Last week I introduced a young, new attorney to our local courthouse and procedures. We sat in on a few hearings so she could get a sense of the various judges’ styles. Turns out I was familiar with one of the cases we observed and I found myself itching to stand up and indignantly respond to the blatantly false statements of one of the attorneys. (Note to young lawyer: not a good idea. One should actually be the attorney representing the party before jumping up to be heard by the court!).  When the opposing counsel stood to address the court, he didn’t respond to any of the false statements. Rather, he calmly made his case. He gave his argument to the judge. Only then did he briefly and calmly address the first attorney’s statements.

Act, Don’t ReAct. You’ve heard it before. Exercise and eat right (act) so you prevent weight gain and yo-yo dieting  (re-acting). Don’t say something (act) you’ll later regret and for which you’ll have to apologize (re-act). Walk away from the bar (act) because one more drink might have you up close and personal with a toilet the next morning (the body’s reaction).  Listen to your own intuition (act) rather than mirroring what everyone else is doing (reacting).

Then why is it so hard to apply that simple formula in the heat of an argument? Why, when a spouse, or soon-to-be-ex-spouse, employee or boss, child or parent, says something infuriating, do we instantly want to lash out and set the record straight?

The answer can be found in our desire to defend ourselves. We want to convince the other that his/her belief is just plain wrong. That’s human nature. It’s also the reason why arguments escalate and resolution becomes illusive.

But human nature can be retrained. New habits can be learned and relearned as needed. On my walk/run yesterday near Lake Michigan, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years, a person I’d describe as a wise sage. Her twin granddaughters are now 15 and living with her. They sounded like completely normal teenagers: moody, hormonal, and exasperating. She told me she’s had to relearn a simple principle: Close Your Mouth. She’d observed that when she instantly responded to their various outbursts, it almost never went well. When she didn’t respond until some time had passed, she was able to regroup, say what she really wanted to convey (act), rather than responding (reacting) to the often irrational diatribes typical of a 15 year old. Resolution emerged more often when she employed this simple principle she’d learned years ago.

The beauty of this principle is it will automatically build in one of the core principles of what I call Conflict as Catalyst©: Listen First. If your mouth is closed, that’s the only thing left to do! And the space it creates for you will allow you to reconnect to your intention, your big-picture goal. When you do speak/act, it will be with benefit of that reconnection and in the context of a better understanding of the other person because you listened first. You will act rather than react.

Oh, that attorney the new lawyer and I observed? The one who first kept his mouth closed, listened, and then acted? He won.

Become intentional about how you want to show up in conflict. Allow for Conflict as Catalyst© and close your mouth, listen first, and act rather than react.

Wishing you wisdom,


Action without thinking is the cause of every failure. Peter Drucker



  1. Betsy Ross, LICSW, CGP 12 years ago

    True words of wisdom, Deborah! Listening is a better alternative to just reacting or defending. Why don’t we do this more often? Perhaps, in addition to a natural tendency to defend ourselves, the fact that we are not well trained in how to just sit with our feelings also comes into play. We hear the words, we feel stimulated, and then we start responding, reacting, or just fly into action. Imagine a world where, as you suggest, we all listened carefully, became curious and asked questions for clarity, thought things over, and then decided upon the most helpful or productive response. We can all benefit from using our words in a more mindful way. Many thanks for putting this out there! Betsy Ross

    • dlb 12 years ago

      Curiosity and mindfulness–we could all use training and more training in these arts as you wisely suggest Betsy.
      Thanks. Deborah

  2. Bruce Peck 12 years ago

    Beautiful example of powerful wisdom.

    Learning involves arriving at a point, and then returning there often enough to know exactly where it is located.

    Bruce Peck

    • dlb 12 years ago

      I love that image. It’s not that we’ve failed to learn the lesson the first time necessarily. It’s a cycle of learning and remembering and relearning–and doing it again. Thank you Bruce.

  3. Kellie Frazier 12 years ago

    Wonderfully wise post Deb. I agree that it is both fascinating and human nature. I just went through an experience today with my teenage daughter.

    My expectation was that she would automatically help unload the car after a long vacation. She grabbed two items and left the rest to us while retreating to her bedroom. I called her to help finish, which she did it without an issue, but then left it all in the kitchen and retreated to her room again. I instantly got irritated and demanded her assistance, which provoked an outburst.

    When we clearly communicate our expectations ahead of time we are acting. When we expect and are disappointed, we often find ourselves in a re-active spat ===> especially with teenagers!! 🙂

    • Deborah 12 years ago

      So true Kellie. I listened to an interview this morning of Gary Zukav. He suggested that in a difficult conversation, before responding, we first go inward. Check in with your chest and with your throat and ask how am I feeling right now? What fear is being activated for me? This creates a gap where you can then choose how to respond consistent with your intention for the relationship and your intention for how you wish to be in the world. Personally, I’ve noticed that the people who seem truly wise and thoughtful often have pauses built in to their conversations. They often they seem to just sit for a moment and listen carefully to others prior to speaking. How different our interactions might be if we were all able to more consistently do that.

      Thanks for writing. I appreciate your wisdom.

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