Your Conflict Style -Learned At Early Age

Our ideas about how to influence and respond to authority are largely a result of what we learned as children through our family upbringing. As adults in the workplace, we tend to recreate and respond in the fashion we were taught in early childhood.

Recall a recent workplace conflict and the part you played — what did you do or say? Did you avoid, blame, yell or threaten, acquiesce, compromise or work out a win-win solution? Now compare this with the family “rules” around conflict you learned as a child. Most people can recognize that their workplace conflict pattern stems from their family of origin.

We bring these lessons and patterns with us into the workplace. The first group we ever belonged to was our family. Our parents were our first “bosses.” How we relate and respond to a workplace “boss” is largely habituated from our own parental experiences. Common struggles with workplace power and authority (asking for a raise or challenging your boss) are likely connected to early childhood “interpretations” and experiences with authority. For example, some grew up with the message that it was not OK to challenge authority, with strong parental messages like, “Do what I say,” or, “You can sit there all night until those peas are gone!” or, “Don’t argue with me!” As adults, they may be reticent to tell the boss bad news, ask for what they want, disagree or give challenging feedback. As children, they learned it wasn’t OK to challenge authority.

Most bosses (and businesses) would benefit greatly by hearing what’s really going on from people in their workplaces. Yet few get this kind of honest feedback. Bosses need to ask for feedback (and not shoot the messenger!) and work to establish trust with their people.

In terms of how we manage conflict, the truth is most of us go through life reacting unconsciously. To change how you manage conflict, you must first be aware of your patterns and tendencies.

In moments of anxiety, stress or fear, a highly automatic emotional reaction (triggered by the reptilian part of our brain) often overpowers rational thinking. Our brains release a hormone to signal danger (fight or flight). This served our ancestors well for survival in saber-tooth territory, but can be a hindrance in today’s workplace.

Additionally, our brains are “hard-wired” for how we react emotionally — our early childhood experiences determine how neural pathways are established. As adults, we react emotionally when something happens that causes these childhood neural pathways to “fire.” For example, if as a baby you experienced a parent as loud and frightening, you likely react with a conditioned fear response to a boss yelling. Perhaps you got the message as a child you were never “good enough;” then you may have intense reactions of sadness or anger when you hear disapproval in the workplace.

Have you ever been surprised at the intensity of someone’s reaction to something you said — “Whoa, where did that reaction come from?” The stronger the emotional reaction, the more likely their interpretation of the situation is coming from their past.

Most want to blame others for their reactions, as in, “You made me mad,” or, “He pushes my buttons.” The truth is, we push our own buttons. Nobody makes us feel anything.

Most of us react to words or behaviors of others that get under our skin. For the sake of future workplace relationships and your career, identify and learn to recognize your hot buttons.

The primary reason for career derailment is a lack of emotional intelligence. The good news: It is possible to rewire your brain’s neural firing patterns. The bad news: It isn’t easy. It takes great attention, support and practice to learn to rewire new behaviors.


  • Be aware of your emotional patterns.
  • Understand that we co-create what’s working and not working with others.
  • Identify what you are feeling (feelings inform you about the importance and meaning of a situation) and then choose your behavior. Recent brain-scan research indicates that naming your feeling when upset (either to yourself or out loud) can get you out of “lizard” mode and back into prefrontal cortex thinking mode (where your odds of successful resolution are greatly enhanced).
  • Get help — hire a coach or get training in conflict resolution and interpersonal practices.

Notice when you slip into your childhood emotional state, then choose to behave as a grownup.

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