How to handle conflict: a simple 3-step guide

What can we learn from Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt’s recent attack on ABC journalist Michael Rowland?

This: If a conversation gets hostile, go back to your values.

Let’s break down what happened in the contentious interview. So you can learn how to handle a situation like this when it happens to you.

You can watch the testy exchange here.

Hunt goes hunting

Hunt had a fierce strategy for responding to Rowland’s anticipated questions about Liberal Party logos being placed on a Government announcement (something that’s frowned on because it’s using public funds to advance party political interests). What was Hunt’s strategy?

  • Step 1: Isolate the opponent (Rowland)
  • Step 2: Attack his character
  • Step 3: Turn the issue back on him

How he did it

This is how Hunt did it, step by step.

The times listed below correspond to the times in the video (link above).

0:19. After being challenged by Rowland about his use of party political logos, Hunt says, “I know you have strong views on this”. This is deliberate attempt by Hunt to suggest Rowland is not impartial – which is a core journalistic value – because Rowland has “views”, and “strong” ones at that.

0:25. Hunt builds the pressure: “We predicted that you seem to be the most exercised of any person in the Australian media about this.” Here Hunt is isolating Rowland (Step 1, mentioned above) as uniquely troubled by this issue. Note how Hunt’s uses “We” (the collective, the tribe, the crowd) in contrast to “you” (positioning Rowland as a solitary figure, a lone complainant).

1:04. Rowlands persists: “Who paid for the vaccines?” – a question housing his central line of inquiry about whether Hunt is using public funds for party political gain. Hunt’s response is telling.

1:08. “Well, uh, let us draw a clear distinction here…” says Hunt, playing for time.

1:11. Hunt then moves to Step 2 – attack the character – with this killer blow: “I know this is an issue for you. In many ways, you identify with the left.” Hunt has shifted the debate from his possible misuse of government funds to Rowland’s reputation. Rowland is now under attack.

1:19. Rowland gets riled, as Hunt would have expected. Rowland’s core professional value – impartiality – has been called into question: “No, no, minister, I find that offensive.” Rowland is agitated. Hunt has him just where he wants him.

1:24. Hunt’s next move is clever, cynical, devastating: “Oh, come on Michael, there’s nobody who’s watching who doesn’t identify you with the left.” A smiling Hunt is conversational, jovial even. He is calm (contrasting to Rowland’s agitation). And note Hunt’s casual repetition of the core Step 2 accusation: Rowland is a Lefty.

1:43. Hunt isn’t done yet. Rowland is down, so it’s time to land a hefty kick by moving to Step 3 –turning the issue back on the opponent – by questioning Rowland’s honesty: “It’s important for to be honest about your position and your origins. I’m honesty about my position and my origins…”

1:54. Hunt has moved effortlessly through all three steps so it’s time to double down. “I’m bemused,” Hunt offers, “but I did predict to people that Michael Rowland would spend 50% of this interview on this topic.”

2:29. “I win the bet with my office that you would spend 50% of this interview on that topic…” Hunt repeats.

2:37. Rowland has been done up like a kipper, leaving Hunt completely free to now propel himself onto the moral high ground. Hunt talks up his concern for community safety amid the global pandemic, contrasting that with Rowland’s supposedly trivial left-wing pet obsession. “In a world of over 400,000 cases a day. In a world of thousands of deaths, we haven’t seen a death in Australia this year… and now we move to the vaccines and that’s what really matters, Michael.”

The interview ends with Rowland trying vainly to mount a last-ditch case in his own defence. But he’s being KOd and Hunt knows it – check out the Minister’s delighted little smile at the end of the interview.

How to handle hostility

So what could Rowland have done?

What could you do faced with a similar attack, either in a media interview, or at work, or in elsewhere in your life?

Answer: Go back to your values.

Hunt knows how to use values. He uses them throughout, but as a weapon. First he questions Rowland’s impartiality, then his honesty and finally his lack of interest in community safety.

Rowland loses the debate because he doesn’t move it back onto his values-based terrain. This is how he could have done that – and how you could do it too:

  • Step 1: Name up what’s happening.
  • Step 2: Call for debate to be on issues not character.
  • Step 3: Assert your own (healthy) values.

Thus, when Hunt made his core accusation “you identify with the left” Rowland could – and should – have responded by saying something like: “Minister, as a journalist my responsibility is to ask you questions and be impartial in holding you to account. You seem to be trying to avoid scrutiny by make false claims about my character. I would ask you to show respect and self-discipline by sticking to the issues and answering my question…”

It takes some guts to do this. Sure. But it’s a lot easier to do if you know how to do it. And the how is set out in the three steps above. All of them are needed, but at the heart of it is bringing the debate back to your own higher order values.

Doing it well is a lot easier if you actually know what your values are, both personal and professional (i.e. what drives you as an individual and what is important in your industry or workplace).

So if someone tries to outwit you with a rhetorical move like an ad hominem (attacking your character rather than the issue) or a tu quoque (turning an issue back on you) then you know how to respond: Name it up, bring it back to the issue, reassert your healthy values.

Good luck.

Photo by Harry Cunningham @harry.digital from Pexels