Workplace Conflict: How to Deal with Hot Buttons

Have you ever said: “That person just presses my buttons”? If you’re human, then you’ve felt this at some time or another. You might recall a time when you reacted strongly to it emotionally, and the result was an escalation of the situation, maybe even a fight.

This can happen to the most enlightened, secure, experienced leader or manager. I have seen it often in my conflict-engagement work with leaders and teams - and I confess that I, too, have hot buttons! Tammy Lenski, in her book The Conflict Pivot: Turning Conflict into Peace of Mind, calls them ‘conflict hooks.’

Why is this important to workplace conflict, and to you as a leader? Tammy Lenski puts it aptly: “Conflict in business and personal relationships can be deeply personal. The key to your freedom is knowing why certain conflicts get their hooks into you, and what you can do to liberate yourself.”

Conflict hooks are your personal hot buttons. Yes, we each have our own hot buttons, which when they’re pushed provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in us. We say it’s something ‘they’ are doing to ‘us,’ but the truth is that these conflict hooks come from within us. It’s about us, not the other person who pressed our button. We “hook ourselves” into the reaction.

Conflict hooks are based in our identity, background and makeup, and relate to how we perceive a threat. It may or may not be a real threat - but it’s real to us in that moment. We feel the threat, whether or not the other person even intended it or was aware they were causing it.

Workplace conflict -- it’s about interpersonal relationships. It’s a short leap to realize that conflict hooks can escalate into misunderstandings (or worse) with another person that likely have nothing to do with the issue at hand -- it’s personal. And remember, we all have conflict hooks. So you can almost picture an unconstructive conflict ready to happen in your team or workplace.

Understanding your own conflict hooks helps you think about conflict in a new way. We become able to see our response as an observer, and make a choice as to how we want to respond, rather than suffer from the outcomes of our emotional reactions. We can choose how we react when we’re about to get ‘hooked.’

The following is a powerful exercise that opens a door to self-awareness and greater sensitivity to others, for both individuals and teams -- and these are skills that can be taught.

The Exercise: 6 common conflict hooks

We at Resologics like this tool adapted from the work of Dr Lenski and Dr. Stella Ting-Toomey, Professor of Human Communication Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Dr Ting-Toomeys' work points to six identities humans commonly have, which we believe can also represent common conflict hooks. These parts of our self are so important to us that we are on a constant look-out for someone to threaten them/us. Most of the time it is not someone else pushing a button (hooking you) it is your own protection mechanisms perceiving and reacting to an action that was not meant to do any harm.

The Hooks: We use these in our workshops with teams, to help each person identify which ones might describe their own conflict hooks, as well as become aware of what might be ‘hooking’ their fellow team members.

●     Competence – you’re hooked when you perceive that someone is questioning your intelligence or skills.

●     Inclusion – you’re hooked when someone appears to be excluding you in some way (from a group, an event, a committee, etc.) or implies you’re not a good companion.

●     Autonomy – you’re hooked when someone appears to be trying to control you, impose upon you, or threaten your self-reliance.

●     Status – you’re hooked when you perceive that someone is threatening or dissing your tangible and/or intangible assets, including power, position, economic worth, and attractiveness.

●     Reliability – you’re hooked when you perceive that someone is questioning your trustworthiness or dependability.

●     Integrity – you’re hooked when someone appears to be questioning your moral values or integrity.

Now here's the big learning part. Take a look for patterns in your way(s) of getting hooked.

Your Stories:
Think through 2-3 past interactions/situations were you got hooked. Times when you found yourself in a conflict headed for negative outcomes and had some pretty strong feelings/emotions around it. Something pulled you in. Take a little bit of time here to remember what happened, who did what, what it felt like at the time, and maybe what it feels like now. What emotions went with the experience? On a sheet of paper, write a title or brief description of each “conflict story” so you remember what they were.

Your Hooks:
Now, with each of your conflict stories in mind, go through the list of hooks in the above information and identify which one (if any) was most responsible for hooking you. Which was the hook that pulled you in? If there was more than one, note them. If you don't relate to any of the six, what do you identify with? What hooks you? Write down the name of the hook next to each story.

Some questions to reflect on:

  • What does it look and feel like when you get hooked?
  • Are there hooks you get caught by more often than others?
  • Where did you get your hooks and triggers?
  • What are some ideas about how to see the hooks before they catch you? How will you practice?
  • What about once you’ve already been hooked? How do you get unhooked? How will you practice?
  • What kind of hooks does your closest friend have? What about your boss?

This is a great self-awareness tool to begin to understand the skills you can develop, for yourself and for your team, that will build the trust and cooperation which are the hallmark of a strong team.

To learn more about how we work with teams to harness the power of conflict, read about Resologics’ proven service modules. I’m happy to chat with you to answer any questions, so just click here to schedule a conversation.