Tag Archives: conflict

Charged Conversations: How to Keep it from Getting Personal

Most of us don’t like conflict, so when we go in to a meeting or gathering where we know there will be disparate ideas and positions, we worry that things might get ugly. Maybe it’s the annual budget allocation summit, or a discussion about social justice or even a conversation with your teen about driving rules or curfew – any of those scenarios can go sideways pretty quickly if two people have different viewpoints or values. But if we want to have a constructive dialogue and actually make some progress toward a shared goal, we need to keep things on track. Here’s one way to approach it that keeps things from getting personal:

Disagree with the idea, not the person.

It is sometimes hard to separate the two, because of the way we’re conditioned, but it’s really important if you want to keep the conversation going. Challenge yourself to change the way you talk about something you disagree with and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of saying something like, “How could you say that?” or “You’re wrong,” or “You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know _________________?”  try to disentangle the idea from the person who suggested it.

This might look like, “Hmm, that idea doesn’t really jive with my personal experience because __________,” or “Here’s a different idea that I think is valid and deserves some attention.”

Yes, the person who suggested X did so for a reason (maybe their values or their life experience led them to it), but if what you’re after is a solution that works for everyone, it’s important to remember that we all have slightly different values and life experiences, and if we can extract the ideas and vet them on their own merits without attacking the idea generators personally, the conversation stays more focused.

This is especially hard when we come in with preconceived notions about who might pose which solution and why, but if we can set those things aside with an eye toward moving the conversation forward, we can be more efficient. In most cases, whether or not you personally like the people you’re working with on challenging issues doesn’t really matter unless you make it personal by too closely associating them with their thoughts. Helping others see things from a different perspective is easier if we are simply trying to get them to look at new ideas, instead of trying to change who they are as a person.

I used this tactic the other day on a local social media forum where folks were talking about the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. I was tempted at one point to lash out at someone who was characterizing all of the homeless folks as “junkies” and “losers who choose homelessness,” but I resisted. We obviously didn’t end up solving the issue, but we were able to have a productive dialogue without alienating each other or leaving with hard feelings and since I have to live here, I’m pretty  happy about that.

Rules of Engagement for Families (and Teachers)

As my kids got older, I began to realize that it was going to be necessary to change the way we addressed certain issues in our home. While I still encouraged lots of discussion and offered to be present and support my teens as they worked out their own differences, it became clear to me that their unique personalities meant that they approached this in very different ways. This tended to make conversations turn in to conflict, if only because one of my daughters is someone who wants to hash things out instantly, in the moment, and stay until it’s done, while the other one prefers to walk away when emotions get high, re-center herself, and decide if it’s a fight worth having. After a few ugly scenes (complete with doors slamming and tears), we sat down to create a set of ground rules that would work for everyone, and I think they’re pretty universal, so I’ve adopted them as rules for any classroom or student gathering I’m in that has a conflict of some sort. Here they are:

  1. Everyone at the table is here because they want to be (not because they are forced to be or guilted into it). Force and guilt/shame set up a power dynamic that means the discussion is doomed to fail before it even starts.
  2. Everyone has the same rights – we are all equals and we all deserve to be heard and our perspectives respected. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or what their status in the family/classroom is. There are no trump cards if we are truly interested in working through this to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone thinks that they’re bound to be over-ruled at some point, there’s no point in engaging. And if anyone else believes that they ultimately get to decide what happens, there’s no point in them listening to the others.
  3. Even if we can’t understand someone else’s point of view or feelings, we respect their right to have it and we all agree not to belittle anyone because of it. No gaslighting. Your reaction might seem disproportionate or even absurd to me, but since I’m not living in your skin, I don’t get to tell you how you should feel and I certainly don’t get to shame you for feeling the way you feel.
  4. No name-calling, ultimatums, demands, hate speech. This one might seem patently obvious, but often when we get in to a situation that seems to be going nowhere, we resort to these tactics to ratchet up the urgency. They’re not helpful at all if what we really want is to solve the problem at hand.
  5. We all agree to work our hardest to define a common goal for this situation and work toward it. Bringing up past resentments is not okay because it derails the conversation. There may well be patterns of behavior you have noticed over time, but if you want to have a conversation about this incident or issue right now, you need to stay in this moment. No fair blaming or shaming someone for something they did in the past. Period.
  6. No eye-rolling or turning away or other negative body language. This sends the clear message that you’re not listening or you’re not interested in really understanding where the other person is coming from. If you’re not, there’s no reason for you to be here.
  7. If someone decides they can’t be part of the conversation right now for any reason, they are allowed to leave, but they agree to be part of the conversation in the near future so that bad feelings won’t fester and things won’t remain unsolved. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Everyone agrees to own their part of the issue and take responsibility for their words or actions that might have caused others pain or frustration. There are multiple sides to every conflict. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong.
  9. Blaming and shaming, labeling someone, and using words like “always” and “never” will not move us forward and should be avoided. These are all shortcuts to ending a conversation and an indication that you’re making assumptions about the other person’s character or intent. You won’t get anywhere if you use these tactics.

