Managing conflict like a master

red belt

“Everything has a force.
Embrace it or deflect it – why oppose it?”
- Red Belt

In David Mamet’s great martial arts flick Red Belt (“one of the best!” raves Garrett Taylor), the above words are spoken by the martial arts master in reference to dealing with conflict. As a student of aikido, which is based in part on the principle of using your opponent’s energy against them through deflection in some cases, these words piqued my interest, and over the past few days I’ve thought a lot about whether they are words to live by or just meaningless dialogue. Thanks to a recent situation with my two-year-old daughter, I’ve come to believe the former.

The situation was one that many parents with multiple kids have probably found themselves in: during bath time, my two-year-old daughter decided it would be funny to splash daddy as I sat by the tub. After a few requests in babytalk to stop (“daddy says no splashing please”), her older and wiser four-and-a-half-year-old brother then decided to encourage her, even while I was trying to stop her from splashing and him from telling her to do it more. Not only was I getting wet, but so was the floor, and the bigger principle of my authority was being tested. And I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet. What to do?

Going back to the movie quote, it seems I had three options: I could oppose what she was doing directly, embrace it, or deflect it. If I opposed it, by raising my voice and telling her to stop for example, the likely result would be her stopping but at the cost of her crying, which may result in my son crying, which would just make an already long day longer; if I embraced what she was doing, I could just say f-it, get wet and clean up the bathroom later – not a terrible solution but, again, at the end of a long day, not my preference; or I could deflect it by using another toy to distract her from splashing.

So what did I do? Without reflection, I channeled a prototypical 1950s father and began to raise my voice (I really didn’t want to get wet) until my red-belt wearing wife, zen master that she is, picked up a toy and waved it in front of my daughter, who then took the toy and forgot about the splashing. Without a catalyst, my son went back to doing whatever he was doing – silently. Case closed. While I had attempted to oppose my daughter’s force, which was only seconds away from causing unnecessary tears, my wife deflected it perfectly. And now, whenever my daughter feels the splashing spirit, I quickly grab a toy to distract/deflect.

I’d argue these words have broader application to conflict management as a whole, not just with bathing toddlers. Let’s say your boss (at work, not your spouse) has just harshly chastised you because your team missed a deadline. Not your fault of course (Jim on your team has really been dropping the ball lately), but as the leader, definitely your responsibility. So again, you have three options: oppose the reprimand, embrace it, or deflect it.

If you oppose it, you could defend yourself and start making excuses – Jim’s under-performing, resources are lacking, expectations are unreasonable, etc. While each one may be true, it will probably just piss off your boss and make it sound like you’re not listening nor willing to admit your mistake. On the other hand, you could deflect it (what about Jill and her team? She’s gone way over budget!) but again, probably not what your boss wants to hear. Finally you could embrace it by apologizing for missing the deadline, empathizing with your boss’s situation (“I know you have a big board meeting next week and this is the last thing you need”), and promising to investigate the reason and correct it so it will never happen again. Your usually reasonable boss probably feels listened to, trusts that it won’t happen again since it’s rare for you to disappoint, and maybe, thanks to your apology and empathy, apologizes to you for flying off the handle. Or maybe not. Either way, sounds like the best result of the three options for dealing with this  situation.

“So what’s the lesson?” the hero in Red Belt asks his martial arts class during the movie (and a question my own sensei often indirectly asks): never directly oppose an incoming force – embrace it or deflect it to get the best results.

Of course, as with any principle, there are always exceptions – maybe a direct confrontation offers other benefits that outweigh the costs of direction opposition. But overall, whether it’s with your kids or your boss, these seem to be words to live by.

Questions are the answer in career decision making

question marks

Over my nearly 20-year career, I’ve faced more than a few career transitions, and each one has inspired me to think deeply about what kind of career I want, and ask, “what I should do next?”

Over time, I’ve found myself more and more in the (arguably) enviable position of having a few options to pursue due to my growing experience and skill set – not necessarily a lot of offers, mind you, but a few options to consider vs. just one (to be clear). I say “arguably” because although having a large number of choices would seem, at first, to be a first world problem, there are downsides to having too many choices when making career decisions.

The “paradox of choice” is defined by Barry Schwartz, author of the identically-named book, as “the fact that in western developed societies a large amount of choice is commonly associated with welfare and freedom but too much choice causes the feeling of less happiness, less satisfaction and can even lead to paralysis,” (emphasis mine). One example of the negative impact the paradox of choice can have on people is detailed in a widely-read research study in which consumers were found to be 10 times more likely to buy a jar of jam on display when the number of choices was reduced from 24 to 6. It’s theorized that when prospective consumers were faced with too much choice (24 different types), their brains just shut down from overload, i.e. became paralyzed, and rather than get stressed about how to make a decision given so many options, the brain just opts to make no decision at all and bypass the purchase, relieving the stress. However, when the choice of jams was reduced to a number that the brain was capable of analyzing (six in this case), effectively eliminating the stress of too much choice, a decision was easier to make and therefore made more often, resulting in increased sales.

In some of my career transitions, I’ve felt this psychological paralysis first hand and it’s led me to question how I can make decisions in a career context of too much choice – how do I know which direction (of several) is best given my priorities at the time? I’ve read many books on, and talked with many people (both professionals and lay people) about, choosing a career yet I haven’t found any comprehensive frameworks or processes that can consistently help me make career decisions in an environment characterized by 1. extensive choice, and 2. my own changing priorities over time (for example, my priorities changed as a result of having kids).

I have learned, though, that the answers can be found inside us – they’re just psychologically blocked or hidden for whatever reason. It’s the act of uncovering the answers or unlocking the doors that hide them that’s key (pun intended). For me, the best way to uncover those answers is by asking myself the right question(s) that happened to resonate with me at the time of need – and those questions changed as my life changed (what helped me five years ago has been different that what’s helped me more recently).

Unfortunately, though, I haven’t been able to find any one resource that contains a big list of different questions that I could try out to see what resonates with me at the time to help me uncover some answers. Fortunately for you, though, I’ve decided to aggregate all the questions I’ve come across over my years of thought, reading, and discussion in this blog (amongst other topics) so you have a one-stop-shop of career decision-related questions to use in uncovering your own answers.

So stay tuned – more questions to come, and hopefully one or more of them will help you uncover the answers you’re looking, offering the insight you need to make the right career decisions for you.