Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
My parents are both from small towns in the Midwest and raised me to exhibit that small town attitude even in the big city. One of the most basic ways they did that was by teaching me to greet anyone who crosses my path—especially if the crossing is a sort of one-on-one situation like passing in a hallway or walking into a store. Turns out, there are a lot of people I encounter who are seriously lacking in that basic social skill and kind of freak out if I say hello or toss a smile their way. What’s up with that? I didn’t ask you for spare change, I don’t need you to sign my petition, and I’m not selling cookies so why not simply return the smile and say hello. I don’t get it.
When you don’t respond to my acknowledgement of your existence it makes me think you’re a jerk. That’s probably not fair of me, but I think it anyway. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt and wonder if you didn’t hear me or if your mind is in another place, but it doesn’t always work. I can’t help but extend your rudeness to the rest of society and wonder what’s wrong with us. How have we become so isolated or so self-important or so paranoid or whatever it is that we can’t even return smile? Then, I let your dismissal rub me like sandpaper and feel myself sliding into a bad mood unless I make a conscious effort not to do so.
This is my plea for you not to ruin my, or anyone else’s, day by ignoring a pleasant greeting. In return, if you’re craning your neck so hard you’re on the verge of whiplash while you attempt to avoid acknowledging my existence, I promise to walk by as if you really are as invisible as you’d like me to believe.
Here we go; round and round. That’s the sound of the all-too-familiar family whirlpool in which one person (usually the woman) asks that a chore get done and the other person (usually a man) seems agreeable but never quite gets it done. She starts tip-toeing around the subject, he avoids it, she gets louder, he acts like she’s a nag, and now they’re on spin cycle with no forward progress in sight.
The last gzillion months have been like that in my house over the washing machine. Apropos, don’t you think? It started with me mentioning that the unit works fine if you have a full load but if there are just a few items, it won’t drain and stops mid-cycle. My man, who can fix anything by the way, took a look at it and I could tell immediately this wasn’t going to end well. He didn’t repair it right away, though he did move a bunch of tools into the laundry room and stack them neatly on the counter—where they’ve stayed for, well, a gzillion months.
I used my mediator magic to keep the conversations positive, to ask for realistic deadlines, to seek out information that was standing in the way (e.g. user manuals, advice from experts, etc.) and still I was wringing out the new red t-shirt and my hand-wash-only unmentionables. Finally, I decided to face reality. Clearly, my Superman is not chomping at the bit to resolve this issue and, clearly, this issue isn’t something I’m willing to end our relationship over, so the appliance repairman is coming this afternoon. It’s time we end the cycle (pun intended).
Lies of omission are my least favorite lies. Not that I enjoy any type of lies or have a favorite; but there’s something about leaving out an important piece of information and then what happens afterwards that just burns me.
We all know that lies of omission come with the standard betrayal and disappointment found with other types of untruths, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the added elements specific to omissions are what irk me the most. First, there are the ridiculous attempts at rationalization like, “You never asked me, so I never told you” and “Well, I didn’t said I didn’t do it.” What?!? That’s some serious self-absolving going on there.
Then there’s the thought that what I don’t know won’t hurt me. Again…what?!? Newsflash: I will find out and it will hurt me. I’ll be embarrassed that I thought one thing and that you (and perhaps others) knew otherwise. I operated as if you were telling the truth and you weren’t; and that’s wrong. Whether you set out to humiliate me or not, I will feel stupid at having believed something other than the truth. I don’t like feeling hoodwinked.
Finally, lies of omission erode my trust in you because I now think you are one sly, sneaky, master of deceit. Maybe you’re not; but I now think that. It will be difficult for me to consider your name and the word trustworthy in the same sentence ever again. And, that makes me sad.
I get that lies of omission can start out innocent (enough) because you didn’t speak up in that split second you may have had to come clean. Then time and circumstances turn the tidbit into an animal that you feel you can no longer corral. I also get that it takes a big person to reel in the fish story, but maybe by reading this you’ll feel inspired to do just that. If you’ve got one or two or more lies of omission floating around out there, please take the time to set the record straight. Please.
I’ve heard that a death in the family brings out the worst in us; and I now know that firsthand. My Dad passed away a few weeks ago and I have enough siblings, in-laws and outlaws in my tribe to cover the possible spectrum of reactions, responses, and retorts that come out in a family crisis.
My Dad was an old guy—87 years old—who, because of a severe health condition should have been gone a long time ago. For some reason I always thought he would live into his 90s and I would get a call one day that he didn’t come down for breakfast and, having passed at some point during the night, was found by a staffer who went to check on him. That’s not what happened.
