Let’s Take a Break – January 2023

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

I am at the dog park with our two pooches, Cinnamon and Sage, on a crisp Minnesota morning. In Minnesota, crisp translates into you can’t feel your nose. I would not have been outside in the first place, except our dogs don’t know how to read a thermometer. We got our dogs from a shelter, and soon discovered that they were never fully socialized with other dogs, so they get overwhelmed if there are a lot of other animals around. This doesn’t lead to any nasty dog fights, just occasional barking and posturing. As such, we only go the dog park when no one else is there, and we leash up and slip out when others arrive. But, back to that face-freezing morning.

As we were getting ready to leave, another guy with a twelve-pounder showed up. (If I don’t know the breed, I go by weight.) As the three dogs passed each other, they all wanted to claim the territory as their own, so out came the snarls and arched backs. Most dog owners recognize this as normal canine behavior, but the other guy (we’ll call him Harold), took great offense that Cinnamon and Sage didn’t yield the right of way to his pup. He looked at me with a snarl that matched his pet’s and said, “Get your G** d*** dogs out of here!”

People who know me know that I am a fairly non-confrontational guy, so I said, “No problem. We were leaving anyway. Sorry to bother you.” That wasn’t enough for Harold. “What the f*** do you think you’re doing bringing dogs like that here in the first place.” Of course, my dogs behaved exactly like his twelve-pounder, but as I have coached in these columns for years, you never get anywhere if you negate someone. So, I used the rule of “Yes, and…” to the best of my ability. I said, “You are right. Not all dogs get along, which is why we only come here when there is no one else around. That’s why we are leaving. I saw you coming, and I am getting these little guys out of here.”

Harold would hear none of it. “I don’t ever want to see you at this dog park again!” This bold command came as a shock, but I stayed true to the “Yes, and…” rule. “Well, if you do, don’t worry. I keep my dogs leashed, so there is no danger. And they have never hurt another person or dog, they just bark and raise their back hairs, nothing more.” I can only guess that Harold either had a fight with his spouse that morning, or he was just notified that he was being audited by the IRS, because nothing I said got us any closer to a resolution. At one point, he actually demanded to know which car was mine so he could record my license plate number for future reference. I eventually just left, with Harold assigning all kinds of unrepeatable names to me on the way. By that time, all three dogs were over it, and ready to play.

As I ruminated on the situation over the next few days, I realized what I should have done differently (and no, it was not letting my dogs settle the argument for me). While I followed the rule of “Yes, and…”, I forgot another important rule of conflict resolution and influence, the incubation period. When people are agitated, the amygdala (the fight-or-flight center in the brain) is in full force. The accompanying state of agitation cannot subside until the amygdala response diminishes. And there is only one thing that abates the amygdala response—time.

With Harold, I made the classic mistake of trying to talk him down. I assumed that, with enough words, he would finally calm down. What I should have said was, “Well, you have said your piece, and I have said mine. Let’s leave it at that. I hope we have a better encounter the next time we see each other.”

The first rule of conflict resolution, and influence, is sometimes you have to just walk away. The brain needs time to incubate on the situation, especially if there is new information to absorb. Funny, I always thought I was smarter than my dogs. Guess not.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com

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