It's time to put an end to the ego jousting. Everyone has been challenged and challenged by someone else in their life. Children do it all the time, starting at two years old. They challenge the world around them and push their environment to learn their relationships and boundaries better. It is part of who we are as humans. As you grow older, your ego starts to lead in this area as a way to find and carve your path forward. Being challenged and challenging others is a great learning tool when done healthily. When not in a healthy and safe environment, it can trigger trauma effects and push people away.
Your ego is part of your neuro-physiological system. It helps protect your self-image and self-worth while creating your self-concept. When your ego can get in the way, your concern for yourself overrides the reality of what may be happening. Your ego creates a distorted sense of reality or perception. You may have been part of a conversation where someone believes one thing while the reality or everyone else heard something different. When this happens, it is your ego trying to take control of the situation and protect your self-worth or self-time. That can be good. When this happens more frequently than not, this is not a good or healthy situation. When our ego leads, it erodes work success, relationships, and general happiness.
Being challenged is the harder of these two examples. When done inappropriately, I call this ego jousting. Often, it’s two egos fighting for dominance until someone is finally beaten down. It is done to make one person feel superior to another. It always seems personal even in a professional setting. I usually see this when someone exudes their control and demands to be right. It comes across as a novice leadership skill due to its perception as petulant behavior. In its simplest form, it is a lack of communication and understanding. The goal is to communicate better and arrive at an understanding.
When being challenged, first do your deep breathing and not react negatively, even if that is the other person's behavior. Two people cannot ego joust if only one ego is willing to play. As a leader, your role is to diffuse the situation. Next, ask open-ended questions like “Can you tell me more?” or “Can you provide me more context?” Open-ended questions begin to diffuse the situation.
Keep asking open-ended questions until you feel the temperature lower and a healthy dialogue can continue. If this doesn’t happen, you may be asked or need to ask, “Why?”. Articulating your why and then asking it back may scare the horse of the ego jouster. They may start another attack run. That’s ok - stand your ground. They might say, “Why do you need to know that?” or “Why does that matter?” or “What do you mean by Why?”. You can find common ground in answers to the why.
Calmly let them know you are trying to understand them better. Once they rattle off an answer, probe some more. After several answer attempts, you may hear something that resonates with you or help you better understand the situation. Parrot back what you heard them say. “Thank you. I want to make sure I understand. What I hear you say was…?” You will either get an ah-ha moment or they will say that’s not what they said. If it’s the latter, simply find a moment to interject what they said to you again. “Do you realize you just said the following…? Was that your intent?” These questions start to slow the conversation. If the other person still insists on an ego joust, you may have to agree to disagree and move on. If it doesn't, it sounds like someone needs space away from the table to calm down and reflect on the conversation. End the conversation and agree to pick it up later.
Challenging others has a similar dynamic. It takes patience and care for the giver to establish a healthy conversation. When done in an authentic, curious, judgment-free way, the receiver is a willing participant in the conversation. When the dynamic shifts, the receiver feels judged, unsafe, and may shut down. It stops learning or growth for everyone.
Being challenged and challenging others can be a great learning tool for adults. When challenged appropriately and safely, growth happens, new skill emerges, and experience is gained fondly by the receiver. It opens the eyes of the person on the receiving end to new possibilities. When used inappropriately, growth doesn’t happen. The receiver feels smaller, unsuccessful, and only learns that the giver is not supportive. When an adult is unsupported, growth happens slowly, if at all.
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