As we near the presidential election, we are ever more aware of the tensions involved with discussing politics. Yet, rather than avoid hard topics with everyone, consider ways to create constructive spaces to explore differing ideas. Remember, peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to navigate through it.
This week, I interviewed with Lisa and Ritchie of BYU Radio's "Lisa Show" to talk about how to engage in difficult conversations--especially about politics. Interview Link.
As we near the presidential election, we are ever more aware of the tensions involved with discussing politics. Yet, rather than avoid hard topics with everyone, consider ways to create constructive spaces to explore differing ideas. Remember, peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to navigate through it.
This morning, I spoke with Lisa and Ritchie on BYU Radio's Lisa Show about how important it is to identify the values, principles, and actions you believe in, and not just what you oppose. Click here for the interview.
In our polarized society, we often create identities out of what we oppose. While it's important to know what you don't believe in, we create greater strength and cooperation among important social groups by defining our main purposes and goals with each other. Having explicit core values shared by a group provides guidance for making all kinds of decisions. Instead of just shooting down ideas that we don't agree in an ad hoc way, we can filter through the mountains of information and opportunities that come our way as employees, family members, friends, and even as citizens. For more reading on the importance of creating expansive and flexible self-identities, read my July 2020 blog post here.
Today I watched a sports match in which my son played a team comprised of his former classmates who had taunted, physically hurt, and otherwise bullied him during his sixth grade year when he was a newcomer in this city. As I watched the competition, I felt ashamed that I felt pleasure as the other team lost; I wanted them to feel punished for the year of heartache my son endured. Through the lens of the fierce, protective mama, I viewed every interaction on the field as a battle between good and bad. While I could have assumed a variety of roles as the spectator of a simple recreational game, I chose the role of a hurt, protective mother as my core identity.
As I struggled to overcome my desire to punish, I understood that I was only viewing these boys through one negative lens or framework. I was not willing to see beyond that lens and felt self-justified in interpreting all current (not just past) interactions with those players through that lens. When I questioned my son about the game afterwards, he mentioned how one kid was swearing at him during the game, but that he didn’t really care any more. My young son refused to take on the role of “the bullied” and had moved on. How strange that he had moved on while I continued to choose the role that plagued me with negative feelings and the desire to punish. During the same game, he and I lived completely different experiences because of the roles and identities we chose to personally highlight.
While much more than a somewhat heated recreational sports game, in a similar way, some of our society’s woes relate to how we develop and construe our self-identities in relation to others.
There are many lenses through which we can analyze current societal trends and contentions, but I am primarily a conflict theorist and practitioner. My conflict resolution training and experience continue to impress upon me the need for greater flexibility and breadth when we consider our self-identities in order to manage differences and resolve problems with each other.
The Importance of Identity
As human beings, it is absolutely essential that we create positive self-identities in order to develop constructive social relationships with diverse people around us. We create our forms of self-identity from a myriad of sources including: our family of origin, our age, culture, educational background, gender, sexuality, race, income, language, political affiliation, occupation, religion, family status, and so on. We have considerable options to choose from, although certain identities are accentuated and valued over others in our particular culture.
While we have many sources of self-identity, somehow we have strayed from the idea of creating multiple salient identities that facilitate connection with diverse groups of people. Instead of expansion, we often are siphoned into choosing very rigid, often non-overlapping identities that inhibit finding common ground. We draw lines between ourselves and others with so-called litmus tests as if human life doesn’t flow along a spectrum of intersecting circles and connections.
In a highly individualistic society like our’s, we tend to glorify the unique choices we make as individuals. While we are blessed to even have so many personal options, we are headed toward the extreme belief that we don’t need each other to even preserve the very freedoms we enjoy. In addition, our tendency to focus on exclusive or unique individual identities, rather than shared group identities, have led us toward an increasingly rigid way of interacting with others who seemingly differ from us.
