I had the pleasure of leading a workshop with Laura Weiss called “Understanding Conflict Hooks at Work,” at the Community Boards, a conflict resolution center in San Francisco. Laura is a skilled strategist, facilitator, and mediator who works with senior leaders and their teams.
We started by introducing the workshop in a way that creates an atmosphere of comfort and safety, which is needed for an experience diving into self-awareness that can feel vulnerable.
After we introduced the concept of conflict hooks and offered an example (more on that later), Laura and I talked about our own hooks — true confessions! Hey, we all have them (probably more than one), and candidly sharing ours opened up the trust door to the group.
What does ‘conflict hook’ mean?
Then we dove deeper into what a conflict hook (or trigger) is — and what does it mean to people? It’s something that someone says or does which has an effect on us that is irritating or annoying, threatening, or even makes us angry. Your conflict hooks may be different from mine. However, the common thread is that it’s a physical, visceral reaction when someone pushes your buttons.
You know when your buttons are being pushed, don’t you? And you likely know someone who is really good at pushing them?
We shared with the group a tool adapted from Dr. Stella Ting-Toomey’s work which describes six identities humans have that represent common conflict hooks. Everyone wrote down and then talked about their own stories based on which of the six core identities they felt described them.
As with most groups I work with, these folks got triggered by their triggers — and here is where our coaching really comes in. Threats that push our buttons can be real or not. But they’re real to us, and we can feel threatened whether or not the other person intended to convey the threat. We often then react, sometimes in ways we might regret later (certainly in ways that could set back an otherwise healthy team relationship).
I loved watching as, one by one, the group had their aha! moments of realization — that these hooks have to do with their reactions, not the reality of the threat. Wait, I get it...I am pushing my own button! Therefore, I have the choice to respond to that perceived threat in any way I decide to.
This is a valuable realization. And the second is this: the ability to see yourself and each other in the context of these six core identities. What you discover are the differentiators — and the commonalities — among your peers. Many are unexpected and defy stereotypes of personalities or appearances. There’s a depth here that’s exciting and profound.
Identifying Conflict Hooks
I recommend doing a workshop like this with your team, and am happy to give you more info on how. Here are three more tips to learn how Conflict Hooks work and to begin to practice noticing them in yourself and others.
Read this overview of the six core identities. In my experience, most precipitating events that trigger negative conflict can be tracked back to one of these.
Watch this clip for a great example of how conflict hooks work: It’s a scene from the sitcom ‘Frasier. Then answer these questions:
Who was hooked?
What do you think hooked them?
Who had which of the 6 core hooks?
As you go about your day, take some time and intention to notice possible hooks — whether on TV, at work, in the grocery store, at work or at home with your family.
Action step: Make a choice
Understanding Conflict Hooks shows us that in the moment we’re getting ‘hooked’ we can make a choice to respond with intention. Our response can either move a conversation forward constructively, or precipitate conflict that’s headed for negative outcomes.
Workplace teams, and culture, that incorporate tools such as this build the trust and cooperation which are the hallmark of a strong team. And they do much better with conflict, harnessing its creative, expressive power instead of destructive, negative confrontations.