Getting a Feeling for Working Conflict

Years ago I was giving a Friday evening public presentation about conflict at an urban university. I had been invited by a forming community, with whom I was going to be working over the weekend. They were using the occasion of my being in town to drum up interest in their group, and the woman organizing the event had a clipboard on which she was diligently capturing the names and contact information of the folks she didn't know.

In the minutes before we got started, she approached one unknown young man from behind and tapped him lightly on his shoulder to get his attention, for the purpose of getting him to register on the clipboard. The man startled at her touch, turned around abruptly, and glared at her with intensity. In the spur of the moment, the woman decided that perhaps she didn't need his contact information that badly and chose to back away.

At this point, I have just described the entire history of interaction between these two people. If there were any words exchanged, it was less than a sentence each way. Shortly after the woman retreated to her seat, I began my presentation—blissfully unaware that there was a storm brewing in the audience.

Ninety minutes later I was in the home stretch of my presentation, explaining how everyone has the option to work on conflict unilaterally. While most of the time we prefer (naturally) to be met by the other player(s) in a good-faith attempt to resolve conflict, I was pointing out the possibility and potency of working solo when the door to joint work is closed.

It was at this juncture—only three minutes away (I thought) from ending the talk and inviting everyone to regather in a nearby reception for punch and cookies—that the young man became quite agitated and blurted out that it wasn't easy to work through distress all on one's one. Surprised by his comment, I slowed down and offered something like:

"I apologize if I gave you the impression that it's a simple matter to look inward, explore dispassionately how well your reactions serve you and consider the possible advantages of changing your feelings. I actually think that's hard work—though profoundly worthwhile if you're willing."

I was hoping that I'd deftly addressed his agitation and that punch and cookies were just moments away. No such luck. Instead, his agitation escalated and he appeared to be on the verge of punching the organizer in her cookies! Yikes!

Replying to me, he lamented, "How can you do that work when you're under attack?" Rising from his seat, he quickly closed the distance between himself and the woman with the clipboard. Towering over her, he accosted her with, "This bitch abused me and I'm not going to let her get away with it!" Uh oh. I hadn't a clue where this rage came from.

The woman's husband, sitting on the other side of the room, protested, "You can't talk to her that way!" "The hell I can't!" came back.

Upset and confused, the audience was wondering: why had Laird arranged this tasteless dramatization to end the talk? Laird was wondering: what in heaven's name was going on?
• • •
This is Part II of a series on conflict. Today I'm going to make the case for the primacy of working with emotions when addressing conflict. I opened with this chaotic true-life story to showcase the points I want to make.

1. People in distress often express themselves in provocative ways
When a person is in serious distress (never mind how they got there; they're there) I've found it helpful to think of them as a drowning person—where all they can think about is getting oxygen. In their determination to get air, they may have little to no awareness about how they may be hurting others in their thrashing about, and observations about about their behavior fall on deaf ears. They want a helping hand, not reflections on their overhand crawl.

In my story, the young man was clearly in distress, yet the cause was not apparent. Worse, he was being abusive in his efforts to let everyone know that he'd been abused. Very messy. His experience was that the woman had been provocative; everyone else experienced him being provocative. In his urgency to get support he was, tragically, pushing everyone away.

Taking a deep breath, I knew what I had to do. Without knowing where the story would lead, I nonetheless knew that we needed to start with the young man's distress—not the secondary distress stirred up by the way he was expressing himself. So I walked up to him (I wanted him looking at me, not the woman) and tried to make contact: "You're really pissed off. You feel abused by this woman and you're outraged. Do I have that right?"

Almost immediately, the man started to deescalate (not all the way to calm and serene, but his voice register dropped and his breathing slowed). Essentially, people want to be held and even though I raised my energy to meet his, it is calming to be heard accurately and without judgment. Unlike the gas-on-the-fire response he had to those who were (understandably) objecting to his aggressive language with the woman, I was offering a life ring, and he gratefully accepted it.