Common Responses to Threats Against Identity
When people feel that their primary identities are being threatened, they will either fight or retreat. Very rarely, will a person demonstrate a willingness to compromise about a facet of his or her identity. Naturally, as a mediator, I have witnessed how strongly people will seek to preserve their positive sense of self-identity with desperate and sincere gusto. Identity preservation is an area where humans will fight the hardest against threats and refuse to compromise even when conflict resolution seems very possible to an outsider.
As we have grown ever more inflexible individually and as a group in how we perceive ourselves and others, especially in the realm of politics, race, and culture, we are actively creating division. Yet, the reality is that we overlap with each other in so many more ways that we are allowing ourselves to perceive and experience.
Of course, we have our primary, most important identities that are central to our being. Yet, are we oversimplifying the very essence of who we are in order to further divide ourselves from each other? If we seek connection, peace, and belonging, why are we clinging to oversimplified self-identities and stereotyped perceptions of others that do not create the very peace, connection, and belonging we seek?
For example, I care deeply about the direction our country is going. I believe we all do. Yet, when elections roll around, I notice how we tend to sequester off into stereotyped and rigid political groups ready to defend our stance at any cost. In my case, I consider myself an independent voter who avoids being seen as Republican or Democrat. How strange that I am seeking to create (or preserve) self-identity by telling you what I am not rather than what I stand for! That can be very confusing for everyone as a main source of identity. I am much more than what I tell you I am not. Does that make sense?
One Remedy: Develop Multiple, Flexible Sets of our Personal Identities
As we expand our understandings and perceptions of ourselves, we allow others into our lives in new and important ways that strengthen us as individuals and as a society. Like you, I have multiple facets to my self-identity that are reflected in the various life roles I play alongside accompanying beliefs and experiences.
In family life, I am a mother, a daughter, an aunt, a sister, a daughter-in-law, a wife, and someday, hopefully, a grandmother, and a great-aunt, and so on. I adjust and adapt to each situation based on the particular people I am seeking to connect with. I do well to avoid being a mother to my siblings, who won’t necessarily appreciate that type of interaction. Yet, when interacting with my younger nieces and nephews, I may take on more of a motherly role if it fits the situation and our level of trust and intimacy.
At work, sometimes I am directly playing the role of a mediator, while other times I am an administrative assistant or a call-center specialist. In addition to these roles, I am a writer, a conflict coach, a presenter, a speaker, and a teacher. I am an assistant to my boss, but I supervise other staff who look to me for guidance. I adjust and reflect back what the situation requires of me according to my specific responsibilities and relationships. These roles are not static, but dynamic and re-negotiable as circumstances and people change.
With friends, I mostly try to be a listener, but sometimes I give advice and sometimes I am a joker, or the teacher. I check in tentatively with those I care about to see if I need to adjust the role that I am playing. I will never forget my friend, Kristen’s kind direct question during a moment of personal crisis in graduate school; she simply questioned me with the following: “Do you need a cheerleader right now or just a good listener?” She allowed me to direct her in the role that she played to help me through a personally discouraging time in my life. She was willing to be flexible in order to meet my needs and maintain the good level of connection we had already developed over time.
When I interact with others whose primary identities differ greatly from my own, I access various parts of my self-identity that create common ground. I can be a friend, a confidant, and an active listener. We may discuss our love of animals, art, or hiking. I draw from a vast reservoir of interests and perspectives that allow me to weave my life together with others. There are so many salient roles that overlap with people I care about, but who may differ with me in one or more important areas of their lives. I don’t give up or stereotype someone just because the first identity I see in someone differs from my primary sources of identity. Such stereotyping is far too simplistic a way to live life and creates throw-away people and a throw-away culture that only values sameness in particular valued areas of our cultural life.
My desire and willingness to find a variety of sources for my identity and to rely on them flexibly does not mean that I am wishy-washy or a chameleon. We throw such terms around in our society as if having multiple sources of identity dilutes the value or strength of a person and makes them less “authentic.”
In contrast, I feel so loved and connected when others seek to connect with me through our shared and overlapping identities, especially when we seem so different on the surface. We do not have to be completely the same to create connection. We only have to be willing to share a part of ourselves that forms that initial connection of similarity, or shared belief or experience.
