Are You Playing or Fighting?

Published: August 9, 2022

The puppies in the image are playing, not fighting. The stakes are low. No ground rules, just play. If you are going to go toe-to-toe with a peer on an issue where the stakes are high, it’s best to have some rules. In professional settings, conflict management skills are trained and practiced regularly. Often deemed “conflict resolution,” there is an assumption that the outcome will include peaceful understanding and strengthened relationships. Not always. Not everyone fights fair. Here are 10 rules to consider the next time you decide to engage in a fight.

  1. It’s usually the subject not being discussed that is most present in the room. When the real problem isn’t named, tension will persist long after the fight. You can choose to name the core conflict in the battle, or you can accept the internal gnawing that follows the choice to avoid it. Resolution rarely follows internal gnawing.
  2. Being at odds is a natural outgrowth of being unique. Holding a different position isn’t necessarily adversarial. Even when there’s a shared goal, disagreement on the path prompts negotiation and, hopefully, eventual consensus. 
  3. Fighting includes both offense and defense. Regardless of whether you are attacking or fending off an attack, your skill is enhanced by understanding your opponent’s position. In soccer, for instance, the best defender understands the mindset of an attacker and most attackers know how to think like a defender.
  4. Respect and unconditional positive regard significantly boost the chances that a fight will be fair and ultimately lead to strengthened alliances.
  5. It’s okay for a fight to have no winners and losers. The goal of a fight does not have to be one side’s acquiescence to the other, or even ‘agreeing to disagree.’ The objective is to understand both sides of an issue as deeply as possible, and then decide how to move forward together with that new knowledge.
  6. Most fights require many rounds. Important issues resurface. They become the themes and patterns that define the vibe of the partnership. 
  7. Martial artists pay attention to the ‘center line.’ The center line includes the most vulnerable areas of your body (head, throat, major organs, groin). We all have ‘center line’ issues. Sometimes they are called ‘hot buttons.’ In a perfect world, we know our own ‘hot buttons’ and seek to know those of our partners – not to help us aim, but to predict and avoid their triggers.
  8. There are personality types who love a good fight and personality types who avoid conflict at all costs. In these interactions, the best outcomes happen when partners choose to respect that difference and adjust their conflict management approach.
  9. Tension seeks resolution. The discomfort of disagreement pushes movement toward problem-solving. The pull of the desire for resolution is the fuel for a good, clean, mature, respectful, adult, professional fight. The resulting harmony will eventually be worth the period of upset.
  10. War is art: There is strategy and creativity, and unexpected things happen. There are moves and counter-maneuvers. The outcome depends on a blend of complex factors.

Sometimes life plays out like a board game. Players assume character types. The rules provide structure. The roll of the dice creates luck, good or bad. The game has plot twists and the outcome can change at the last minute. Again, the puppies in the image were playing, not fighting. But after all, what’s the difference?

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.