Resolve Conflict with the Golf Course Analogy

Image of colored overview drawing of a hole on a golf course with flag, water sand and tree traps

To resolve conflict, you need to understand the root cause.

It's biological.

We have two completely independent motivational systems.

One system, traditionally called “motivation by love,” exists to motivate action toward values. A value in the psychological sense is something you desire to gain and/or keep, because you believe it promotes your life here on earth. The first values are formed by association with meeting basic biological needs. The mother provides milk, which sates hunger. She helps the baby burp, which makes him comfortable. The mother becomes a value to the baby. He feels desire for her. He feels joy when she comes to him and grief when she goes away.

“Motivation by love” emotions arise to alert you to a value that you might gain or keep (desire, hope, confidence), or that you have gained (joy, pride), or that you have lost (grief). The emotion of love per se alerts you to a value you can contemplate. Because these emotions call your attention to values, I use the term “motivation by values” because it is more precise.

Conflicts solely between values are resolved easily. You pick the biggest value. If there's no difference you pick either value, knowing it doesn’t matter. The difficulty in just picking one arises when the other motivational system is activated.

That system is traditionally called “motivation by fear.” It is a completely separate system that alerts you to threats, i.e., to something that could harm you, or harm a value of yours, or cause you to lose a value. These emotions vary depending on the nature of the threat. If it’s avoidable, you feel aversion rather than fear. If a person poses the danger, you feel anger. If the existential world is set to harm you, you feel despair. If you’re creating the problems for yourself, you feel guilt or frustration. If the threat is removed, you feel relief. Because these emotions call your attention to threats, I use the term “motivation by threats” because it is more precise.

You can see the operation of the two separate motivational systems in mammals. Think of your pet or the neighborhood rabbits. Most of the time they are happily gaining and keeping values—eating food, playing with friends, mating. But if a predator gets within perceptual range, the animal switches instantly to motivation by fear. It will freeze or flee or fight as the circumstance warrants.

When the motivation-by-threat system is triggered, it overrides everything. Whole biological systems shut down. Digestion stops, for example, as all of the organism’s resources are marshalled for dealing with the threat.

Or in the human realm, perhaps you have had the experience of a panic before a deadline, for which you vaulted into unprecedented action, working like crazy to avoid being late, without regard for the need for food, sleep, or anything else.

In animals, having two separate motivation systems works pretty well. If the animal is adapted to its niche, it will only occasionally need to deal with predators. It will spend most of its time pursuing the values it needs to support its life. If a predator comes within sensory range, it switches automatically to dealing with that threat.

The automatic switch doesn't work so well in humans because we are conceptual, not perceptual.

We can be aware of threats on the other side of the world or threats that will affect us far in the future. If we let the system switch automatically, we could spend most of our time thinking about threats.

Sadly, some people do. It shows in their health, their quality of life, and in their self-destructive behavior.

More commonly, people muddle through, sometimes focusing on threats, sometimes focusing on values, never able to sustain motivation for large endeavors, but getting by, day-to-day.

Why? Because motivation by threats is inherently random in direction. It motivates you away from some bad thing, which could be any direction. Whether “away from” a threat is also good for you is unpredictable. For example, avoiding a painful discussion with another person might be beneficial in one situation, but undermine both your lives in another.

Incidentally, this is one reason that going by feelings is not advisable, even on the face of it, regardless of whether the emotions are based on valid evaluations. If you act based on emotions, you will live a fear-based life.

For those of us who are essentially creative—who want to develop useful products, who want to build healthy relationships, who want to create a higher standard of living—we need some way to ensure that our reaction to threats is also moving us toward creating what we want to create.

We need to listen to the alerts to both values and threats. Then we need some way to figure out the best way forward. To do this in principle, you recognize that:

a) Threats are threats to values. Motivation by threats gives you indirect information about values at stake.

b) Though it is desirable to avoid threats, it is worth it to deal with the threat if the value is big enough.

In effect, you need to reconceive threats as facts about the world you can choose to deal with.

I like to use a golf course analogy for this.

When you play golf, your goal is to get the ball from the tee to the hole. That is the value.

There are threats on the course—water hazards, sand traps, trees. Obviously, you would like to avoid them. But if you get caught in one of them, it is not the end of the world. You regroup and go on toward your goal.

If your main purpose were to avoid threats, you could do that easily by not playing golf at all. But if you make the choice to play golf, you are making the choice to get the ball in the hole and deal with the threats. Similarly, if you make the choice to live, you are making the choice to create values in the world and deal with the threats if needed.

Values are the fundamental.

The values are what matter. The threats are just the terrain in which you operate. Recognizing threats helps you carefully achieve values.

With this attitude toward values, you can do anything if you put your conceptual mind to it. It's not always pleasant, but the unpleasantness is temporary. When it's painful, the pain only goes down so far. It's not the path of least resistance. It takes considerable effort. But it is always worth the effort.

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