Daddy-O went from chatting it up on a Sunday to being admitted to critical care on Monday night, then transferring to hospice on Thursday. The one thing I know for sure about this group I call family is that we are individuals and each of us needed something different from the experience. Family came from all over to say goodbye, settle their scores, support one another, and have a few fights along the way. Then Dad passed a week later and we fell apart. Big fights (and I mean big!) ensued. Some of us wanted to keep anything and everything in Dad’s apartment and some simply wanted to savor their memories. Some jumped in to plan his funeral while others left town to grieve on their own. We were emotionally all over the place and didn’t make much room for our differences.
For whatever reason, any skill I have in resolving problems went out the window at the most crucial times. I did a pretty good job calming issues between others but when it came to bombs thrown in my foxhole, I lobbed them right back. Ouch. I did, however, get it together and calmed myself enough to participate in mending fences. But, the experience brought to light that even the most supportive families fight, spit, and yell at the most inopportune times. The good news is, we’re working through it and will get past it. The bad news is, we harmed one another.
We’re sorry, Dad, that we broke our promise not to fight. However, we’re not sorry that we learned from the experience and that we’re slowly coming together as a family that you would have wanted.
Okay, we’re almost a month into 2013 so I say this is the year you stop telling everyone you’re not very good at conflict or that you’re a conflict avoider. Actually, there’s no such thing as avoiding conflict, so let’s challenge each other to take a fresh perspective on everything from those little irritants in the grocery checkout line to the big, emotional issues with the family. Here are thirteen ways to reduce and resolve conflict that should help in the coming months:
1) Be the first to reach out. It’s time to end that icy standoff and if you reach out to say so, you may be surprised with the response. I’m not saying you have to say all is forgiven, but at least not having bad vibes floating around in the universe should give you some peace. Briefly state that you’d like to resolve the tension, state where you think you could have handled things better, and then move on.
2) Be mindful of what you say (and how you say it). Don’t lose your ability to call it like it is; instead choose your words carefully. “I’m concerned you’re not seeing the risk in this” is better than blurting out, “What an idiotic move!”
3) Ask for what you need. Rather than stewing about the fact that your partner isn’t reading your mind, tell her what you need. Sift through your list beforehand so you’re not delivering an overabundance of demands. Decide what’s most important and have a meaningful discussion about one or two items.
4) Say you’re sorry. Simply put, get rid of the “yeah, but you…”-type responses and admit your shortcomings faster, quicker, and better. If you need the other person to apologize for a specific action, ask for that—but only after you’ve delivered a sincere regret.
5) Say no. This may seem a little out of place here, but simply saying no upfront to certain requests will keep you out of the doghouse later. If you don’t intend to meet the deadline, provide the funding, or meet at six o’clock, don’t agree to it!
6) Find a place for your anger. I often ask clients if there’s enough hurt, harm, or public embarrassment that could be bestowed on the other person to make their own anger or hurt disappear. There isn’t. So, try to find a place for it and then, as much as possible, leave it there. I often visualize packing up the “stuff” from others in a cart (okay, it’s a little red wagon) that I then pull to an imaginary sidewalk that doesn’t belong to anyone. I leave the stuff there with the notion that it no longer belongs to me and that it’s not important to me for the other person to own it. It is what it is and it’s no longer something I’m dragging around.
7) Let go of needing to know why. Of course you should get in the habit of asking good, open-ended questions or inviting the other person to help you understand their perspective, but once they’ve tried and you still don’t get it, it’s okay to stop. If you never know why, then what will you do? It’s silly to think that “why” stands in the way of you moving on.
8) Focus on what’s good; build from there. Is there anything about your relationship with the other person that works? Find the common ground and work to make the most of it.
9) Say yes. Everything doesn’t need to be an argument! Did you do it? Yes. Are you willing to listen to someone else’s idea? Yes. Can you try it his way without sabotaging? Yes.
10) Stop talking about it. Conflicts are what we engage in, they are not what define us. Refrain from giving the problem so much energy. Plus, it may come as a surprise that people really are tired of hearing about it. Venting is great but there’s a fine line between getting it all out and becoming obsessed.
11) Consider the other person’s point of view (whether you believe it to be true or not). I don’t have to agree with you to understand you. For instance, I’ve been dealing with individuals who are struggling with addiction. Do they think the way I do or do they do what’s best for them? Heck no. But, I understand their addiction has a louder voice than that of reason. On a less dramatic note, it’s not that difficult in a small understanding to see how the other person could think you were up to no good. And, their thoughts have a lot to do with the amount of and manner in which information is communicated. Just sayin’.