While there is no panacea answer to the conflicts and contentions facing our society, I wanted to offer this perspective on self-identity that may help clarify ways forward to build connection with others despite escalated differences and urgent, pressing problems.
As a conflict resolution practitioner, the thoughts I have shared center on the absolute necessity of expanding the sources of our own self-identity and similarly expanding how we view others’ identities in relation to our own. We must widen our sources of self-identity and proactively seek to find overlap with seemingly different others who share our same humanity. We do not have to be the same to find areas of similarity and connection.
We simply must decide that we cannot live without each other. We must quit wasting time thinking that we are too different to ever get along. As someone wise once said, “we are different enough to need each other, but similar enough to love each other." We must really try to connect and refuse to oversimplify who we are and who the “other” is or desires to be.
For more reading conflict resolution and self-identity, please read my November 2018 blog post entitled: Understanding and Moderating Identity Conflicts: How can we satisfy our own and others' identity needs?
Grief is a fickle thing, ever changing and surprising. With the sudden death of my beloved dog almost two weeks ago, I have experienced a variety of emotions in this strange “land” of adapting to new patterns, thoughts, and also relationships with the living. I understand that this may seem insignificant to some (like my former self) because Maisie was my pet. However, this is my first encounter with a death of someone beloved who formed part of my everyday life. I can’t pretend that Maisie lives far away and can’t visit me for a while. Rather, on a daily basis, I am learning to ride the wave of emotions that come with loss, but I am also learning how to capture the immense happiness and joy that this little creature brought to my life.
While no expert in grieving, I am struck by the power of not merely reminiscing or viewing my memories through my current lens of loss, but allowing myself to “relive” a bit of the joy this creature brought to my life. Tonight, I reviewed a short memoir I wrote about Maisie’s impact on my life almost three years ago when we lived in Colorado. Written in the present tense about my daily life with Maisie, this brief capture of my daily life experience reinforced to me the power of jotting down the beautiful things in your life WHILE you are experiencing them. Rather than leave the storytelling for later years, I suggest writing down your daily joys and lived experiences that may serve as a reservoir of joy when days of loss challenge your vision.
This sprightly little dog served a key role in my life that relates directly to my learning to savor each day for the beauties and joys inherent in breathing, running, feeling the wind on my face, and responding to sincere, constant affection. I have felt the love, respect, and loyalty of many wonderful people in my life, but Maisie stands out as a beacon and example for the type of being I want to become for others around me. I hope that I can lift and love wherever I am so that others’ fears and concerns are allayed; that they feel safe and loved in my presence even without exchanging any words.
Perhaps, we have more to learn from all of God’s creatures (and creations) around us than we are currently expecting or appreciating. Please read on if you would like to know how Maisie changed my life even when I lacked any initial interest in her kind…
Maisie and Me: Overcoming Anxiety and Finding Joy in Daily Life
September 23, 2017
I don’t ever remember wanting a dog. Really. When I was a child, I was bit and chased by dogs while I delivered newspapers on my bike. One day, even a tiny chihuahua scared me as it nipped at my heels as I pedaled as fast as I could away down my neighborhood street.
I didn’t want to be licked with big, pink dog tongues or find long, white or gray fur all over my clothes. And, don’t mention having to pick up dog poop—that just sounded too gross to ever consider.
Even though I never wanted a dog, I want to show you how my Maisie has changed so much of my life for the better even though she can regularly be “Crazy Maisie.”
Yes, something in me changed when we brought our little Brittany puppy, Maisie, home from a small farm in rural Idaho last Thanksgiving weekend.
Originally, my husband and I had agreed that our oldest daughter would really love a dog, so we thought we would get one for her. But, once I became Maisie’s primary caregiver, she won me over.
You see, sometimes I wake up in the morning with my heart racing like I’m preparing to go on stage in front of 1,000 people. I try my best to tell myself that I am not anxious about anything, but my mind can get carried away and then the feelings in my body follow those anxious thoughts (or vice versa).
I try to exercise, pray, help others, talk with loved ones, read, and all other kinds of things, but my dog has a special gift to lessen those anxious thoughts and feelings that can sometimes be overwhelming.
