• New leadership paradigms recognize the power of empathy and compassion. Empathy requires an understanding of conflict – an emotionally charged exchange.
  • Conflict is the friction or “argument” that is created between people when something becomes divided into parts or groupings. Conflict occurs along the border. It can be predicted by thinking about where these borders or divisions exist.
  • Fighting is the way we choose to conduct conflict and can be either divisive and destructive, or unifying and productive. There are many ways to “fight”, some of which don’t look like fighting at all.
  • Fighting can be adolescent – ways we first recognize and begin exploring as children, and mature – ways we can learn to fight to resolve conflict in a more collaborative and unifying manner. Mature fighting is more effective for the workplace.
  • Fighting also occurs within our minds – the fight or flight response hijacks our rational mind and doesn’t allow us to consciously manage conflict as well.
  • Productive conflict requires we don’t accidently see enemies amongst ourselves. People automatically defend their identities fiercely if they perceived they are threatened.
  • Learning different ways to manage conflict empowers us to respond productively and empathetically to how others “fight”, ensuring we remain calm and consciously aware of our decisions.

New leadership paradigms suggest that everyone can become effective “everyday leaders” by employing universal interpersonal skills like empathy and compassion. Using empathy effectively requires an understanding of people’s perspectives during emotionally charged times – such as during instances of conflict. Therefore, learning how to identify, predict, mitigate, manage and resolve conflict is a critical part the equation. Leaders need to be able to remain calm and collected even during times of conflict and disagreement if they are to effectively cultivate an empowering, empathetic and effective team culture.

Conflict takes many forms and affects us in many ways, some of which we don’t even realize. Let’s look at how fighting and conflict are related, and how to effectively identify and manage when they occur.

What is the definition of fighting?

Fighting is the conscious act of working to resolve, manage or otherwise experience a conflict. It is the mechanism or process through which we have a kind of ‘dialogue’, ‘argument’, or ‘conversation’ – how we conduct conflict. We can choose to have this ‘argument’ in many different ways – for example: physical, verbal, emotional, spiritual, intellectual and so on – or a combination these.

Tools we can use to fight with

We all know the ‘usual’ tools for fighting such as punching, yelling, anger, aggression, competition, arguing, insulting, etc. There are many tools we can use to ‘fight’ with that we wouldn’t typically associate with fighting. These include curiosity, listening, questioning, perceiving, discerning, empathy, compassion, understanding, collaboration, and more. There’s also a difference in fighting for, fighting with, fighting to and fighting against. We can choose how and why we fight. 

Fighting occurs in our heads as well as in the outside world

It’s not always so easy to employ tools to fight effectively – sometimes there are other sorts of fights we need to have within ourselves first. A big one is the impact of our own brain’s defense system – the sympathetic nervous system or “fight and flight” response. This system can take over and shut down our rational mind, influencing how we fight in potentially negative ways. In this case think of fighting as “self-defense” of the self, facilitated by the brain.  

Our understanding of fighting can mature as we grow up

Our concept of fighting doesn’t need to stay the same our whole lives. When we are young, we understand fighting in an adolescent way. When we mature, we can take what we learned from our adolescent understanding and uncover many new shades of fighting that are far more effective in managing various forms of conflict.

The key is not getting stuck in the adolescent phase. Adolescent forms of fighting are so firmly engrained in our everyday life and experience that it’s sometimes the only kind of fighting we recognize. We are programmed to believe these ways of fighting are normal or even good. But there’s a whole spectrum to learn about. Fighting can be divisive or attractive, constructive or destructive, empowering or disempowering. It all depends on your perspective and experience. What kind of fighting will you choose to employ?

“Seeing the fight” in ourselves, and in others

A key skill is being able to recognize how the ways we fight impact the ways other people fight and vice versa. This allows us to take command of our actions instead of letting our brain’s survival mechanisms do the work for us. It gives us a degree of control and influence regarding the actions of others and can be used to de-escalate a situation rather than fuel it.

These skills need to be trained and practiced – consciously reframing and changing the perspective of what fighting means. There are existing resources that touch on many of these ideas – they’re not new (think of books you’ve read on persuasion, empathy, conflict management, change management, influence, negotiation etc). However, what is new is the relation to mechanisms of fighting – a way to understand human behaviour at a root level. With this context, we can apply appropriate solutions to individual challenges more intuitively rather than memorizing every possible situation and way to address it.  

The Shades of Fighting leadership development program provides this context and is a critical resource for everyday leaders who want to become experts in all these different ways of resolving intra- and inter-personal conflict.  

What is the definition of conflict?

Conflict is the ‘argument’ itself, whereas fighting is the way we conduct the argument. In this context, “argument” is used to highlight the fact that we as humans create the conditions for conflict ourselves. It comes from us and it’s created by us and between us. You could say it’s a co-created challenge that in turn needs a cooperative solution.

Conflict arises along the borders of divided things that aren’t in balance

The conditions through which a conflict comes into existence usually involve a division between two or more things. Conflict or ‘friction’ tends to occur along the edge or border of the division between these things. The division can take many forms also – it could be a physical barrier, an abstract separation, a grouping, a subdivision of a thing or a concept, or any other conceptualization of how something could possibly become split, divided, or otherwise not whole.

You could say that conflict occurs in systems of divided things that are in flux or out of balance. It’s important to recognize that conflict is not good or bad in itself – how we fight in response determines how productive and positive, or destructive and negative the conflict is.

