What Does “Choose Your Battles” Really Mean?

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.

Photo: baki/Shutterstock.com

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