Ego is the monster inside us all, and it is key in understanding ourselves better when it comes to managing conflict.
Very few people relish conflict - it’s one of the most common areas that we get asked to consult on with our clients in the financial services sector.
We use lots of helpful behavioural theory, practical techniques and role-play various scenarios.
But nothing can quite replicate the real life challenge of conflict with a particularly stubborn individual, whether a colleague or client, when emotions are running high and adrenaline is flowing.
It’s not easy. So give yourself a break if you find it hard.
The question is: How do you manage conflict in practice?
Before we run through some practical ways you can deal with conflict and the role your ego has to play, take a look at our previous article on emotional intelligence if you haven't read it already.
The three ego states
Eric Berne’s 'transactional analysis' theory is extremely helpful in enhancing our self-awareness during conflict.
It suggests all of us have the capacity to think, feel and act from three ego states: parent, adult and child.
- The parent state relates to behaviours, thoughts or feelings copied from parents or authoritative figures
- The adult state relates to behaviours thoughts and feelings that are direct responses to the here and now
- The child state relates to behaviours, thoughts and feelings replayed from childhood.
Both the parent and child states are reactive and fuelled by emotion, while the adult ego state is more measured – rational, present and objective.
The emotions that conflict evokes can be strong and aren't easy to detach from. But you must.
It can be helpful to work out your triggers, and what emotional ego state you’re most easily consumed by.
Perhaps you’ll oscillate between the parent and child states. It's worth remembering these behaviours are deeply stored in the emotional memory.
When you feel that anxiety, stress, anger or whatever it is rising, just breathe.
Take some space and step outside of yourself to observe.
Though it may not feel like this, you are not your emotions, however all-encompassing they may seem at the time. Don’t give in to the temptation to feed your greedy ego.
“But I’m right! This person’s an absolute idiot and they need to know it.” Do they? Not really. This is your ego talking.
“I’m an idiot. I’m way out of my depth. I hate this. I’m just going to avoid it all.” No you’re not. Again, this comes down to your ego.
The short-term satisfaction of winning or ducking out completely will give way to long-term regret. Your ego doesn’t care about the other person. It doesn’t actually care too much about you.
The 'ego monster'
If we feed our ego it can take over, and the results can be catastrophic.
The 'ego monster' is erratic, highly emotionally charged and doesn’t consider the consequences. It can also be a bit of a saboteur.
The trouble is, it can be incredibly convincing.
The parent and child ego states can lead to two types of behaviour, and both are pretty self-destructive.
They can lead to 'lost child' behaviour - where people are nervous, scared, anxious, feel inferior or don't take responsibility.
They can also lead to what's called 'false messiah' behaviour - where people are certain they're right, they're indignant, angry or have a desire to belittle or point score at all costs.
The ego is part of you, but it’s not all of you.
It’s a strange phenomenon to think about the emotions of your ego as if you are separate from them. Yet in the context of conflict, it’s particularly helpful.
By taking the time to detach, understand and quell the surge of emotion, you take control.
A massive tip is to put yourself in the shoes of your 'adversary.
Step outside of yourself and use your energy to see things from their perspective.
The ability to at least understand where they're coming from, even if you don’t agree, is one of the most powerful tools in managing conflict.
This empathy starves your ego monster, allowing you to operate from a more objective, rational state - what Eric Berne calls the adult ego state.
It takes practice to strengthen this state under pressure, as it’s less instinctive. The state is informed by your emotions, as well as the emotions of the other person. But it’s not driven by them.
Training ourselves to manage these challenging situations better and developing our emotional intelligence is a lifetime’s work. Try to be patient and enjoy the ride.
Here are our seven tips for managing conflict better:
I know, we mention this a lot. But we don’t do it enough, and it’s a powerful remedy.
Breathing gets more oxygen to the brain and gives us a greater sense of time and space.
2) Slow down
When our emotions take over, our tempo tends to pick up. It’s harder to maintain control at the wheel. And remember, you’re always at the wheel.
3) Listen to and understand your ego monster
Don’t hate or judge. It’s part of what makes us human.
Being in adult state doesn’t mean you stop feeling altogether. That would be odd. It just means you’re not hijacked by your emotions which then drive your behaviour.
4) Detach from it
Though it may not feel like it, you’re always in control.
5) Try to understand the other person's ego monster.
It might not be all that different from your own.
6) Mediate between the two
Done well, this may feel almost like an outer body experience as you referee and take into account both your ego and the other person.
7) Find a solution that genuinely suits you both
Keeping an eye on this at all times will make it easier not to get consumed with the short-term nature of your ego.
This quote says it all:
“The ego, however, is not who you really are. The ego is your self-image, it is your social mask, it is the role you are playing. Your social mask thrives on approval. It wants control and it’s sustained by power because it lives in fear.”