In conflict, you're not as rational as you think

April 15, 2024

All of us have to deal with conflict at work. Here's how to practice better objectivity, find your blind spots, and resolve conflict better on your teams, with your co-founders, and in your life.

In conflict, you’re not as logical as you think

Everyone always thinks they’re the most logical person in the room.

Not everyone can be the most logical in the room, so they must be wrong and irrational, and you must be right and the most level-headed one.


Why we think we’re logical

In all my years of executive coaching, managing, and working with people from all ages and walks of life, the same themes around conflict come up over and over again: I must be right, and everyone else is wrong, crazy, and overly emotional!

Why do we always think we’re the most logical, sober-minded person in the room? Easy. Because we all reason based on our own realities, influenced by our beliefs and values.

Based on this, it’s no wonder that when we fight with others, we naturally see it through the lens of what we value, care about, and believe is true.

In fact, we do this so instinctively that our brains convince us that we are mostly totally rational, logical, and objective.

And this is true - to a certain extent. Our objective view is always going to be informed by our beliefs. Beliefs cause us to judge a situation as good or bad; right or wrong. It is human to judge, because judgment has helped our species survive after all these years.

But judgment inherently colors the lens we look at situations through. So, if we can all agree that even our greatest attempts at objectivity are inherently biased in some way, only then can we begin to understand that everyone else functions the same way and believes they, too, are rational, logical, and objective.

Understanding the other side

Ask yourself: how often do you try to understand the other side, and I mean, really understand the other side?

In conflict, unless you consciously take the time to step into the other person’s shoes and steelman their side so well that you almost convince yourself they are right, you’re probably not being as objective or as logical as you can be.

This is going to make some people feel angry. How dare you tell me I’m not logical?! I understand their side just fine. And I understand it so well, I know I’m right and they’re wrong!

Wrong. If you still can’t understand why your opponent thinks they’re right outside of, “They just haven’t thought logically enough about this situation; what shitty thinkers!”, you haven’t actually done enough work to see their side.

Or, if you think, “This is their thought pattern; it’s still illogical and mine is right,” you still haven’t done enough work.

You're on the right track when you can say, “I see where they're coming from and why they strongly disagree with me. I can see how what I'm proposing might seem unfair to them.”

How to practice better objectivity

Here’s the practice I’ve used with my friends, colleagues, and anyone else I care about to try to get a little bit more objective. It’s also what I teach my CEO coachees.

1. Understand your opponent

As Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”

I’d take Sun Tzu’s advice one step further - it’s not just knowing your “enemy’s” position, but the why behind their position. To do this, understand what they value and what they care about.

Doing this while refraining from judging is extraordinarily difficult. But it’s also one of the best stoic practices you can use to step away from your own emotions and shift the spotlight away from yourself, too.

2. Avoid quick judgments

One of my favorite Stoic philosophers, Epictetus, said in Enchiridion: “When you are disturbed or offended, know that it is your own opinion that disturbs you.”

If you’re disturbed or offended about someone’s reasoning, you’ve done this to yourself by putting your own moral judgment on their perspective.

Keep peeling back the layers by asking, “Why does this person feel that way? What happened to make them feel that way and believe this?” until you no longer have an opinion that disturbs you. Your thought might sound something like:

“Okay, if I grew up the way this person did, went through the same experiences as them, was burned the way they were, and found myself in the same situation, I would also think the same way and feel as hurt/angry/insistent as they are feeling. I fully understand, and that’s a really shitty feeling for them to experience.”

Once you reach this level of understanding, you now know:

  1. Why this person is holding their stance
  2. What this person values
  3. The story this person is telling themself about the current predicament

At this point, you will be able to find similarities between the things you both value. And if you don’t have any similarities, you can at least find common ground on solutions that honor both of your otherwise-different values.

3. Understand yourself

Perhaps harder than unpacking the why behind your opponent’s reasoning is unpacking the why behind your own biased reasoning. This is hard, because you have to acknowledge that you’re not actually as objective as you think you are. You have an ego to transcend.

To understand yourself, you know what outcome you want, so start there. How does the outcome you want reflect what you care about in the situation? And how does what you care about reflect in what you value? Reveal to yourself your own biases: they exist, so you might as well know them.

4. Find common ground

Once you have full perspective on both of the outcomes you both want, why you both care about them, and what it says about your respective values, then you can start matching the components across your perspectives to find a situation where everyone wins.

Going back to what I said in the beginning - the easiest way to do this is to remember that this person you’re having conflict with thinks they, too, are logical, rational, and objective. You have to remember that and fully embrace it. Very few people actually think they’re crazy or irrational - even the person with the deepest unresolved traumas or mental illnesses think everyone else around them is crazy and irrational.

This kind of reasoning works with every kind of person, whether it’s your co-founder, investor, partner, spouse, child, or friend. 

Remember, just because you think you’re logical, doesn’t mean you are. Challenge your own views as much as you challenge others’. If you practice checking yourself often enough, you will become a better thinker, negotiator, and companion.

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Regina Gerbeaux

Who’s Regina Gerbeaux?

Regina Gerbeaux (@_rpgbx) is the executive coach to some of the fastest scaling startups in the world. She is also a founder currently interested in the food delivery and logistics space.

Regina was the first person trained by Matt Mochary (executive coach to the CEOs of Coinbase, Brex, and many more) in the Mochary Method Curriculum.

Her tactical templates and operational write-ups have been referenced and used by fast-scaling companies, including BioRender, CoreDB, dYdX, and many more.

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