Each morning, when my oldest daughter calls out: “Dog on the loose!” and my Brittany puppy comes running up the stairs to find me, I seem to forget about my racing heart.
When Maisie finds me, she leaps all over me with ever constant enthusiasm. One day, I even chipped my two front teeth when her head knocked against mine during our morning greeting.
Yes, my “jumpy love” puppy with all her bouncing, kisses, and encircling, can make me forget about my racing heart and anxious mind.
After the youngest kids leave for the bus, I am out running with Maisie, first across the park, through the park gate onto the sidewalk of Havana St. with all the cars filled with teenagers on their way to high school.
As we both run (fast), I can feel the soft sun on my face and a breeze. We are usually beating down the sidewalk towards the state park across the street at a steady pace.
Soon, we cross Belleview Street over to the fields of brush, thistles and a gravel path at Cherry Creek State Park. My heart is beating fast, but steady. My heart isn’t racing anymore, but filling my whole body with purpose as I keep up with Maisie’s ever constant pulling.
We finish our run back near the Bear Park and finally through the sliding glass door for her breakfast and my stretching. (Running with Maisie every day can make my body really sore!).
I warm up Maisie’s stew of dog food, peanut butter, and water in the microwave. Just 30 seconds or she will bark at how hot she finds it.
I wait for her to devour her stew, but she is picky and sometimes won’t eat right away.
Eventually, after we say goodbye to the second set of kids headed out on their bikes to school, I warm up my own breakfast and say, “Maisie, park!”
I put on her electric collar so I have a way to get her back with her 25 mph running, and follow her down the stairs, across the basement, and through the sliding glass door and backyard gate to the Bear Park again.
I sit on the putting green and watch her race around and around the park at full speed as I eat my breakfast.
I keep my eye on her running just in case she starts digging under the fence as an escape artist. I have time to reflect, but Maisie keeps drawing my attention back to her; I don’t envy, but savor her sheer joy in running, sniffing, and exploring.
Once she is somewhat tired, I head back inside to do the dishes. With my husband gone to work, I allow Maisie to help me “wash” the dishes. I fill the dishwasher with dirty plates as she licks off any leftover food. We are a team putting away the dishes.
Sometimes, I work out in the front yard as she ventures over to Whisky’s house, or chases the many rabbits that live across the street in the Erlandsons’ yard.
By 9:30-10 a.m., she is finally tired and ready for a nap. Reluctantly, she follows me downstairs with my suggestion of “crate.”
During Maisie’s morning nap, I work on all kinds of things and sometimes leave the house on errands. But, between 12:30 and 1 p.m., I know that she will wake up ready to run again.
Most times, after her potty break, I say, “car” and watch with wonder as she heads towards the garage door, waiting for me to get my shoes on, grab my bag, and get her leash and collar.
I open my front car door and say “up.” She leaps onto my seat and walks over to her seat next to mine. I back up the car out of the garage and roll down her window just enough so she can stand up and poke her head out.
As we drive to the doggie park, Maisie is free with the wind blowing against her floppy ears. I think of myself sailing along on a Catamaran on the ocean. We don’t speak, but I feel connected.
At the entrance booth of the doggie park, I smile as I pass the kind old man at the doggie park entrance booth. Maisie knows just where we are and that soon she will be free to bound through open fields, a flowing stream, and chase birds with only the occasional call of “Maisie, here!”
Maisie impatiently waits as I park the car and gather my turquoise sunhat, her leash, and my keys. She pulls me towards the dog entrance that reeks of urine. Usually the sun is beating down hard at this hour, and I am hot with my hat and sun shirt on to protect me.
With leash removed, I open the gate so that she is free. Maisie immediately finds other dogs to sniff and bounds towards the open field in front of us. She stays ahead of me, moving from side to side scoping the area for smaller creatures and fellow canine friends.
Finally, we reach the tree-sheltered stream that seems like a different world. She heads towards the shallower part of the stream, rather than plunging into the deep end like she did on the first day we came here. (I had to quickly pull her out after her shock of not being able to touch the bottom).