Try looking at different forms of conflict you recognize in your life and see if you can identify the divisions and “groups” or “parts” that led to the conflict.

Choose an appropriate method of fighting for each type of conflict

There are many causes of conflict and locations where it occurs. These present opportunities to choose different shades of fighting through which we can address, manage and resolve these conflicts. It’s important to first see where these subtle or not so subtle divisions occur so we can predict conflict and address it proactively. Your goal could be healing these divisions, preventing them, mitigating them or otherwise bringing them into better balance.

Conflict occurs everywhere – within ourselves as well as external to ourselves. It can exist when we are alone or with other people. This is why the ability to predict, recognize, and effectively manage many forms of conflict through different shades of fighting is a critical leadership and life skill.

Conflict is messy  

Conflicts are systems in some state of flux, or an energetic and unstable state of continuous change. It’s this state of change and flux that leads to the characteristics that we recognize in conflict – something that’s a bit messy, a bit random, chaotic and provocative to our emotions. To fight in a more mature way, we must fully understand as well as be able to feel how conflict impacts us and our behaviour so we are empowered to choose how we fight in response. This takes practice and courage.

How to approach fighting in an effective and mature way

A more mature kind of fighting is one in which we cooperate to bring a divided system into balance. The first step is to recognize what the system is – where the division is, where the uncertainty or friction is and then find a common objective to rally behind. People united this way are better able to focus on the ‘argument’ or the conflict directly and are less likely to feel like they are perceived as an enemy. This will help keep the focus on the co-created challenge instead of on the character and identity of the people involved. People will act to viciously protect their identities and beliefs should they feel threatened.

Conflict is like music and fighting is how we use our instruments

To illustrate these concepts, think of conflict (the argument) as a piece of music written for an orchestra. The lines of division occur between the different individuals and instruments that make up the orchestra (they are all separate people trying to behave as a coordinated whole). The fight is defined by how each individual chooses to use their instrument.

Adolescent fighting would look something like if people only focused on themselves, playing their instrument independently of the others with no regard for bringing balance to the entire system (the orchestra and music). Another extreme example would be if instead of playing, they decided to beat each other up with their instruments, measuring success by which instrument is the most effective weapon. A more mature way to conduct the argument is through cooperation and understanding which creates a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts (a beautiful song).

Adolescent fighting isn’t always what it seems like

Another way to illustrate the difference between adolescent and mature forms of fighting is by watching how martial arts students fight. In this context, you often see what looks like an adolescent form of fighting – physical punching and kicking. If the intention of this is to ‘win’, then it is indeed an adolescent demonstration of fighting. Individual attainment of status like winning a trophy feeds the ego, produces an extrinsic measure of self-worth and results in a clear “loser”. In this way, a division is created through a mechanism of domination. It’s not a bad thing – it’s just an early-stage way to experience fighting and conflict. Taking this attitude and methodology into the workplace will have similar results (winners and losers, competition over cooperation, goals of individual attainment over team attainment, feeding the ego, motivation through extrinsic measures, focus on the individual vs the group etc.).   

However, if the intent is for the martial arts students to help each other learn something about themselves through the act of the physical fight, it may be a mature form of fighting (even though it looks the same from the outside). The students may be helping each other struggle with, experience and explore the emotions and feelings that arise as a result of fighting. This kind of fighting is characterized by mutual respect. By exploring their human nature this way, they may learn to become more compassionate and respectful to others as they begin to deeply understand viscerally how fighting can cause pain and fear, for example. It’s like having an “argument” with yourself, with the help of someone else to explore your own humanity and nature.

Where do we see the enemy?

If we use the analogy of fighting an enemy, make sure that the act of fighting doesn’t trick you into seeing enemies amongst other people who are also participating in this “fight”. During productive conflict we can fight with others without seeing them as enemies or feeling the need to fight against them. It’s not the people – it’s the ideas that are under pressure. The goal is to find a way to balance the system which led to the conflict – a win-win for everyone. If you must see an enemy, see the one people have created together – the conflict itself – the fuzzy and chaotic line that separates or divides two or more things or ideas. 

This is very difficult to do in practice, but each person has the power to choose where they see enemies. Each person also has choice about how they fight in response to others who are fighting adolescently. Responding with mature ways of fighting can help to diffuse things and break the self-reinforcing cycle. As mentioned previously, to be effective at responding to adolescent fighting one must first resolve and manage different kinds of fights and conflict that occur naturally within their own mind (like automatic defense mechanisms) so they are able to maintain calm and composed control of their mind and reactive behaviours. 

The difference between fighting and conflict – two sides of the same coin

By appreciating that how we fight is separate from the conflict we are fighting to manage, we become empowered to make deliberate and conscious choices about how we fight. How we fight requires we understand how others will fight in response to our way of fighting too. The goal is to keep the fight going and work to bring balance to the system where the conflict occurs without creating the feeling that people are fighting each other as enemies.

So when you see different kinds of conflict in your life, see if you can identify the difference between the conflict and the fighting. See if you can recognize various shades of fighting and identify if they are adolescent or mature variations. Think about how adolescent fighting can promote more adolescent fighting. How can you shift things towards a more mature and effective way to break this cycle?

Everyone who sees themselves as a leader would benefit from further training on how to capitalize on their personal super powers to shift fighting towards the mature end of the spectrum. Get started for free with a preview of the Shades of Fighting online training program.

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