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The art of self-deception (or, how to ruin a relationship)

As a pastor, I’ve become interested in the dynamics of conflict. I notice that many of us don’t know how to think maturely through to the other side of difficult conversations. Because I often help folks think through the conflicts in their life, I have become intensely interested in what creates these divisions among us. Leadership and Self-deception, a book by Arbinger Institute, has helped me analyze what happens.

In any difference of opinion there are two options: focus on the other person and on making progress (results); or focus on self. None of us consciously chooses to focus on self though that’s the more common choice. Self is the choice of those whose sense of identity is weakened and easily threatened. Because our identity is weakened, we naturally act to defend it by building a case around ourselves for our behavior/ opinion/ “side.” Our choice to focus on self rather than other creates our defensiveness.

Simply put, if you want to ruin a relationship, make it all about you.

The moment we begin defending ourselves, it is as if we erect a fence around our identity. Now inside that fence, we begin to collect ammunition — excuses, arguments, defenses, and judgments. We even begin to collect our own army, inviting others into our box to help defend our position.

conflict3Once armed, we begin to fire on the one with whom we are in conflict, leaving them to decide how to respond. Like us, they also have a choice. they can choose to focus on others and on results or they can focus on self. A decision to focus on the other person and their perspective, even when being attacked, obviously requires a strong sense of identity. To stand in our identity while someone is attacking it requires a recognition that no other person can steal our identity from us.

In the absence of that kind of strength, the other person will focus on self-defense, which means building a fence and retreating inside of it. Now both of us are inside a box. Both of us are gathering ammo; both of us are recruiting an army.

Very unhealthy. And very common.

Does this pattern sound familiar?

What is the remedy? Learn to focus in every conversation and conflict on others and on results. While Leadership and Self-deception teaches these concepts from a secular, business-world perspective, these principles are exactly what Jesus taught. Wasn’t it Jesus who first said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and who taught us to be servant to all? And wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God (results) and everything else will be added to you”?

When we focus on others (seeing them as people to be respected, heard, valued) and on results (“seek first the Kingdom of God”), that gets us outside ourselves and the habits that turn us inward. If both of us decide to focus on results and on genuinely hearing each other rather than on being understood, the chances of resolution are greatly enhanced.

Of course, all this depends on several factors, the most important of which is trust. If I can’t trust you to tell the truth and if you can’t trust me to hold your best interests above my own, we won’t get far. Truth-telling is as essential for true community as being other-focused.

Knowing how conflict happens and how our self-focus feeds it can help us change the way we relate. Ultimately, that feeds the health of our families, work environments and communities.


Leadership and Self-deception, produced by the Arbinger Institute, creatively teaches the anatomy of conflict. This is the second book released by this group on the subject (the first is The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict).

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus.

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Holiness is at least this: a design of life that exposes us most fully to the heart of a good, loving and creative God.