"I hate conflict. I avoid it."
"I’m sorry this has happened. I didn’t mean to do it."
"I am trying my best. I don’t know why this keeps happening."
These are the trifecta of comments I hear when I first start working with people in mediations or investigations. They generally come from life-long people pleasers.
If we want to resolve conflict, then we need to engage in meaningful dialogue. This starts with us looking at ourselves and our actions through the lens of another person. Then we need to be able accept what we see in front of us so that we can make any genuine change. This can be hard, particularly if it involves years of habitual thoughts and behaviours.
We can get in our own way because of "cognitive dissonance". In 1956, social psychologist Leon Festinger named this concept, which is a state of mental tension caused by an inconsistency in our thoughts, beliefs and actions. This tension often happens when new information is learned that challenges what we know or have historically believed. We naturally want to keep our thoughts and actions aligned with our values so that our internal conflict is minimal, so it can feel pretty uncomfortable when you have contradictory information being presented to you.
For example, if we see ourselves as being kind and are convinced that we would never hurt another person, it is threatening to hear that we have in fact done that. This threat makes us uncomfortable so we want to resolve how this information conflicts with our sense of self. We can do this by:
- Changing our behaviour,
- Changing our belief, or
- Rationalising our behaviour.
This often happens when a person is accused of being a bully, when how they speak or behave has hurt someone. They could:
- Self-reflect and stop the offending behaviour,
- Decide that being "kind is weak", they would rather be ‘honest and strong, or
- Justify their words or actions because their accuser did something to deserve them.
The first option is always the goal, but there are usually hurdles along the way, including when they:
- Disregard any thoughts and feelings that clash with their own by being angry and defensive;
- Ignore or deny the information they are being confronted with, or
- Apologise with excuses, possibly focusing on what they intended and not the impact their words and behaviour had on the other person (apparently, the road to hell is paved with those types of intentions).
To get over these hurdles (or under them like I did as a short kid), the person who is showing cognitive dissonance needs to feel confident enough to own up to their actions and accept the difference between the new information and what they know. That way their inner conflict (plus the external conflict) can be resolved and they can learn and grow. This is why it is important for any group or organisation to have a trusting and growth-minded environment, and a supportive team culture where people feel OK and have the psychological safety to admit their mistakes.
Bystanders of bullying behaviour often feel guilty for not intervening to stop it or reporting it. This leads them to show cognitive dissonance too. They may justify their actions by saying: "It’s just who he is", or "you have to put up with her, like the rest of us", or "if I speak up, I will get into trouble." This is how bullying can become a cultural problem and be left to continue in the open.
When we feel embarrassed, guilty or confused as a reaction to something we said or did, we should not automatically go on the defensive or lessen it, even though for some this can feel like the natural thing to do. Instead, we should ask questions to explore the situation from an objective perspective to understand if we were wrong and what we can learn. Seeing situations in their full context rather than getting caught up in our personal emotions will help us manage problems or difficult situations more effectively.
On a wider note, it seems that cognitive dissonance is becoming commonplace in society in general. Many of us justify things that are happening to us and those around us, even though we know they are unfair or wrong. We quickly cancel opinions that are different from our own. We can be apathetic and not take action to make real change.
When something feels wrong to us, we should resist the urge to simply accept it and not try to improve the situation. That is taking the easy way out, avoiding conflict, which will inevitably escalate into bigger problems. We can live to regret choosing that option.
A similar article to this was published in the Otago Daily Times on March 11 2023.