 

Possibly the Most Challenging Mindfulness Exercise You’ll Ever Do

Ready for it?

Don’t disagree with anyone for an entire day. (pick a day when you don’t have to be at school or work because many of these interactions rely on you speaking up and offering new perspectives)

You might ask why this is considered a mindfulness exercise and here’s what I would say: anything that causes us to stop and really question our habitual reactions to things we encounter a lot is mindfulness in my estimation.

So can you do it? Can you spend an entire day noticing when your instinct is to rebut someone’s statement or explain why your idea/belief is better and tamp that down? Can you hear the voice in your head saying “that’s not true” and keep it from coming out of your mouth? Can you pay attention to how often it happens in any given day and dig a little deeper to discern what your body’s response is? Does your jaw tighten or your belly clench?

As the day wears on, does it get easier or harder? Are you storing up arguments to use tomorrow or are you learning something. Notice what happens to the quality of your interactions with people around you when you don’t automatically respond with a clarification or a rebuttal.

I’m not saying that you should never disagree with anyone. In fact, I think that the hallmark of good relationships is the ability to hold different viewpoints and still maintain connection, but many of our interactions with other people are more like competitions or power plays than they are about learning and exploring new ideas. Maybe at the end of a day spent agreeing with everyone around you, it will be easier to discern when it is important to speak up and disagree. Many of us have become conditioned to try and prove our point whether it really matters or not, and it is my hope that this exercise will give you some insight in to whether that is true of you.

I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments.

When Anxiety Shows up as Anger

If you have a child or student who struggles with anxiety, it is vital to remember that, in adolescents, anxiety can show up very differently than it does in younger children. As I’ve noted before, one incredibly important mantra to repeat when a child acts out is

where there is bad behavior, there is pain.

Yes, even in teenagers. Even if we think they should “know better.” And for individuals who are experiencing anxiety, there is an even more compelling reason why we can’t expect them to act or speak in calm, rational ways when they are in the throes of a strong emotional response.

Often, for people who aren’t feeling anxious, anxiety reactions can seem out of proportion to the situation. But we have to remember that for the person who is triggered, the reaction is very real. Take the example of the war veteran walking down the street one day when a car backfires nearby. Anyone on the street will likely startle at the sound, but as soon as they look around and assess the situation, they are able to recognize what the source of the noise was and temper their response. But for the person who associates that sound with something terrifying and/or life-threatening, that sound triggers a series of chemical responses that overrides their ability to be rational in the moment. Their heart begins racing, they have a huge adrenaline spike, and their brain tells them to duck or run. It’s survival mode. The reaction is all in the context.

This is exactly what it’s like for people with anxiety, and for adolescents, because their amygdala (emotion center of the brain) is in charge, any fight or flight response is magnified, and that is what we as educators and parents need to remember when we’re in conflict with kids like this.

Over time, we may be able to predict what kinds of things activate this kind of anxiety reaction in our kids. Maybe it’s a certain tone of voice or a slamming door or yelling. It could be a threat of punishment or the silent treatment. Ask them in a moment of calm and you may be surprised at what you hear.

KEY REMINDERS:

  • their experience is theirs and it’s totally valid. Even if you don’t understand it or it feels disproportionate to you, downplaying it or telling them that the way they feel is silly will only make things worse;
  • the fight/flight response is very compelling. If they feel like they need to walk away from a conflict (flee), forcing them to stay will give them no alternative but to fight;
  • learning can’t take place in a brain flooded with emotion. When someone is in the middle of an anxiety reaction, you will not be able to reason with them, and it’s not their fault. They are physiologically incapable of processing what you’re saying or doing with their rational brain;
  • you’re the adult here. Even if this teenager in front of you looks and acts and demands to be treated like a little adult, they aren’t yet. Their brain won’t be fully mature until they’re around the age of 25. That means that they can’t be expected to hold other people accountable for their behaviors, have strong personal boundaries, and be able to articulate exactly what they’re feeling yet. It is up to us as the adults in their lives who care about them to create a safe enough space for them to talk to us, understand that when they’re acting out they are expressing some need to us, and help them figure out better ways to deal with their frustrations and anxieties.

