Staying on the high road
Winslow Wong 
There’s no need to fight over who’s right. Let it go and focus on resolving the conflict

At work and, for that matter, in most relationships, we don’t always get our last word in. Sometimes it’s best to back down and take the high road to avoid a tense situation. Knowing when to let go is just as important as knowing when to stand your ground, and, as they say, winning a war is better than winning a battle.

By nature, I’ve a mind of my own, sticking up for myself, and speaking truth to power. So, resolving to stay on the high road was easier said than done, especially in my early working years. I recall a time when standing my ground backfired. I was working with a colleague – who was equally strong-willed and self-indulgent – on an elaborate event, and I kept arguing with her almost every step of the way. Despite our strongly-worded and sometimes fiery exchanges, the event surprisingly turned out to be a huge success. I must admit it was largely due to her meticulous planning, and by picking apart her ideas, I ended up looking immensely petulant.

The episode was indeed a humbling experience for me. Thereafter, each time I failed to take the high road, it just sucked in the end and I usually regretted it. However, whenever I took the high road, I felt satisfied, sometimes even surprised that I was pleased with myself about the outcome. Well, occasionally I had to swallow my pride, and look past a disagreement or difference in opinion or belief. Over the years, with much practice and perseverance, it’s easier to move forward and achieve results rather than wanting to be right all the time. I think it’s worth it as I’ve seen better results and enjoyed greater peace of mind.


Holding your ground for the right reasons

When you back down, you prove that you’re placing the success of a project above your own personal agenda, which means that next time you choose to hold your ground, your colleagues or team members will know that you’re doing it for the right reasons.

How do you gracefully back down and end an argument? When you’re in the midst of an argument that seems like it’ll never end, you’ve two options – you either stand your ground as long as the other person allows you, or gracefully and graciously back down.

Think about the other person’s side of the argument and give credence to his good points. Sometimes it’s hard to see another perspective when it’s in direct opposition to yours. However, if you step away from the argument for a minute or two and think about what the other person has said, you’ll probably find at least one valid point. Focus on your agreement with that point to end the argument. After all, a fight can’t happen if only one of you is fighting. “I agree with you” usually ends most disputes.

Choosing the right words in any argument is critical. Sometimes, regardless of how good your intentions are, what you say – or even insinuate – can further upset others and simply make the issue worse. So, when things start to heat up with someone – for example, you don’t see eye-to-eye on a project or you aren’t happy with the way you were treated at a meeting – choose your words carefully.

In tense situations, the stakes are usually high and negative emotions abound, causing us to fumble with our words or say things we don’t mean. This is because our first instincts are usually off, and we end up framing the issue as who’s right or who’s wrong. We firmly advocate for our position, instead of trying to understand what’s really happening in a disagreement or look at things from the other person’s perspective. Playing the blame game by saying “you’re wrong” or “I’m sure I’m right” often makes matters worse. Instead of building a case for why we’re right, let that go and focus on resolving the conflict.

In most conflicts, there’s often misalignment between what we mean and what the other person hears. It doesn’t matter if your intent is honourable if your impact is not. People are generally more aware of what they want to say but are less tuned into what others hear or how they interpret it.

So how do you avoid these traps? It helps when we take some of the emotion out whenever the emotional level gets too high. That often means sitting back and letting the other person vent it well. The trouble is we often stop people before they’ve gotten enough of their emotions out. Hold back and let them say their piece. You don’t have to agree with everything they say, but just listen. While you’re doing this, you might be completely quiet or you might indicate you’re listening by using phrases like “I get that” or “I understand.” Avoid saying anything that assigns feeling or blame, like “calm down” or “what you need to understand is”. If you can do this effectively, without judging, you’ll soon be able to have a productive conversation. And it has worked well for me time and again!

In tense situations, nothing has more power to cause a complete mental turnaround than questions. Instead of thinking about what you want to say, consider what you want to learn from the other person to help you get to the root cause of the conflict and set you up to resolve it. Ask questions like “Why did that upset you?” or “How are you seeing this situation?” Use phrases that make you appear more receptive to a genuine dialogue. Once you’ve heard the other person’s perspective, paraphrase what he has said and ask “I think you said ..., did I get that right?”


More than one view

Taking the high road also means owning your part in any disagreement. Don’t act like there’s only one view of the problem at hand. You need to own your perception by starting sentences with “I” instead of “you”. An “I” statement is a style of communication that focuses on the feelings or beliefs of the speaker rather than thoughts and characteristics that he attributes to the listener. For example, say “I’m worried when you consistently arrive late without calling” rather than “You frequently come late”.

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 262.