What Does “Choose Your Battles” Really Mean?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon is Professor Emerita of Management at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.
She earned her Ph.D. summa cum laude and with distinction at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst after receiving her BA degree with honors from University of Connecticut at Storrs. Kathleen is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Mortar Board.
Her primary areas of scholarly interest have been leadership communication, persuasion, politics in the workplace, negotiation and interpersonal communication. Public Opinion Quarterly described her first book, Persuasion in Practice, as a landmark contribution to the field.
Kathleen has taught negotiation, leadership and politics in the MBA, Executive MBA, and International MBA. For 15 years, she served on the USC Preventive Medicine faculty, developing interventions aimed at changing health habits among high-risk populations. She also served as associate director with Warren Bennis of the USC Leadership Institute.
She has authored 10 books and numerous articles, including three for The Harvard Business Review. Her 2001 book The Secret Handshake: Mastering the Politics of the Business Inner Circle (Currency, Doubleday) became an Amazon.com nonfiction and business best seller. It was followed by The Skilled Negotiator (Jossey-Bass, 2004), It’s All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren’t Enough (Currency, Doubleday, 2005), Childhood Denied: Ending the Nightmare of Child Abuse and Neglect (Sage, 2008), and Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation (Harper Business, 2010).
Her first novel, Shadow Campus, is an inside look at the politics of academia, a mystery-thriller and a love story. Forbes described it as a “masterful debut.” The sequel is underway for publication in 2015.
Kathleen was awarded the 2013 Humanitarian Award by the University of Connecticut Alumni Association based on her contributions to underserved groups, especially in originating and working to develop college prep academies for foster teens (www.firststar.org).
Kathleen is a signature blogger at Huffington Post (since 2005) and also blogs at her website (www.kathleenkelleyreardon.com).
Most of us have been advised at one time or another to choose our battles. We know it’s good advice, yet rarely stop and think about the criteria for passing up one battle and choosing to engage in another.
To begin with, it pays to keep in mind that words never perfectly express what we mean. We use them as if they’re much more precise than they really are. So, whenever conflict appears to be brewing, it can’t hurt to reflect on whether the seemingly provocative words used by the other party were intended to elicit a defensive response or, as discussed earlier here on Big Think, constitute a true offense or insult. The former is more accidental – a slip of the tongue, a misstatement – while the latter intends to hurt or upset in some way.
When faced with a potential insult, conflict can be avoided by training yourself to be a little less sensitive or quick to anger. The most effective negotiators bypass insults and treat them as accidents when doing otherwise might prevent them from achieving their goals. They might use phrases like, “I might have phrased that differently, but I get your drift” or “That’s not the first or last time I’ve heard something along those lines, but let’s get back to where we were making progress” to steer a conversation headed for conflict back onto a more productive path.
So when should you use these and other techniques? When is a battle not worth the aftermath? Consider the following guidelines. It's best not to engage when:
(1) There’s a low probability of winning without doing excessive damage
(2) Upon reflection, winning isn't as important as it originally seemed
(3) There likely will be a time down the line when you can raise the issue again with a different person or in a different way
(4) The other party's style is provocative whether speaking with you or others, so it’s not worth taking personally
(5) You could win on the immediate issue, but lose big in terms of the relationship
It’s easier to apply these choose-your-battle rules when you don’t feel strongly about an issue or when the relationship doesn’t have a lot of baggage. It’s precisely at such times, however, that they’re most needed.
The next time a verbal battle looks imminent, consider these guidelines. Then consider what might be said or done to move the conversation back onto a constructive path. Try a useful phrase like, “I almost took that as an insult, but I see your point,” “There’s a time to sort that out, but right now we’re making progress,” or “I’m not up for arguing today – let’s not and say we did.” With a little luck, you'll steer the conversation back on track, and turn choosing your battles into a way to win them.
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