12) Smile. This one is more on the side of reducing conflict. Think about your demeanor and the message it sends. Are you the crab apple at the grocery store or the person who can’t even conjure up a grunt in the hallway when you pass others? If you’re only going to change one thing about the way you interact with people, this would be it. Greet others with open body language, a smile, and a friendly hello and you can head-off all sorts of trouble.
13) Don’t start it in the first place. Oftentimes we are the ones who cause our own issues (though, I admit, we like to blame others first). Is it really that big of a deal that Sue always uses your stapler or that your kids load the dishwasher from left to the right when everyone knows it should be loaded the other way? Maybe it is; and you should ask for what you want. But, if those little irritants continue, make sure you keep them in the little irritant category and not move them into full-blown conflicts.
Sometimes the inner conflicts I have can be more troublesome than the outright disagreements or problems I experience with others. The good news is, the older I get the quicker I’m able to resolve my inner conflicts so I can apply that learning to interactions with everyone from complete strangers to family members. This last year has been taught me a great deal in that regard. Here are a few examples.
I don’t have to scale Mt. Everest if I don’t want to. I created a mini bucket list and stuck to it…even if other people thought some of my to-do items were lame. I decided that waiting for that elusive “someday” to roll around is no longer acceptable to me so I did things like watch Casablanca all the way through, planted a butterfly bush, and ate biscuits at Lady & Sons in Savannah.
It’s okay to hide, block, or unfriend people on Facebook. Of course the election played a big part in that realization for a lot of us, but I also became conscious of the fact that I don’t need to provide an audience for the negative Nellies, racist, bigots, or anyone I know who is struggling with addiction or mental illness. Let folks do their thing, wish them well, and move on.
My Dad is smart. My soon-to-be 87 year old father blows me away with his ability to assess behavior and motive in others without getting caught up in the drama or unnecessary details. He’s also a really smart guy when it comes to making room for the rights of others because, according to him, you never know if you’ll end up in a category of person others want to discriminate against. A lot of people his age have become so narrow in their thinking that when Dad shares philosophy like this it makes me think his brain is huge!
Good health trumps little irritants. My partner experienced an out-of-the-blue health scare that put a lot of things in perspective for me. ‘Nuff said.
Actions speak louder than words: An extended family member had a premature baby who tested positive for drugs. Child protective services stepped in and began a search for a relative who would care for the child. Of course I said no—I’m too old and I had a nice little life doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Why would I say yes?! Long, long story short, my partner and I started from a place of no and ended up realizing we had no good reason not to help this little guy. Baby smiles are a great way to start the day.
Focusing on the positive rather than on the negative isn’t as hard as I thought: See above.
I haven’t seen it done in a while but in the past if a business wanted to draw attention to itself for a big event, it would bring in a huge spotlight that would illuminate the night sky and grab the interest of everyone from miles around. I think that particular visual is a great analogy for what sometimes happens in a conflict. The issue starts out being about one person and ends up with the focus—or the spotlight—on the other. And, surprising, how the spotlight moves its focus from one to the other isn’t always due to the first person trying to blame shift.
We’ve all dealt with people who have plenty of excuses about others. Add in some victim-like speak and you have blame shifting at its best. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I am talking about is how the other person responds and how that response can morph them from being the innocent bystander to the one with the gigantic spotlight focused squarely on them. Oops!
When one over-reacts, refuses to talk, goes around/over/behind the chain of command, or flails around like a five-year-old, they run the risk of making themselves the problem and shifting the focus of attention. In the blink of an eye you can go from minding your own business to having the powers that be all up in your business. So, how do you avoid such a thing? Do the opposite of overreacting, refusing to talk, or flailing around. Show concern for any issues (no matter who brings them) and talk the situation through in a way that keeps the spotlight aimed in the other direction. Then, move on in the shadows until the light shines on you for the right reasons (like for your amazing ability to handle conflict!).
I first posted this blog two holiday seasons ago but I think it’s worth repeating. Remember to keep your cool no matter what others are doing and enjoy the season!
Shopping during the holidays can be a real nightmare. Facing parking lots jammed with cars, performing complicated search and rescue efforts to find an available cart, and approaching aisles with your best obstacle course strategies can cause even the most happy-go-lucky holiday shopper to start up a conflict with any stranger who dares cross his path. Delivering an emotionally-charged snarky remark while juggling the sweater you’re buying for Nana doesn’t say much about your ability to spread joy or share in the holiday spirit.
I can’t tell you how to manage every potential conflict you’ll face in the next month or so, but I can pass on a few tips retail workers have shared with me. Of course, I’ve added my own two cents worth on the subject and hope there’s something in here that will help you keep your cool this season.
