When in Conflict, Don’t Take Your Bait

Have you ever felt so upset about a conflict that your brain started telling the same story about it over and over? With each re-telling in your mind, more details emerged clarifying how “right” you were and how “wrong” they were. Before you even got to tell others about it, your mind had already done a lot of work to feel good about your version of what happened.

During a blistering hot summer, I once had a roommate who liked to blast the air conditioning while making sure every window was open throughout our apartment. The electricity bill that we had to split every month skyrocketed. His justification? “I want both fresh air and to feel cool at the same time!”

It gets worse. My former roommate also had a weekend scuba diving hobby, where he’d come home late every Sunday night and place some of his oceanic findings in our refrigerator. I’d wake up on Monday morning, getting ready to prepare some breakfast before heading out to work. I’d open the fridge and would be greeted by some shell that took up most of the center rack, oozing green and black goo out it. (I should have sold this to Hollywood as the origin story of a missing ninja turtle).

Photo of bait on a fishing hook
Photo by Maël Balland on Unsplash

As you can imagine, I was mad. Heading off to work that day, I’d go into lawyer mode. I’d marshal running lists of evidence in my mind for how thoughtless, uncaring, and unhygienic my roommate was acting.

Then came a strange and paradoxical development: although I was angry, somehow, I started to feel good in my rehashing of it all. I couldn’t seem to take a turn off the one-way railway track my mind was producing.

Okay, let’s pause for a moment. I’ve been teaching a course in conflict management and communication for some time now. Students share that one of the most illuminating concepts we cover involves “bait” (from Jay and Grant’s stellar book, Breaking Through Gridlock). When we’re in the throes of disagreement, our minds unconsciously like to get lured away from a productive purpose by different offers. In any conflict, “bait” is a shiny object that looks like what we’re after. But when we really think about it, bait is almost always a diversion from what we really want.  

Jay and Grant highlight that the bait in conflict tends to take one of at least four forms: feeling “right,” “righteous,” “safe,” and “certain.” We often think conflict is a matter of others “baiting” us, but here the focus is squarely on dealing with our own bait first. In my dealings with my roommate, and before I’d even had a conversation with him about my frustrations, I got trapped into telling myself a story that reinforced my feeling right, with a righteous attitude, super locked in and safe in my story, and utterly certain in my convictions.

Now, should we ever feel these ways in life? Of course. The problem is when we head off to grab the bait and never answer a more fundamental question: what’s my actual purpose here? Is it to feel good or to accomplish something with another person?

When I thought about it, my purpose was to have a good relationship with my roommate and talk through differences, with some sense of reciprocity toward one another. I genuinely enjoyed having him around. He was frankly a character who brought a lot of personality to our living situation.

Highlighting my purpose and seeing the good in him completely changed how I ended up approaching the situation. I got on a different track by showing appreciation for all he brought to the apartment and offered a chance for him to share his input on how he felt the roommate situation was going. Then I shared some of my frustrations, in the hopes that we could agree to some way forward on the A/C and fridge sludge.

Let’s make this real for you too with one way to start practicing this concept. Think back to a conflict with someone that really sticks out in your mind. Think about the story that you told about the disagreement. Ask yourself if there’s any part of the conflict where you got lured in by feeling “right,” “righteous,” “safe,” or “certain,” above and beyond an actual purpose or goal to accomplish that you may have had in the conflict.

Now think about how that conflict could have gone had you kept that purpose front and center. What different verbal and nonverbal choices would you have made? That’s it. Once you’ve got the mental process down, you can start practicing “not taking the bait” in conflicts that erupt in any moment. This at least offers you an opportunity and freedom to see that different choices can be made. There’s nothing preordained or predestined about how a conflict should play out.

My roommate and I didn’t completely solve our problem. This is one of the reasons I like to talk more about conflict “management” than “resolution.” But to my surprise, he agreed to just keep his window open and A/C running in his own room. That made for a substantial improvement in our electricity bill.

He also constructed a fish tank in our living room for dumping many of his weekend findings. Some squid guts still ended up in the fridge occasionally. Where I’d had anger before, though, I found myself laughing and having fun with the game of “what mysterious sea creature is this” when it happened.   

Who knew what my roommate would bait in the ocean that next weekend? Through this experience, I learned that I had a choice to at least not take my own bait in the process.