Slowly, I walk down the stream with my flip flops gathering sand as we go. Maisie always stays ahead of me, but whenever I call, she comes racing back towards me. Occasionally, she’s able to engage another dog in play, but she still mostly wants to sniff out her own trail in this gently flowing water.
By the end of the stream area, Maisie is completely soaked. She looks so skinny and young, although she’s nearly a year old now. Today, she doesn’t try to snag and eat the tiny toads that try to get away from her on the edge of the stream.
Eventually, we walk back towards the car across the open fields where she is leaping, bounding, and doing what she does best: chase birds or even butterflies. I sense that she was created for this and that she has joy in it.
As I watch her leap and bound through the dry grass, I recognize my own purpose and meaning in life. I was also created for joy, for leaping in my own way.
When we finally return to the car, I roll down the window so she can enjoy the wind against her face as I cruise along Arapahoe Road towards home. No words are necessary to understand that we have really lived for a small moment. She is an animal, but she is a living creature that somehow understands and yearns to please me. I know that.
Never alone, I am learning to live with my friend, Maisie, whom I never thought I wanted or needed. But, with her constant love and contagious enthusiasm, she manages to steady my heart and mind in a way that helps me to find the everyday joy of living my daily life.
This morning, I interviewed with Ritchie T. on BYU Radio's Lisa Show about managing conflict while we're in pain (physical, emotional. or otherwise). While fairly obvious, when we are trying to manage conflicts while personally experiencing pain, we are less nuanced in our reactions to additional conflicts. Rather than taking the time to gather more information, talk with others, or wait for the best time and situation for resolution, we may gravitate toward reactions that tend to exacerbate conflict quickly and dramatically.
For example, if you ask me to help carry in the groceries for you right after I stubbed my toe against the door, I am less likely to graciously respond to your request and more likely to shout back, "I've already been doing everything in the house today. Do it yourself!" My energy is already focused on nursing my hurt toe and not trying to manage your expectations for how I help around the house (a different source of conflict). Okay, so that's just a toe stub, but still, you get my point.
When we're personally experiencing pain, we may be quicker to either steamroll through our conflicts or ignore them entirely; we tend to be hot or cold. Our reactions may be more dramatic because we are already using energy to manage our pain and don't filter our reactions as easily. Being socially graceful and adept takes mental and emotional energy, which may be in shorter supply. As a result, rather than speed up, we do well to slow down and break down steps to a process whether we're the ones in pain, or whether we are trying to help others who are experiencing conflict while in pain.
As helpers to those experiencing pain and conflict, we benefit from withholding (1) judgement for why that person is experiencing pain and additional conflicts, (2) taking over the conversation with our own apparent empathetic stories relating our own handling of a similar conflict, and (3) imposing a value-laden triage of how the other person should handle their conflict based on our experience. In short, when we are approached by others who are experiencing both pain and additional conflicts, we need to guard against giving advice too freely based on our experience of pain and suffering. We demonstrate great love when we avoid imposing our value triage on the conflicts others are facing unless they ask us for our insights. Even when asked, we remain tentative about imposing a certain type of solution because we know that ultimately each person is responsible for his or her choices.
Finally, imagine that a strong and courageous friend approaches you while carrying a 50 pound bag of rocks on her back. You've seen her carrying around this bag of rocks for weeks. You can see the strain, stress, and pain in the crease lines on her face. While she talks with you, she rubs her shoulder anxiously with one hand while she braces the bag on her alternate hip. She tries to loosen her neck a bit, but she's still holding that bag of rocks on her back so it's nearly impossible to find relief. You ask her if you can carry the bag for her, but she says that she can't hand it over; that it's her's to carry.
You are uncomfortable watching her carry this load all by herself. She is insistent that she can't let go of it. But, then you ask if you can help her hold it while she talks with you. She says that might be all that she needs in order to go on with carrying her burdens. You stand in close proximity and help her hold up the load while she shares the cares and worries that press down on her mind constantly. Together you are both able to manage the load and hold the conversation. She finishes expressing her thoughts and thanks you for caring enough to hold the load with her while she shared what's in her heart.
