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Keeping Yourself (and others) Out of Conflict Corners

It’s tempting to feel triumphant when we successfully back our nemesis into a figurative corner. But it’s ill-advised triumph. Cornering triggers our evolutionary baggage, leads to outcomes unlikely to stand the test of time, and leaves all sorts of debris in the personal or working relationship. Here are ways to address and prevent cornering in your own and others’ conflicts.

“If you can,” said Kay, “try to get an office that has more than one door.”

It was the last day in my assistant dean job and I was meeting with my vice president, Kay, one last time to say good-bye. The next day, I’d be heading across town to take my new job as dean at another college.

I’d asked Kay what advice she had for me. She added the door comment almost as an afterthought. But it has resonated for years.

Initially, I understood Kay’s advice to mean I should have a literal second escape path. Not long before, we’d watched an unfortunate scene unfold at another university in town. When student protestors had taken over the new president’s outer offices, he had no other way to get out. Except the window. Photos of his derrière as he climbed down a ladder were the beginning of the end for his very brief presidency.

Over time, though, I began to understand Kay’s advice in less literal terms. As I did more and more conflict resolution work, I could see how important it was not to let people get backed into (or back themselves into) corners. Decisions made from conflict corners tend to have short shelf lives.

As I mediated and noticed cornering, I’d hear Kay’s voice in my head: “More than one door.”

The baggage of evolution causes cornering to produce bad results. In evolutionary terms, backed into a cave or teetering on the edge of a cliff meant likely death. The closer we got, the harder we had to fight to survive or find an escape.

Millenia later, getting backed into a figurative corner during an argument doesn’t require such drastic reaction. But react we do when that evolutionary baggage kicks in, perhaps well below our consciousness. We resist, we defend, we outright fight.

“Convince me”

Just like Kay taught me all those years ago, I like to leave myself a figurative spare door or two. It keeps me from feeling cornered and it allows me to save face if I decide to change my tune later.

One way I do this is with the request, “Convince me.”

When I feel quite certain about something, I try to say, “Well, convince me I’m wrong about this.” Maybe they will. It has happened. With some frequency.

When they do, I am able to say, “You did a good job of convincing me.” They feel good about it and I feel less bad, in face-saving terms, than I otherwise might.

“Convince me” isn’t just a powerful tool we can use to get ourselves out of tight corners. We can use it to help our sparring partner stay out of the corner, too. It’s tempting to think of the corner as exactly the place we want them, but we’d be deluding ourselves.

I might say, “Will you allow me to try convincing you, even for just a few minutes?” I may not succeed, but I will have postponed the self-cornering and maybe they’ll hear something that opens up new doors neither of us noticed.

Cornering in mediation

When I’m mediating and notice someone who seems to be backing themselves into a corner, I like to take them aside privately and raise the challenges we face when we get ourselves stuck in a corner. I’ll say something like, “I don’t want to see you get stuck in a corner because corners are hard to get back out of later. What can I do to help that not happen for you?”

When I notice someone maneuvering someone else into a corner, I may take them aside privately to discuss the ways cornering is likely to make things worse. I tell them about evolutionary baggage. I talk about loss of face and the bad feelings it leaves. I tell them about short shelf lives.

I muse, “Instead of backing them into a corner, I wonder what could happen if you leave them an escape for now?”

What do you use to keep yourself out of corners? If you mediate, how do you help your clients have more than one door?


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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