A Lesson from the Snake and the Monk

5 minute read

There once was a snake who terrorized a tiny village. Women, children, adored family pets—he would bite them all, without a moment’s contemplation or modicum of sensitivity.

One day, a monk visited the village. He observed the snake’s behavior and committed himself to teaching the snake the principle of non-violence. As it turns out, the snake had a penchant for self-improvement and thoroughly absorbed the monk’s teachings. He loved the concept of non-violence and accepted it wholeheartedly.

Alas, once the snake refused to bite the villagers, they, in turn, exploited his newly-discovered vulnerability. They threw dirt and rocks at him, poked at him with sticks, and, generally, made his life miserable. Sometime later, the monk returned to the village to find the snake bruised, beaten, and starving.

“What happened to you?” exclaimed the gentle monk. Clearly, it pained him to see his former student in such a state.

Sadly, the snake replied, “You taught me the principle of non-violence—you taught me not to bite!”

“Ahhh, my friend, I did teach you not to bite people,” the monk conceded. Then, he lowered his voice to indicate the sharing of a very important secret: “But I never said that you couldn’t HISS.”

This Buddhist parable illustrates a principle of managing conflict which we visit frequently with our coachees. Working with individuals and leadership teams to help them learn to navigate conflict skillfully is a cornerstone of our practice, because it’s a cornerstone of effective 21st Century Leadership.

Often the issue with conflict is not that people are too engaged in it, but rather that they shy away from it. The discovery of a conflict-averse disposition is a “surprise” that comes up astonishingly often in our practice, even with clients working in competitive corporate environments. Emotional discomfort and a strong value of harmony are the usual culprits that cultivate this (metaphoric) unwillingness to bite, or even to hiss.

After exploring this many times with various people, it seems that conflict-avoidant people often view “hissing” as a threat: back off, or you’ll regret it.

But a more nuanced interpretation of the snake’s hiss would be: I’m here, and I’m feeling uncomfortable, threatened, alarmed, etc.

For the 21st Century Leader, the indicator of effectiveness is not the frequency, but the quality of the difficult conversations they have. So one of the first things we do with coachees who shy away from the discomfort of expressing negative emotions is to practice this important skill. In fact, we ask them to jump right in and do the unthinkable: have real, difficult conversations. We don’t mean that they should pick disagreements with unsuspecting colleagues, but to face difficult issues in in-person conversations.

This is often enough to make a conflict-averse individual break out into a cold sweat, but there are tools we add to coachees’ tool belts to help them use their authentic selves to navigate conflict skillfully.

The first, and most effective, tool is to acknowledge to the other person that we want to have this conversation, and yet our anticipation of it is uncomfortable. We feel awkward.

Most people like to view themselves as easy to talk to, open, and kind. Often the response is encouraging. “What is it? You can talk to me about anything.”

Even absent that openness in their response, starting from the place of awkwardness invites the other person (and reminds you, too) to elevate their emotional intelligence in the moments to come, to keep them from being as reactionary as they might be without a heads up.

The second tool is to lead with an “I” statement, followed by an emotion, followed by a fact.

  • “I was confused by the comment in the meeting about the application being turned in late.”
  • “I’m disappointed with the decision to let Jason go.”
  • “I’m frustrated with where we are on the Hodgkins transaction.”

These are phrases which can be memorized and rehearsed to get the conversation started.

Both acknowledging our emotional state and stating the factual situation are key. We encourage people to avoid debating opinions, but to stick to their own emotional uneasiness. For a detailed discussion of how to have this kind of conversation, see our previous post on priming the pump for the awkward conversation. Try it for yourself, and see what response you get.

A third tool is to avoid engaging when either party is emotionally triggered, because an emotionally triggered person does not think clearly. Fight or flight physiology is in full effect when our hackles are raised, making skillful navigation of any complex or difficult conversation virtually impossible.

Finally, it’s important to not accuse the other party of wrong doing. Try to avoid using the word “you” entirely. This seemingly simple task takes a surprising amount of practice, and often requires us to use a tool our English teachers hated: the much-maligned passive voice. Thus, “When you said…” becomes “When the comment was made…”

One thing is for sure, when we hiss—I’m frustrated, confused, etc.—it gets others’ attention and doesn’t have the reptilian bite that statements like “You screwed up,” “What were you doing,” or other accusatory comments or profanities would have.

Those who have a history of a strongly conflict-averse style just don’t push back on anything because that behavior is contrary to their personality and sense of self. Sometimes, the reluctance is deeply rooted in fear. And yet, learning to be skilled at delivering a few carefully worded and rehearsed sentences—as difficult as it might be to use assertive language—will often redefine how a person is viewed by others. This adjustment in perspective is especially valuable in relationships that may be mildly to strongly adversarial, as is commonly the case in hierarchical organizations.

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