Sometimes, just helping hold the load while others are in pain, provides the other person with the opportunity to focus just enough attention and adequate energy on taking the first steps toward healing. We are social creatures in need of each other despite the differing burdens we carry. I hope that we will not underestimate the power of even temporarily shouldering others' burdens so that they can process through the challenges they face both in terms of pain and other types of conflicts.
Following from my January 2020 post about the perils of giving conflict advice, I interviewed today on BYU Radio about the same topic (click for the full interview). After my interview, I reflected on how important it is that we understand who we are in a relationship, especially when someone's coming to us for advice or an opinion. When I have authority over someone at home, work, or the community, I need to be extra cautious about giving any kind of advice because my counsel carries so much weight--oftentimes far too much weight or influence. Likewise, if I am in authority or have some kind of social power in a relationship, I need to pay extra attention to listening to counsel or advice from those around me who may not feel or experience power; they may better perceive issues and solutions that are in my blind spots.
Power is the ability to influence outcomes. In social psychology research, I find it pretty interesting that people in power often do not even take into account the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of those who enjoy less power. In short, powerful people may not even be aware of the types of counsel or advice those in lower power positions might have to offer.
So, as an afterthought to the interview, I recommend that we listen carefully to the advice and counsel of those in lower positions of power, and be extremely hesitant to dole out advice from a position of power. In either situation, we must be careful to take ownership for our own issues and counsel well and collaboratively with all players in group conflicts that involve people of differing positions of power and influence. In my perspective, the best group conflict outcomes will reflect consideration for multiple perspectives. A few of my thoughts for the day.
Recently, I interviewed on BYU Radio’s Lisa Clark Show about handling conflict during quarantine. Please take a listen here and keep these six points in mind:
(1) More interaction means more opportunities for conflict, but also for connection (think twins).
(2) Don’t be surprised when you have a conflict, but rather assume it will happen and prepare for constructive ways to deal with it (i.e., set up family conversations, couple time, one-on-one time with each child to check-in about conflicts each person is experiencing).
(3) Setting up ground rules as a family helps, but some conflicts need to be parceled out (i.e., if two kids are constantly fighting with each other, handle those separately rather than turning it into a family conflict).
(4) When you’re in a conflict that you’re not ready to immediately handle, communicate that you’re not ready to communicate to resolve it (i.e., “I know this is really important to resolve, but I need to take a walk and think it through before we have that conversation.”).
(5) As humans we need both predictability and creativity, so make sure you have some stable routines, but allow room for yourself and others to adjust and express themselves in new and different ways.
(6) All of us may experience conflict related to competing internal needs. We each have the need to belong through social connection and need opportunities to express our authenticity and uniqueness. Keep those universal needs in mind while working through your own feelings of conflict or while seeking to help others who are struggling.
Naturally, we understand that physical or psychological pain may directly influence our ability to manage conflict. Do you recall the last time you were in physical pain? How did you handle even small conflicts that arose during that time? Did your experiences of pain create even more interpersonal conflict than existed before the onset of the pain you were experiencing?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the influence of pain on conflict because I have been experiencing deep, physical pain as a result of a long-standing case of endometriosis. After surgery nearly eight years ago, I thought I was through with the pain I had endured since my mid-teens. Yet, as my google searches confirmed, many patients experience recurring pain even after fairly invasive surgeries to mitigate the growth of tissue that causes regular internal bleeding.
Considering the Question of Pain
Many philosophers, theologians, and regular individuals like ourselves have questioned and studied the role of pain in human lives. In clinical medical settings, we are asked to rate our pain on numbered scales based on our own perceptions. In terms of mental, emotional, or spiritual pain, we may attempt to use similar numbered scales, but many experiences of pain are difficult to express in terms of a numbered, orderly system. With a wide variety of manifestations, physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual pain may leave us at once immobilized, ready to fight, or even holed up in retreat from even simple daily activities.
