Putting Down The Knife

They cut like a knife, those little jabs, disses made in “jest,” thinly veiled criticisms, and observations offered with an obvious edge of judgment.  They bleed the respect, trust, commitment and goodwill out of relationships, leaving them lifeless.  It’s a common and unfortunate pattern that does a stunning amount of damage.

The hatchet men (or women) who initiate these knife fights rarely notice their parts in the exchanges. They’re just “making a joke,” “having some fun,” or “telling it like it is.”  In fact, when people respond in kind the hatchet people often feel justified in cutting a bit deeper, since they now feel like they were attacked “for no reason.” These duels can play out over years, leaving everyone involved feeling drained, hurt and angry.

Verbal knife fights kill collaboration, innovation and teamwork. They destroy relationships and the potential they hold for co-creation of any kind. No one lets their guard down around a hatchet person. They will, however, work hard to get even, derail the hatchet person’s plans, or get the person ousted, if they can.  The hatchet people find these responses hurtful and mystifying, since they are rarely aware of the sting of their own blades. And so the cycle continues.

This is a predictable outgrowth of compliance-based leadership where people are trained to tell others what they think in clear and compelling ways.  But when it comes to communicating how they feel, well, that part they’re not so good at.  We collectively do a very poor job teaching people how to recognize, unravel and communicate emotions associated with fear, frustration, concern, vulnerability and anger.

When people experience these emotions they often don’t recognize them as their own. They assume that something was “done” to them by someone else, and their first reaction is to attack back. They don’t see that the initiating “trigger” is their reaction to a situation. The trigger can be:

  • An unmet need, like feeling offended by an innocent statement
  • Feeling vulnerable because of a lack of skills or perceived power
  • Simply not knowing how to ask for what the person wants and erupting in anger when others don’t read their minds and give them what they haven’t asked for
  • Assuming others are stupid or uncaring, and therefore deserving of scorn, because they don’t see situations the same way as the knife fighter

Putting down the knives begins with teaching people to have greater virtuosity with their emotions. We collectively need to learn how to notice and express what we’re feeling without the reactive edge. That’s one of the things that coaching-based leadership does well.

The threshold to effective coaching is first learning how to recognize, untie and move your own knots into meaningful, productive, appreciative action that creates insight – not enemies. The next time you feel justified in taking a swipe at another person, stop for a moment and consider:

  • What am I reacting to? Is it real or is it something I’ve contributed to. Hint – if you find a pattern happening over and over, it’s probably originating with you.
  • What do I need to say that I haven’t said yet? Have you asked for what you need? Are you sure the other person understands your perspective? Just because you thought something it doesn’t mean you’ve said it in ways that others can hear and understand.
  • How can you express what you’ve feeling with respectful clarity, in ways that illuminate to what the other person is not aware of?

If you treat your relationships like the gifts that they are, they may reveal many precious surprises. Shifting from cutting to compassion is a good way to begin.


Dianna Anderson, MCC

CEO, Cylient


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