1) Minimize the material and maximize the experience: What I mean by that is limit the amount of “stuff” you buy and, instead, think about experiences you can share with your family and friends. Throwing a potluck or hosting a game night will deliver a much better experience than being angry with those around you as you wait in line after line after line spending money you don’t have.
2) Shop on-line: Avoid the lines (and the other crabby people!) by hitting up your favorite stores’ websites. Check out promotion sites to find deals on price discounts, free shipping, and the like. Words of caution, though; make sure you’re carving out uninterrupted computer time so you steer clear of fighting with the family when they “just won’t leave you alone.” Also, practice scanning Internet deals quickly to avoid getting to the checkout page only to discover the discount you’re counting on doesn’t apply to the items in your shopping cart.
3) Use parking lots as personal training sessions: Why get worked up when you can work out? Use the back entrance and take the first spot you see. Walk the extra distance to the front door with a smile on your face and daydream about what you’ll do with all the extra time you’ve given yourself by not circling the same aisles over and over. Unless you need to build your demolition derby skills, let the other shoppers duke it out, honk their horns, and yell obscenities.
4) Shop the little guy: I called a warehouse store to ask if they had any tips on avoiding shopper conflicts and the person who answered the phone said, “Don’t shop here.” Good point. If crowds, long lines, and oversized carts bumping into the back of your heels make you mad, shop at smaller stores that offer fewer items to fewer customers.
5) Plan to be patient: No matter what anyone else does, have control over your own emotions and reactions. Prepare yourself to take a “we’re in this together” attitude whenever possible. If the cashier is rude, empathetically ask if she’s having a rough day. She’ll probably appreciate your interest and lighten up for the next guy. Smile at everyone even if—and especially when—they don’t return the gesture.
My local grocery store manager said that for the most part, holiday shoppers and retail employees are a cheerful bunch. His staff actually notices that most of their patrons display quite a bit of holiday spirit even when they’re stressed and tired. He said that the happiest customers are the ones who have paid attention to the ads (which are timed to coincide with shopper habits) and are completing their lists with time to spare. He hinted that the best time to grocery shop is before 11:00 a.m. when most of the staff is in, the departments are fully stocked, and there are fewer customers to contend with. He also said that a shopper shouldn’t wait until late afternoon the day before an event to rush around the store and then get angry with a cashier who’s helping another customer count out change. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty good piece of advice for any time of the year.
The movie, Argo, recounts events that took place during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. Since it’s based on a true story I’m not letting the cat out of the bag when I tell you there’s a scene at the Tehran airport in which six Americans, posing as Canadian filmmakers, work their way past armed guards in the hopes of returning home safely. The scene is dramatic; very dramatic. I was on the edge of my seat as the group was questioned, their story verified at the last possible moment, and then again when the plane is chased by zealous militias who have discovered the cover is a ruse. Oh my!!!
A few days after seeing the film I read an article about two of the Americans involved. They said that even though they were horribly nervous and afraid during their ordeal, what actually took place at the airport was nothing as dramatic as what is portrayed in the movie. In fact, the truth is a bit of a yawner.
As I read the article, I realized that the way in which my mediation clients talk about conflict is often more in line with a Hollywood script than it is with the potentially boring truth. It seems to play to the audience better if one uses the phrase “attacked me” rather than “snapped at me.” Or, when I ask someone what they think may be behind a co-worker’s behavior, I almost always get an answer that implies some sort of complicated, sinister plot rather than a thoughtful reply with a less exciting explanation. My daughter and I have an inside joke that whenever one’s story begins with, “There I was, just minding my own business…” you know the description of the evil villain is coming sooner rather than later.
I’m not saying I’m above telling stories with a little Hollywood flair, because, well, I’m not. I’m working hard at being mindful of the picture I paint, though, and I’m getting pretty good at editing my version of what happened. Still, some days I just need to shout, “Cue the crescendo!”
There’s an old saying that actions speak louder than words; and I try to live by that adage most of the time. In reality, though, it can be a pretty lousy way to communicate; especially when I expect others to guess why I’m taking a particular action or when I expect them to take a hint from my silence, .
Sometimes the only way to get a message across is to speak; to use words over actions. If you’re holding back and expecting your actions to speak for you, doesn’t it make sense that the real issues aren’t being discussed? When problems persist I know that’s a sign that it’s time to say what I need to say—everything I need to say.
If you have a lingering problem with someone, chances are you haven’t let it all out. Be mindful, be kind, but have the entire discussion; not just the part where you say only half of what you need to say and expect your actions to make up for the unspoken part. If you’re still unable to resolve the issue, feel free to revert back to letting your actions speak for you…walk away, rise above, and get on with the good stuff.