Questions? Leave them in the comments section. I’m happy to explain further if necessary.

Next time – the rules my family came up with for having constructive disagreements with adolescents.

 

The Difference Between Conflict & Disagreement

Photo by George Eastman House

Most of us can think about how conflict is different from disagreement. We have folks we can peacefully disagree with on certain issues and it doesn’t affect our relationship. But what is it that turns a difference of opinion in to an outright argument or nasty fight?

Power.

When we’re in a philosophical discussion with someone else about a particular issue, if we don’t let our emotions take over, we are generally able to have a conversation that allows for different ideas. But as soon as we start to feel personally attacked or fear that the other party is going to try and force us to act in a way we don’t want to, things get ugly. There are two things at play here. The first is the way our brains work.

When the emotion centers of our brains begin to really activate, the part of our brain that reasons goes quiet. In addition, when we are strongly emotional, we are literally unable to process auditory input (listen) as well. We stop being able to listen when our emotions take over. That’s a problem when we are having a discussion with someone whose ideas are very different from our own because in order to have a productive exchange, everyone needs to feel heard. At this point, it’s pretty hard to learn from the other person and generally, we let things devolve to a point where the objective becomes winning instead of learning. when we let adrenaline take over, we are afraid to lose. That leads us to the second issue of power.

If the goal is winning, you’ve opened the door to a power struggle and whichever person is louder or more tenacious or had more power in the first place is likely to prevail. This is a particular problem when it comes to difficult discussions between parents and teens or teachers and teens because the adult in the situation almost always starts out in a position of power, whether they acknowledge it or not. And when you’re faced with a power differential, it’s a safe bet that there will be conflict instead of disagreement. The person who is at a disadvantage will always have that niggling fear in the back of their mind that what they say doesn’t ultimately matter because they don’t have enough influence. They may also be afraid to be completely honest because of the repercussions that might come. Will they be grounded? Have their phone or car privileges taken away? Be put on academic probation or suspension?

So, what now? Here are some tips for either de-escalating from conflict back to disagreement or for preventing conflict in the first place when you know there’s a difference of opinion with a teen:

  1. If you’re the person in power, call it out and do your best to set an intention for the conversation that is about learning, not about consequences or winning. I’m genuinely curious about your thoughts on this. I will do my best not to judge or tell you you’re wrong. I just need to understand.
  2. Try to keep emotion out of it. Remember, the angrier/more frustrated you get, the harder it will be for your brain to actually process what the other person is saying. If you get triggered, name it and let it go. Wow, that made me feel really sad/angry. I’m going to try not take that personally and ask you more questions about it instead. Remember that the goal is to learn, not to make the other person feel bad or stupid or change their behavior, necessarily.
  3. Agree to table the conversation if the other person is really emotional. Sometimes, we need to walk away for a bit in order to let the feelings subside and then circle back around. Emotions are contagious, so if one of you is really ramped up, the likelihood that the other person will match that emotional intensity is pretty high. Can we talk about this later? I really want to get where you’re coming from but it seems like it’s too raw right now. 

Adolescents need their relationships with adults to evolve over time to give them more power and to listen more. Not only does this help them become more independent, but it models for them how to have adult conversations about difficult topics, and it empowers them to honor their own perspectives and ideas. By the time they get to college and/or the workforce, they will need to have the skills to have disagreements without turning them into conflict.

Conflict Resolution Cartoons

Sometimes when we are in conflict with others, especially if they are people whom we love and/or spend a lot of time with, we forget that our thoughts only exist inside our heads. If we don’t let them out, they can become “Truth.” But our thoughts are generally made up of sets of facts that are connected by the thinnest threads of assumption and driven by raw emotion. Letting them out can expose the misunderstandings to the light and lead to a deeper appreciation of other perspectives or things we didn’t know.

If you’re like me, you forget this from time to time, which is why I created these two cartoons as a reminder. (Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an artist. These are rudimentary at best, but they do serve to help me when I get sucked in to believing my own thoughts.)

Talk about it.
Talk about it.
Start with curiosity.
Start with curiosity.

New Mindful Parenting Workbook Out

THUMBNAIL_IMAGE

This small but mighty parenting workbook is officially available on my Amazon estore this week.

Purchase it for use on your own or with friends. It is packed with information about how your teen/tween’s brain works, what they’re experiencing when they make decisions and struggle with anxiety, and activities and tips on diffusing conflict, building strong relationships, and parenting mindfully.

Check it out and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you at kari@theselfproject.com