Conflict stirs up strong emotions. When they are not managed well, these emotions can fester and lead us to respond in very destructive ways. One such response is retaliation or getting even with the other person.
Researchers suggest that our retaliatory response was an evolutionary development that helped let others know when they were doing something unacceptable (1). When we see someone doing something that offends our values, it is easy to want to stop them from doing it again. Many people also feel a short term sense of satisfaction in getting back at the other person. This usually falls away as things begin to get more complex.
If you have ever been the target of retaliation, you know that it is not pleasant. It can provoke negative emotions in the targeted person that can lead to an escalation of the conflict. Sometimes this happens right away but often it happens a considerable time after the initial action that angered you in the first place. In these cases the person against whom you retaliate may have no idea about what is causing your actions because they are not able to connect them back to an original cause.
When we ask program participants about whether they would like others to retaliate against them, they almost always say “no.” When we ask them how long they remember it if someone does retaliate against them, they usually say “forever.” So retaliation can cause long term problems related to a specific conflict and can even create problems in the future.
So, if you are someone that retaliates against others in conflict situations, even only occasionally, it can cause major problems for the other person and eventually for you. In Managing Differences, Dr. Dana describes the retaliatory cycle in which perception leads to emotion which in turn leads to action. When the action represents a wrong reflex (a walk-away or power-play), it can perpetuate the retaliatory cycle by prompting a similar reaction from the other party. So, what can you do if you want to change this pattern?
It helps to be able to develop techniques that allow you to…
1) Cool down the emotions you are feeling
Recognize that retaliatory behaviors are closely linked with emotions. It is normal to feel emotions like anger or fear in conflict situations. Unless you have a way of managing these emotions, they can build up and eventually drive negative responses like retaliation.
2) Express your emotions constructively
Find ways of expressing your emotions. By telling the person with whom you are having conflict how their actions have made you feel, you can defuse some of the internal tension you are feeling.
These constructive alternatives to retaliating against the other can also prevent an escalation of the conflict. If done properly, it can also point out to the other person the actions that he or she has taken that you want him or her to stop doing. It is also important to replace the wrong behavioral reflexes with the essential process of dialog.
We discuss how to employ these constructive techniques, like expressing emotions and perspective taking in more detail…
5 Steps to Control Your Anger
The Role of Emotional Self Regulation
Take a Personal Time Out
1) Source: McCullough, M. Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.