Conflict avoidance: presenting options and leveraging intuition

Insight Into Violence Helps Us Redirect Workplace Conflicts: Part 2

Business decisions are influenced by more than money and expertise. One such influence is the passion that people have for their work, their organizations, their workforce, and their customers. Unfortunately, the same passions that lead to outstanding results can also lead to devastating conflicts. As a result I am always on the lookout for techniques that help channel or convert business passions from destructive to constructive ends.

I recently read a book called The Gift of Fear, Survival Signs that Protect Us, by Gavin De Becker (Little, Brown and Company, 1997). De Becker is a consultant who provides threat assessment and security services for celebrities, public officials, and business people who are at risk of violent attacks from stalkers, disgruntled former employees, and common criminals. I found a number of ideas he presented particularly interesting from a workplace conflict standpoint.

In Part 1 of this “Notebook” entry I examine De Becker’s realization that threats to basic needs lead to confrontations. In Part 2 I examine his “tipping point” analysis for predicting confrontations and his observations about the role that intuition plays in decision making, then I close with pros and cons about the book from a business reader’s perspective.


Listen to the PODCAST: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (a 3.4 MB file, which takes a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


Predicting Confrontations By The Presence Or Absence of Options

Gavin De Becker has noticed that a person arrives at a tipping point and decides to act violently when four conditions are met: they feel justified; they perceive few or no alternatives; they believe the consequences will be favorable; and they believe they have the ability to succeed.

De Becker uses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an illustration of this tipping point for violent action, pointing out that those who commit acts of violence in the conflict believe they are justified, perceive no alternatives, perceive the consequences on the whole as favorable, and believe they have the ability to deliver violence.

But what if these perception can be changed, such that violent action doesn’t seem justified, alternatives could be shown to exist, favorable consequences are debunked or unfavorable ones given credit, or the ability to act is shown to be missing?

Similarly, to defuse workplace conflict and convert the energies involved into more productive collaborative action, we can question the basis for conflict by asking ourselves and others involved questions like these (in highly emotional conflicts a neutral third party might be helpful here):

On what principles do each of us justify what we propose to do in this conflict? How well can each of us poke holes in our own justifications?

What alternatives do we perceive to our own positions? If no alternatives are perceived to be available, can we brainstorm, do research, or consult a knowledgeable outsider to look for alternatives?

What consequences do we perceive to be likely to result, on the whole, from what we are doing or propose to do? What information, if it were available, would change our perceptions about what we expect?

Do we have the ability to succeed in what we want to accomplish? Do we have the resources we need to do what we want to do? Where do these resources come from, and who else needs to be involved?

The Role of Intuition In Decision Making

De Becker believes we must listen to our intuition to identify impending threats and find ways to avoid them. He lists several “messengers of intuition,” internal signs and symptoms which he believes are our intuition telling us something that we should pay attention to. These are:

  • nagging feelings
  • persistent thoughts
  • black humor
  • wonder
  • anxiety
  • curiosity
  • hunches
  • gut feelings
  • doubt
  • hesitation
  • suspicion
  • apprehension
  • fear.

Interestingly, De Becker believes our intuitions of danger happen in a flash, the result of a sort of early warning radar built into our brain specially developed to allow us to predict and avoid the violent behavior of other people. He carefully distinguishes such in-an-instant intuition of an immediate threat from states of general worry, dread, or anxiety that some people experience for days, weeks, or years at a time. He believes such ongoing distress results from unhappiness or discomfort with one’s surroundings or circumstances rather than an immediate threat from another person.

De Becker provided a couple of particularly good quotes to illustrate his views about intuition versus anxiety.

Concerning the topic of trusting intuition he quotes Albert Einstein as saying: “The solutions come to you, and you don’t know how or why.”

Concerning the problem that people may have with continually worrying about fears that never materialize, he quotes Mark Twain as saying: “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Pros and cons about De Becker’s book

Pros: if you or someone you know works with or is somehow concerned with any of the following types of people, you should consider reading or recommending this book:

  • someone regularly responsible for disciplining or firing employees, or just one potentially violent employee
  • a law enforcement professional
  • a mental health professional
  • a celebrity or high-profile public figure
  • someone dealing with a stalker
  • someone dealing with a mentally or physically abusive caregiver or spouse
  • someone trying to overcome their fear of violence

Cons: there are many frighteningly detailed examples of violent human behavior in this book, so much so that it could induce anxiety and possibly even a bit of mild paranoia in some readers. In addition, if you strongly support the ability of U.S. citizens to possess personal firearms, you may find De Becker’s numerous examples of gun-related violence off-putting to the extent that he appears to have concluded that guns are part of a problem of violence in the U.S.

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