustration back with your car. Enjoy your day. You deserve it!”

You can also assume a completely 3rd party narrator, simply observing your own event with a solely objective description, with no emotions identified or acknowledged, by stating the activities themselves, not the emotions, judgments, or feelings that resulted from it.

For example, if a friend were to tell you about when they had a parking spot taken, how would you react or document it? Most likely, you’d respond with something like “Amy was looking for a spot, someone else drove in it. Amy found another one and then went shopping.”

While these first three perspectives include assuming the role of someone who is either an active or passive participant in the event, our final perspective removes us entirely from the situation

Take the View from Above

First introduced by Plato, the View from Above is meant to have you zoom out and compare your situation or perspective against those of others — either in your immediate realm or even higher.

This can often feel like a first-world problem perspective. but, it’s not meant to repeatedly take the “but there are children starving in Africa” stance, thereby making our problems always less than the atrocities or struggles being experienced elsewhere.

However, there are times when assuming this position can help you in gaining a more tangible and real “How important is this really?” perspective. It’s a way to get a sense of the bigger picture, understanding your role in the wider community of humankind.

This practice asks you to observe the world’s activities as if you were floating above the fray, rather than involved in them — be it as a participant or close observer.

It’s aimed to help you gain perspective on what is important, the weight of it, and how long of an impact it would have against the events of the world, of your day, your week, your month, your year, your lifetime? How does taking this view change your perceptions of yourself, of others, of those conflicts that — if zoomed out — are rather insignificant

Final Thoughts

As Marcus Aurelius reminds us: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

By challenging your own snap judgments and assumptions through

  • Questioning Yourself
  • Taking the Viewpoint of Another
  • Being an Objective Observer
  • and assuming the View from Above

You can better approach conflict with a clearer perspective on any situation — stoically, compassionately, and intentionally.

Level up your conflict resolution and collaboration skills with your fellow humans — in life and work — through my Create Extraordinary Teams self-paced and Live coaching programs. Not ready for a 4-week journey? Take a shorter path to join me on ‘The Porch’ by signing up for one of our Free Mini-Courses aimed to help you tackle burnout and communication barriers, be a work from home pro, and explore the ancient (yet very modern and real-world application of the) Stoic philosophy to master the art of control.

Founder of Painted Porch Strategies, where we help individuals and businesses Design a Blueprint for Eudaimonia (aka “the Good Life”) through Stoicism.

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