Visualize a white flag waving: What do you think of when you see it? Loss? Surrender? Or peace?

White flags have been used for centuries to symbolize surrender. Most often in war and the movies, they are waved following defeat. The earliest documented use of white flags is largely cited to have been during the Han Dynasty (A.D. 25 – 220), although it may have been even earlier than that. Today, refugees carry white flags when traveling across hostile land to get to safety. And hostage negotiators use a white flag to say, “I’m unarmed; don’t shoot.” Those are the physical representations of the white flag in extreme conflict situations. But what about the countless white flags that go by unnoticed in the daily conflicts we participate in?

You’re in a contentious disagreement with a neighbor, and they wave hello unexpectedly. You’re negotiating with a customer who’s notoriously demanding, and he thanks you for your service. A micro-manager who is often critical of your work admits his personal trouble letting go during your review.

These are the white flags of our daily lives. These are the moments where peace is offered. This idea of the invisible white flags that others raise up to reach across a divide, and which we can put up to do the same, is about changing the way we view conflict. It’s about creating an opening for a more honest and accepting dialog that can allow us to come together peacefully. If we can convert hostility into a white flag, we can change the whole day, the relationship, and how we approach conflict. Developing your “white flag skills” can be a true game changer for you and those around you!

A story about finding a white flag…

In my line of work, there are many tense conversations around cost of service. Our customers will often feel like they are overpaying, while our salespeople will feel like they are being taken advantage of. These are tricky conflicts to come out of unscathed because emotions run high and money is on the line. But they also present an opportunity to raise a white flag and deepen the relationship.

Recently, a colleague, John, was in a heated discussion with a customer, Sarah, who was demanding to pay less for service. John was feeling like he and his team were being asked to work for free. Just at the highest point of tension in the conversation, the telephone rang. As Sarah picked up the phone, John had a natural moment to take a deep breath. He asked himself, “What’s going on with me right now that this is making me so upset?” He realized he was feeling unappreciated for his hard work, and wondered what was lying underneath the customer’s hostility.

When the conversation resumed, John started by deflecting the customer’s hostility and demands back onto her. He simply asked, “What are these terms of service and pricing making you feel?” With that white flag offering, Sarah explained that she felt overcharged because she didn’t have the information to back up the costs of service. A light bulb went off, and John realized he could help. He figured out the missing link, provided the backup information that explained the cost of service and they were able to come to amicable terms that left both parties satisfied and at peace with the relationship.

John was lucky, because the phone call created a moment where he could catch his breath and find a white flag. (He also had the courage to use the white flag in that moment.) Not all of us are so lucky. That’s why it’s helpful to come to conversations armed with ideas for white flags that may be offered. Let’s look at some of the ways we can arm ourselves with those universal peace offerings, the emotional white flags, when we enter into conflict. I think of this mindset as the white flag posture.

Use your words (my mom used to say that when I was 3 to 5 years old)

A white flag can be as simple as word choice. Communicating our thoughts and feelings in a soft and thoughtful way can go a long way toward creating peace, even in a moment of conflict. When we are aware of the impact of our words, and how they can be taken by those around us, we immediately assume our white flag posture.

Here’s an example that I’ve struggled with for many years. Some of us are very organized, while others thrive in “organized chaos.” Look at your colleagues’ desks. Some may keep them incredibly tidy, clearing off papers at the end of every day. Others might work in a sea of papers. I tend toward the very organized clear-desk style. (I’m not OCD because I do have a few hidden messy drawers; but I work best with a tidy and clean desk.) When I walk into some of my team members’ offices, I’m alarmed to see messy stacks of paper and what looks like chaos to me. As a leader, I have three options in these situations:

  1. I can walk into Frank’s office and say, “Clean up this mess; how can you work like this?”
  2. I can say “Wow, it looks like you have a lot going on.”
  3. I can admit, “It makes me feel anxious to see so many papers.”

In the first example, I immediately raise the tension and conflict heightens. This might be my first instinct, and it’s probably the instinct for many neatnik leaders like myself. But what good does this do for my relationship, my team member, and our shared mission at the company?

The second option is a white flag. Because Frank  might be very aware that his organizational style is quite different from mine, he may be sensitive to it or even feel insecure about it. While acknowledging the difference, my white flag offers up a peaceful dialog. It lets Frank know I notice the chaos, but I also notice that he’s busy and doing a lot. It invites him to talk to me about what’s going on with his workload, and we will probably have a good conversation. That is, if Frank recognizes and accepts the white flag. He may very well read into this statement and find insult in it. If he does that, conflict and tension will arise and it may be a difficult conversation, he may clam up, and it could hurt our relationship.

The third statement is a white flag that will almost assuredly guarantee a peaceful, honest, open and strengthening conversation. That’s because I bring into the situation my own admission of how the messy office makes me feel. A messy office really isn’t a reason to create conflict if it’s not affecting performance. Over the past ten years, I’ve finally realized that everyone has a different level of disorganization where they can function, and even thrive. And that’s okay. When it bothers me, that’s about me. So why not admit it?

Being Vulnerable Is Okay

In the third option above, I open up from a vulnerable place. (Notice how it’s not worded “this place gives me anxiety.”) The conversations that come out of a  vulnerable offering can elicit empathy and be very constructive. This white flag posture really exposes the fact that conflict can be resolved, even dissipated, when we acknowledge our own feelings and empathize with other people’s feelings. The organization issue is just one small way to illustrate a much larger issue. When I stopped taking other people’s disorganization personally, turned it back on my own feelings, and opened up about it—that’s when I surrendered and was able to find my white flag posture.

Turning an Attack into a White FlagBe Empathetic

Trying on other people’s shoes … it’s a little bit of a cliche, but it’s also the easiest way to turn any attack into a white flag. Someone disagrees with you vehemently about something. (That should be easy to think about, especially during today’s heated political climate.) Rather than dismantle that person, why not try really hard to imagine their feelings? Or even if you don’t totally get it, maybe you can understand a small bit of it. When you encounter someone with an opposing view, say, “I can see how this makes you feel.” Watch how that white flag helps ease the tension.

Outside of political discussion, I see this kind of thing play out all the time between sales and operations teams. If you’re in a service industry like me, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sales promises customer the moon. Operations can’t possibly lasso the moon, and they’re mad the promise was made. A rift between sales and operations can degrade the team, the account and if it gets really bad, the whole company. What if the next time sales over promises and operations reacts, someone throws up a white flag? When operations pushes back, sales could say, “I can see how it makes you feel totally overworked and undervalued that I promised the moon. Let’s figure out a solution together.” Next time, sales can bring operations into the conversation earlier, there can be clearer expectations, and there may not even be a need for a white flag.

Where is your next opportunity for a white flag exchange? Is it at home, at work, with your parents, with a friend? Once you identify the exchange, take a minute beforehand to jot down your white flags. As you enter into the dialog, start there!

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