Relate to Your Opponent – A Lesson in Tact


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire, 1694-1778

In a conflict, it is often tempting to go on the attack in an effort to make your point. In fact, it’s a natural response to a situation you perceive as physically or emotionally threatening in some way.

In most workplace situations, none of us will be in an imminent physical threat situation when we are in conflict. Most of us will, however, experience what we perceive as an emotional threat.  We feel threats to our position, our expertise, or our experience. We feel disrespected, disliked, or unheard.

All of these situations feel threatening, and they are not physically threatening. Thus, our natural response is not likely to be the best response.

This weekend, I read about a situation where the French author and philosopher Voltaire was in actual physical danger, and he used the power of relating to his opponents to turn the situation.

In 1726, Voltaire was exiled to England as the result of a conflict he had with a powerful and influential French family.  At the time of his three-year stay in England, there was a great deal of friction between France and England. This friction between the two nations occasionally put Voltaire at odds with the people he met in his new host country. Sometimes, he was in truly physically threatening circumstances.

One day, he found himself caught in an angry street mob1 that shouted things like: “Hang him. Hang the Frenchman!”

Confronted with this challenge, Voltaire replied: “Men of England! You wish to kill me because I am a Frenchman. Am I not punished enough in not being born an Englishman?”

The crowd then cheered and escorted him back to his home.

In a moment of physical threat, Voltaire won the crowd and his safety by connecting and relating with them. If it worked for Voltaire, it just might work for you in much less challenging situations.

Learn to use the power of tact and relationship to turn conflicts towards resolution and away from escalation.

1 Fadiman, Clifton; Editor. The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. Boston. 1985. 566. Print.

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