03 19 drapkin word traps jedi mind tricks header
Jen Rosio, University of Utah Health
Jedi Mind Tricks to Help You Avoid Conflict
Pediatric emergency medicine physician Zak Drapkin shares "Jedi Mind Tricks" for avoiding conflict to subtly influence the thoughts and actions of others in a more positive direction.

onflict is an inherent part of our daily lives in healthcare, making it imperative for all of us to acquire the skills needed to navigate it successfully.

What I have learned—both the hard way and from people much wiser than myself—is that effectively managing conflict is not about who is right or wrong. It is about being respected, cared for and finding a shared way forward.

Here are a few valuable tips I've uncovered that can make steering clear of conflict a smoother process.

Beware Common “Word Traps”

Avoid these common pitfalls that often lead to failure in communication:

  • Always/Never. It is most effective to focus on problems rather than people. Saying that somebody “always” or “never” does something makes this an attack on their character rather than a commentary on their behavior. Also, it’s rarely factually accurate that somebody always or never does something
  • But…This invalidates whatever you just said. I’m sorry but… sounds insincere
  • You…”You were rude” comes off as a personal attack and invites a debate about what is or isn’t rude. Likewise, “you need to…” will often be met with resistance. Instead focus on “I” or “me”—for example, “I felt intimidated during that interaction” instead of “you were rude”
  • Why? While we want to get to the “why” to explore underlying interests, asking a question with “why” can come off as questioning the other person. Use phrases like “what about that is important to you” or “help me understand how that impacted you”
  • Calm Down…Telling others how to feel is not effective. Focus on validating their perspective and feelings rather than telling them that their feelings are not legitimate

Why do these words tend to escalate conflict? Each of them points a proverbial finger at the other person, contrary to Rule #1 in the Ground Rules for Successfully Managing Conflict: focus on the problem, not the person or group.

Conflict isn't about determining right or wrong; it's about being understood, respected, and finding a shared path forward.

By being mindful of our word choices, we lay the groundwork for successful communication and conflict resolution.

Try these “Jedi Mind Tricks” instead

Explore these "Jedi Mind Tricks" as effective communication tools that can subtly influence the thoughts and actions of others. While we may not possess the Force, these tips can express a genuine desire to understand others, demonstrate a willingness to accept responsibility, and aim for a collaborative way forward.

1. Really Listen

People won’t listen to you until they feel understood. When we listen, we are often just waiting to make a point. There is a difference between listening to wait your turn to speak and listening to understand. When it comes down to it, listening is a choice, not a skill. Start by demonstrating your desire to understand by using phrases such as "Help me understand..." or confirming your understanding with statements like "I'm hearing [underlying interest...] is this right?"

Express gratitude for the other person's perspective by saying, "Thank you for sharing your perspective." These approaches foster an environment of openness and facilitate a deeper understanding of the other party's thoughts and feelings.

2. Frame the discussion

When addressing conflict, make it clear that your goal is to achieve mutual understanding and find a path forward rather than say that somebody is right, and somebody is wrong. First, avoid becoming defensive by acknowledging your contribution to the situation. We all contribute to every conflict and the sooner we acknowledge that the sooner we can work towards and effective resolution.

The saying “drop the rope” helps explain a more collaborative approach—explicitly state what your shared interests are. If a patient is demanding a test, avoid arguing about the appropriateness of that test and start by stating “I’m hearing that you are really concerned you may have cancer—I want to make sure that I can address those concerns during our visit.” When we signal our willingness to let go of conflict and work together towards a resolution, we de-escalate tensions and promote a more cooperative and constructive conversation.

If you have a concern that you want to bring up, explicitly separate people from problems and actions from intentions.

Example, stating ”I wanted to share the impact that ___ event/action had on me…

"I know that that was your intention” will make it easier for your counterpart to hear you out without shutting down and becoming defensive."

3. Use “I” Statements

"I" statements enable you to articulate your perspective without causing the listener to shut down, essentially saying, "This is how it looks from my side of things." This technique fosters open and constructive dialogue, promoting a more understanding and collaborative exchange of ideas. Try to focus on simple, unemotional, non-judgmental, non-debatable facts and the impact it had on you.

Example: “When we had that conversation, I noticed you rolled your eyes. When that happened, I felt dejected because I feel that my input was disregarded, and it is important for me to feel like a valued member of this team. Moving forward,  I would prefer to have these conversations in a way that makes me feel that my concerns are being heard .” (Done poorly: “When you were rude to me, I feel like you were being difficult.”)

"There are times when what you are going to say may be at odds with what the other person desires or expects. Using the phrases “I wish…I worry…I wonder” can help deliver this information in a way that is not as antagonistic. For example, if a patient is angered by a long wait in the ER, you could state, “I understand how frustrating it is to wait so long—I wish we could have a doc see you right now. I do worry that the department is quite full now and the doctor won’t be able to see you for a few hours. Moving forward, how can I help make sure that we address your concerns and make you more comfortable?"

Give it a try now

Either by yourself, or as a team, use this this Jedi Mind Tricks Worksheet to re-phrase a series of statements that are full of word traps.

It's crucial to acknowledge that we all contribute to problems occasionally. You can maintain qualities such as being a caring person, a good doctor, or a hard worker, despite occasional contributions to issues. Perfection remains elusive and adopting an "all or nothing" mindset often results in challenges. Utilize the tools presented in this article to help navigate away from right or wrong, recognizing that everyone plays a part in conflicts.


Zachary Drapkin

Associate Professor of Pediatric, University of Utah Health

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