Gabe Karp
Gabe Karp

In talking about conflict, Gabe Karp uses a simple analogy to help people understand the toxic traps of conflict, one that translated to the book’s catchy title.

Gabe Karp believes conflict can be a good thing, if handled right.

As an operating partner at Detroit Venture Partners, venture partner at Lightbank, keynote speaker and former trial attorney, Karp, 52, of Huntington Woods, recognized that people are always surrounded by conflict — and, therefore, causing discontent.

The key to managing conflict, however, is learning how to face it in healthy ways.

“If we detox the negative conflict and we engage in a healthy conflict, everything gets better,” says Karp, who recently authored the book Don’t Get Mad at Penguins, released in April 2022 via Simon & Schuster.

The book’s focus: how to make conflict work.

In talking about conflict, Karp uses a simple analogy to help people understand the toxic traps of conflict, one that translated to the book’s catchy title. In fact, much of the book is based on his keynote speeches and tips and tricks he’s learned over the years.

“The penguin analogy is really a lesson in acceptance,” explains Karp, who says that although penguins have wings and feathers, they simply aren’t able to fly. “We should accept people for who they are and not expect them to do things that they’re not capable of.”

Adopting this mindset, he says, can eliminate unhealthy conflict.

“You either accept that or you get mad at it,” he says of penguins’ inability to fly. “You can keep expecting it to fly, and every time it doesn’t fly, you’re going to get frustrated.”

It’s an “absurd thought process,” he laughs, but one that “resonates with people.”

Don't Get Mad at Penguins

The Nature and Nurture of Conflict

Karp says a fear of conflict is a two-pronged process that begins as a result of nature and nurture. “Taking the nurture side, we’re all socialized from a very young age to shy away from conflict,” he explains. “Maybe our parents taught us that if we don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

While this teaches good lessons, it can also teach people to view conflict as a bad thing. “Nobody wants to be that person who’s always causing trouble,” Karp says.

Nature’s influence, on the other hand, creates a flight-or-fight instinct, or how our body reacts as a means to survive. 

“We’ve got physiological things going on in our bodies that drive really poor uses of conflict,” Karp says. A region of the brain known as the amygdala prepares humans to detect threats, triggering a flight-or-fight instinct.

It’s a necessary means to survival, but it can also set the stage for poor conflict management. “We immediately notice physiological changes, like quivering in our chest or voice, a rapid heartbeat or sweaty palms,” Karp says of the body’s response to conflict. “When you’re not in a physical confrontation, that’s really bad.”

So how can people diffuse the constraints of nature and nurture and deal with conflict in healthy ways? Being aware of and understanding the toxins of conflict is a great start, Karp says.

These are four common traps that Karp says people can easily fall into:

Fear

“When it’s two-o’-clock in the morning and I’m trying to take a shortcut through a city and I see a really dark alley or a dangerous neighborhood, and I look down and feel fear, that’s a good thing,” Karp explains. “That’s going to keep me out of trouble.”

In conflict, however, fear can lead to avoidance. “If I have too much fear,” he continues, “I’m going to shy away from conflict that otherwise might be healthy.”

Anger

“When I get angry, my anger motivates me to fix things that are broken,” Karp says. “If something’s not working, if it’s a process at work, if it’s a personal relationship, and it’s causing me frustration and anger, I’m going to go fix it.”

Once anger has served its purpose, Karp says to let it go. “If you hang onto it, your anger elevates beyond the optimal level. That’s going to impact your behavior and cause you to interact with people in a way that’s not productive or even destructive.”

Ego

Ego can play a major role in the trajectory of conflict. “Is my ego driving this conflict, or is the other person’s ego driving this conflict?” Karp says to consider. Once you can pinpoint ego as the driving force of unhealthy conflict, it becomes easier to manage.

“Labeling these things as toxins increases our level of awareness,” he continues, “and understanding how various patterns work.”

Judgment

Similar to anger and ego, too much judgment can lead to unhealthy or unproductive conflict. Preconceived notions about people can interfere with our ability to communicate effectively, Karp explains. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I falling into one of these traps?’”

Doing so, Karp says, can help you “see the trap way off on the horizon and avoid it altogether.” 

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