Managing Identity-based Conflict

Success. Failure. Triumph. Defeat. Good days. Bad days. Compliments. Insults.

All of these (and more) can trigger our identity – our sense of who we are – and before we know it, we can find ourselves in an identity-based conflict; sometimes only with ourselves, in fact.

Managing the vagaries of identity-based conflict is not easy. It is perhaps one of the trickiest parts of resolving any conflict. Why? Because unlike the conflict itself – which can actually be resolved and therefore “go away”, our identities are always with us. The identity issue is not so much a problem to solve as it is a dilemma to manage. It will be with us all of our lives. This is why we called this article “managing” (versus “resolving”) identity-based conflict.

While it may indeed be possible to come to terms with an identity issue over a period of time, it is not something that happens easily or changes quickly. In any given moment – or in any given conflict – therefore, the focus needs to be on how to manage the dynamics stirred up in ourselves and others.

In the excellent book “Difficult Conversations” (written by our long-time colleagues Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen), the authors point to three classic questions that most of us ask ourselves at any given point in time:

  1. Am I competent?
  2. Am I a good person?
  3. Am I worthy (of love, acceptance, etc.)

We don’t generally ask ourselves these questions consciously, but they are present inside each one of us, lurking below the surface, hidden from our view.  UNTIL something gets triggered.  Then they can take on a prominence so powerful that it can completely take us over – and even blind us to its very presence by its sheer force.

The more that we hold a question mark in our minds about the answers to the questions above, the more likely we are to be really thrown off when that trait is called into question. Consider an example: You are in a new job. It is very challenging and incredibly demanding. You are just barely keeping your head above water, and if you’re really honest with yourself, you are not sure you’ve actually got what it takes to be successful in this role. Then you make a mistake. A big one. And your boss calls into question your competence in the role.

Would that throw you off?


In that moment (and maybe for quite some time thereafter), you would probably find yourself in what our colleagues at the Harvard Negotiation Project refer to as an “identity quake” (per Difficult Conversations).

In the context of an identity quake, our thinking tends to become very binary.  We relate to ourselves as “all or nothing”. We see ourselves as either: competent or (completely) incompetent, good or (very) bad, worthy or absolutely unworthy and undeserving.  This pattern of thinking shows up in our behaviour in one of two ways: (1) Denial: “I am not that kind of person! I would never do that to somebody.” Or (2) Exaggeration: “I’m a complete failure.”  Either one of these types of responses causes serious problems. As the authors of Difficult Conversations say, “All-or-nothing identities are about as sturdy as a two-legged stool.”

So what can you DO with all this mess? 

A few things, we’re happy to say.  But there’s no magic formula.  It takes work and it can be quite difficult; even painful. But – in our personal and professional experience – we have found that the reward is worth the effort.

Two Key Strategies

  1. Become more aware of your Identity Triggers
  2. Ground your identity in a more realistic foundation – a mix of good and bad.

Becoming More Aware of Your Triggers
How can this be done?  Again, with effort.  We don’t always know why something is so upsetting to us. And what triggers an identity quake for you may not trigger one in someone else. A good way to proceed is to pay more attention to the kinds of things that knock you off balance. Is there a pattern?  Why do you think situation “x” or “y” knocks you off balance?  It can be helpful to do this in conversation with someone who knows you well – and who has the courage to tell you what they really think. Also consider what kinds of traits are important to you as a person. If you had to name 3 or 4 traits about yourself that you hold dear or that you aspire to, what are they?  These will give you additional insight into possible identity triggers.

Grounding Your Identity in a More Realistic Foundation
This is at least as hard as the previous point – and probably harder. This will involve a long-term conversation with yourself about who you really are, and it will probably require accepting some unpleasant truths about yourself.  For example, you may generally be a caring person, but almost certainly you can point to a number of times in your life when you haven’t cared at all (maybe because you were hurt by that person, or some other reason). Or, you may generally be highly competent at your job, but undoubtedly – if you’re really honest with yourself – you can identify a number of situations where you did something that was quite incompetent; maybe even just plain dumb.

The key to grounding your identity is in accepting that we are all flawed creatures. No one is perfect.  And no one can be.  It’s wonderful and noble to aspire to live to a high standard of integrity and excellence, but the irony is this: for that to really work, you have to accept that you will not always succeed in reaching that standard. The beauty of accepting this truth is that it will free you up. It will allow you to acknowledge mistakes; to take in feedback, learn from it, and clean up messes you have made, without investing so much of your energy in either denying that you did anything wrong or attacking yourself “for being so stupid”.  If you can truly accept this more nuanced truth about yourself, you will more often be able to meet a high standard of behavior, and more than that, your relationship with yourself – and therefore, your experience of living – will improve.

But What About Them?
Yes of course, sometimes they are the problem (or at least you think they are).

But remember this: it takes two to tangle.

So, maybe your colleague’s “overreaction” (which subsequently triggered you) is the result of one of their sensitivities having been triggered.  That’s ok; everyone is allowed to be human.  Give them some space to find their own balance back. And remember, you may have been the one who unintentionally triggered it – through a remark you made in a meeting or an email you sent to them with a bunch of people cc’d.  If you think that might be the case, you could ask them whether there was something you said or did that was offensive to them.  If that’s the case, you could apologize for the offense, and give them some space to recover. Again, everyone is allowed to be human and have flaws. That doesn’t excuse unacceptable behaviour, but it at least can help explain it, which can help you break out of a continuous spiral of conflict.

The Long and Short of It
All in all, what we recommend most is remembering what we’ve said a few times in this article: we are all just people making our way through life. We’re all imperfect. We have good days and bad days, we do good things and bad things. Everyone deserves compassion and understanding.  Everyone deserves a second chance – even that all-powerful boss or friend who just did something really hurtful to you.

If you can embrace this frame of reference – about others and about yourself – then your actions “in the moment” where an identity-based conflict is triggered will generally be more productive, and your ability to manage these situations will improve over time.

And when you find yourself getting stuck and triggered “in the moment”, do what we famously try to remember to do ourselves: take a break.  Get some perspective, get help or input from others, look at your own contribution to the problem and your own mixed intentions. Be honest with yourself. Really honest. Then when you re-engage, you can own up to your mistakes and flaws, accept their mistakes and flaws, while simultaneously holding them accountable for good behaviour and satisfactory performance.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.