As I have experienced periods of intense physical and/or emotional pain, I have noticed certain natural instincts in terms of conflict. When confronted with a wide variety of types of pain, I have been less resilient at handling interpersonal and other communication conflicts. While this decreased ability to manage conflict when experiencing pain seems natural, we can turn to a few methods of conflict management that will allow us to better move through not just pain, but the interpersonal conflicts that we experience. These simple, but straightforward methods include:
(1) Acknowledge to yourself and those with whom you’re experiencing conflict that you are in pain. An acknowledgement may be as simple as saying things such as:
“My entire body aches right now. I don’t know where this pain came from, but it’s overwhelming.”
“I feel like my mental stress is too much. I need to find a way to release this tension.”
When we see someone bleeding, we have instant cues to understand that a person may be experiencing physical and/or emotional pain. However, with many types of unseen pain, we cannot assume that others will intuitively know that we are in pain and are unable to manage other difficulties in the same way we usually do. How often are you willing to admit to others that you are experiencing some type of pain?
(2) Acknowledge the importance of addressing the conflict and communicate that you may need time and space to heal, release tension, or slow down in order to manage conflict while you are experiencing pain. Possible communications may look like the following:
“I know that this is an important problem to discuss. I don’t feel like I have the ability to address this right now, but I want to. Could I let you know when I’m feeling well enough to address it with you?”
“The issues you bring up are really important. I would like to work with you on some solutions. Do you mind if I take a few days to recover before we have that conversation?”
Rather than immediately try to resolve the interpersonal sources of conflict that may be inflicting emotional or mental pain, triage the sources the best that you can. If I have a fever, I may ask for time for my fever to come down before I wrestle with a difficult family relationship. Again, when addressing physical symptoms of sickness or pain, we are often quick to understand and allow the other person space to heal. Yet, when we are dealing with unseen sources of pain in another person, we may need to graciously accept their request and give them the benefit of the doubt.
(3) Finally, I have learned to a greater extent recently that slowing down when I’m in pain is essential. Because I don’t like pain, I often want to take some kind of pill, check off all the other sources of difficulty in my life, and get through conflicts in a hurry. This method of hurrying up to plow through hard things may actually set me up for more conflict (and pain) than I started with.
Slowing down enough to heal physically, mentally, emotionally, or otherwise allows me to get my own house in order enough to be able to work with another person to settle a conflict. While good attitudes influence many social outcomes, we may reach personal thresholds that limit our ability to manage adverse conditions. If we are experiencing individually adverse circumstances that involve deep personal pain, we may need to slow down all parts of our lives to focus on the essentials.
Yesterday, as I lay down on my bed, overwhelmed by physical pain, not only did my body settle down, but my mind did also. Physically laying down and removing myself from the hurry of every day life allowed me to focus on the essentials. Slowing down does not mean that I avoid important issues, but it does mean that I consider (and allocate) the amount of personal energy that I am able to spend on other issues after managing any type of pain. Have I already completed a heavy dose of pain management weightlifting for the day?
Of course, as truly social creatures, we need connection with each other to overcome a variety of types of pain. I mostly want to encourage you to be wise in estimating your strength and resilience to manage conflict when in pain. Even when life is not so groovy, as Simon and Garfunkel sing: “Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the moments last.” Rather than trying to skip over the healing process to quickly resolve conflict, perhaps, we can slow down to make sure that real personal healing occurs. When healed, we will find the strength to reconcile other important conflicts along the way.
Have you ever given heartfelt advice to someone and it has come back to bite you when it “doesn’t work?” Sometimes, we have to learn the hard way that others need to make decisions for themselves rather than relying upon a friend, an expert, or other outside party who then becomes responsible for the conflict outcome.
As much as possible, we need to allow others to be responsible for making their own decisions about how to resolve their conflicts. Of course, we advocate and defend the underprivileged, the aged, and children, but we must err on the side of not resolving rather than seeking to “save the day” for someone who might eventually blame us for the results of our advice, no matter how well-intention-ed.