While in most cases there's no mystery what triggers an emotional response, in this case I was clueless (and somewhat apprehensive of what would come out when I opened that door). Still, I needed to make sense of his response and I didn't yet have enough information, so I asked him what she'd done that was abusive. He replied that she'd tapped him on the shoulder, violating his body.

While I'm familiar with this potential response when a man touches a woman, it's rare to encounter this with the genders switched. As tapping someone on the shoulder seemed pretty innocuous, I needed more still. Carefully, I laid out that it seemed to me that he had a particularly strong response to a tap on the shoulder; could he say more about why that was abusive? He shared that his mother abused him as a child and that he's now, as an adult, hypersensitive to touch by women.

OK, now I could connect the dots. I didn't need to hear details about what his mother had actually done. It was enough for me to be able to recalibrate events through his lens. While tapping a shoulder lightly (especially a petite woman touching a taller, larger man) is going to be socially acceptable 99% of the time, this was the one percent where that assumption failed. Just as women have rights to determine appropriate boundaries of touch, so do men and the woman had made a mistake. While the unlikeliness of the man's response allowed me to have sympathy for the woman, that had nothing to do with the legitimacy of the man's emotional response. My #1 job in that situation was to validate the experience of the distressed.

2. One at a time
While I think groups should protect opportunities for everyone to be able to clear their distress relative to how the group's functioning, everyone can't go first and it doesn't work to have everyone go at the same time. It's generally best to start with the person who's the most upset and go from the there, with everyone getting a turn. (Note: it may not be that easy to tell who's in the greatest distress, because people vary so widely in how they display it. Just because someone is yelling and turning purple doesn't necessarily mean their upset is more severe than another person who shuts down and turns catatonic.)

That Friday evening, I started with the young man and stayed with him until he acknowledged that I had understood the essence of his experience. Then I asked him if it was OK to switch focus and offer the woman the same attention he'd just received. After getting his acceptance, that's what I did. She was shaking from being attacked and not sure what to do. She was shocked and dismayed by how badly her tap on the shoulder had landed.

3. Emotions first; stories second; context third; problem solving fourth
There's a sequence to working through conflict. Strong feelings are invariably linked with distortion (while there's considerable individual variation, the basic trend is that increased distress is associated with increased distortion), and that it's advisable to start with bridging to the distressed person's feelings. As the distortion will effectively undercut the efficacy of anything you attempt in the way of problem solving, it's paramount that you reduce the distortion before doing anything else. By this, I mean demonstrating to the distressed person's satisfaction that you have understood their emotional experience (first) in response to an event (second).

While these two steps can often be done simultaneously, so many people are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with emotional articulation that they'll avoid or bypass naming their feelings unless you're firm about the request.

After that, it often helps to set the context (what's at stake; why does it matter that the players repair their relationship?), followed by a request that each person make an effort to move toward the other by offering an olive branch. At this step, I'm looking for a measurable action that honors what the other person wants yet is completely within the values, ability, and personality of the person making the gesture. It's about reaching out, not selling out.

In the case of the Friday night fight, the two protagonists were ships passing in the night. While they had in common a curiosity about community and attendance at my lecture, they were not going to have an ongoing relationship—they had a fleeting relationship, not the more substantive connection of being in the same fleet. Thus, I settled for getting apologies both ways. The woman apologized for assuming permission to touch him, and the man recognized that the woman didn't mean to be abusive and apologized for being abusive in expressing his upset.

Then we went for punch and cookies.

The essential point that I'm making today is that you'll be far more successful in working conflict if you start with a focus on emotional experience—which approach can be effective even if the two people have almost no commitment to one another and you're taken wholly by surprise. At the end of the day, we all want to be held, and if you authentically contradict the isolation that people typically experience when in distress, you'll be well positioned to repair damage and to turn corners that stay turned.