When an Audience Makes Matters Worse
People play to an audience, especially in conflict situations. Because identity issues important to protecting and saving face are so pervasive in conflict, the presence of others during an exchange will often intensify feelings of ridicule, embarrassment, and humiliation when even the slightest provocation exists.
To save face, people commonly respond with more intensity and emotion. Consider the episode of two colleagues in a heated debate where one berates the other. In the privacy of a closed room, the colleagues would likely talk it out, even if the berated party expresses upset over the unfair treatment they endured.
Now, place the same two colleagues at a conference center, walking to the next session, having the same argument with strangers present. Matters might get ugly or the berated party might clam up with fury and explode later in private.
The point is obvious to anyone who has inadvertently engaged in conflict when others are a witness. The onlookers, even if uninvolved, exert a major influence on what transpires. Even onlookers in the distant background can produce this effect.
The best leaders avoid an audience during debate, confrontation, or disagreement whenever they can. They understand all too well how onlookers intensify emotional reactions and do their best to sidestep this influence. When conflict emerges without much warning, leaders disengage and wait for privacy to continue the debate. That’s not just smart. It’s wise.