As a mediator, my role is to remain as neutral as possible about conflict resolution outcomes while remaining an advocate for a healthy conflict resolution process. Regularly, individuals come to me seeking advice about interpersonal communication, legal issues, and general advice. While I am happy to suggest options or possibilities (outside of legal counsel), I must be wary about steering someone one way or another. Ultimately, each individual must be responsible for his or her own decisions.
For example, several months ago, a distraught middle-aged woman named Mary (names have been changed) came to me over a conflict she was experiencing about a casual business arrangement she had with a long-time friend. Communication between the two parties had broken down and her feelings were especially anxious and irritated. Given her agitation with recent contentious texts she had received from her friend, Jim, regarding their business agreement, I suggested that she could block texts on her phone if receiving them was causing her too much stress. Given her lack of technical knowledge and apparent desire to implement my suggestion, I showed her how to block the texts on her I-phone.
At the time, I did not realize how (negatively) influential my intervention with blocking the other party’s texts would be on the upcoming mediation between the two parties in a business arrangement. During the course of the mediation, which I arranged between the two parties, the issue of blocked texts came up as a relevant source of dispute. To my dismay, Mary had actually forgotten about the blocking of texts and insisted that she had never received communication from the other party. To disprove the accusation about his lack of communication with Mary, Jim flipped open his phone and immediately produced copies of the texts he had sent to her on the dates in question. Despite Mary’s forgetfulness of my “helpfulness” with showing her how to block texts, as the mediator, I had to openly admit to both parties that I had showed Mary how to block texts on her phone.
With my admission of communication interference before the actual mediation took place, I noticed a quick level of distrust enter the conversation. My intervention served not only as a wedge of distrust between both parties but tainted the entire mediation because I appeared biased and to be intervening on Mary’s behalf.
Despite later efforts to reconcile, Jim continued to distrust my efforts and referred back frequently to my text blocking intervention. Within days, he even turned from blaming Mary for their communication problems to treating me as the true culprit who interrupted a constructive exchange between the two parties. In the end, I could not overcome the effects of having given advice to one party over another; any help I offered to either party only further complicated and deepened their issues that now revolved more around me rather than the parties themselves.
Like the parties in the mediation, for people in conflict, there is a natural human tendency to want to be right and to avoid responsibility for the conflicts we face. The stories we tell ourselves about why certain conflicts occur center around facts or interpretations that keep us in the position of “good” people. We focus on facts that confirm our goodness or rightness because we like avoiding cognitive dissonance, a state where our beliefs and actions are not in line. (In brief, the theory suggests that with internal conflicts, either our beliefs must change to explain our current behaviors, or our behaviors must change to match our beliefs).
When we experience conflict, we may approach our loved ones or experts hoping to be justified in our “rightness” rather than truly seeking to resolve our conflicts for ourselves. We may also be trying to avoid responsibility for our part in the conflict because usually there is overlapping responsibility, even if unintentional. In the end, we may blame the failure of some kind of suggested solution on the very person we approached for help.
In terms of being the person approached for advice and counsel about a conflict, we often want to help our loved ones solve their problems like a person offering directions to someone lost on the street. Yet, if we give advice—no matter how “expert” we may be—we may later serve as the scapegoats for conflict, which becomes less likely to resolve.
In short, whether you are a conflict expert or a supportive friend or family member, be careful to not take over responsibility for resolving other people’s conflicts. To the best extent possible, listen, reflect, and reframe what you hear in confidence in order for the person with the conflict to best understand what he or she wants to do to resolve the conflict. In putting the responsibility squarely back on the person in conflict’s shoulders, you provide the means for the best conflict resolution result. The party in conflict is really the one that has to live with the consequences of the conflict and its resolution, so make sure that you keep that in mind.
In all of our helping others through difficulties, the greatest help we can offer is encouragement and support for the party in conflict to use all of his or her resources to resolve issues for him or herself. This stance does not reflect stoicism or harshness, but emphasizes the necessity for each of us to take responsibility for the conflicts we encounter in our lives.
As we enter the holidays, we will be interacting with all kinds of people in both public and private settings. Consider some of the ideas I share in this recently aired interview with Lisa and Richie on BYU Radio's Lisa Show: today