In response to the suggestion in my last post to pause when conflict erupts [available here] I received the following query:
“I agree that the pause is useful. Although I sometimes sense that nothing I say will help the situation so I don’t say anything. I think some people just like to explode as a way of getting their way. I don’t want to respond in kind and I know the other person does not want to know my opinion on the subject. They just want to let off steam at my expense. I have tried walking away, and the other person just gets madder and follows me and keeps shouting. I haven’t found a suitable response to this behavior and the conflict is not a catalyst to discussion. Any suggestions?”
Have you ever experienced a similar frustration? I have. There are people who simply must be in conflict. They thrive on it and enjoy telling you about it. Usually these same people eventually run out of others with whom to have a beef and guess who gets to be the next target? You, of course. It seems everyone in that type of person’s sphere of influence will be a target sooner or later.
But scratch beneath the rough exterior of even that type of individual and I believe you will likely find someone seeking to be understood. He or she may not express that need artfully or skillfully or in a way that makes you even slightly sympathetic. But at times the little girl or young boy inside that prickly adult body almost comes into view, standing in a corner, wanting nothing more than to be consoled and cared for and understood. Frankly, it’s actually not that surprising that the writer was followed as the other person “just gets madder” and “keeps shouting” as he or she demands to be heard (i.e., understood). But before choosing to simply not be in relationship with that person any longer (and sometimes that is the appropriate response) there are some techniques worth trying. Here’s the first.
While in the pause, observe what is actually happening. Try to step back from the intensity and state what you see as objectively as possible, without judgment or evaluation. It’s difficult to separate emotion from the objective reality but when we don’t, the other hears criticism and resists further input. He becomes defensive and all his energy is poured into self-defense and counter-attack. That doesn’t help you or him.
Let me give you some examples. If my son leaves a trail of clothes behind him on his way to his room, I could say that, “Jamie is a slob and he leaves the living room looking like a pigsty.” He’s grown now but I doubt he would have received that statement as being judgment-free! If instead I tried to simply state what I observed, without judgment or evaluation, I might have said, “When I came home from work, there was a dirty shirt, muddy jeans, and a pair of socks on the living room floor that belong to you, Jamie.” A simple statement of fact.
In the writer’s dilemma above, she might consider saying, “So and so is very upset about (fill in the blank–objectively)”. Depending on the intensity of the exchange, the writer may also need to state, “I want to understand but it’s hard to maintain that commitment when you raise your voice.” (Notice she didn’t say, “When you are attacking me.”) It may also be necessary to ask for more time to consider what she’s heard so that objective statements can be crafted about the conflict.
And then what? One can only pause so long, right? Even the Olympic champion, Gabby Douglas, eventually had to take off running for the vault. There is another next best step but that’s a subject for the next post. Until then, try it the next time you feel your heart rate kick up when conflict emerges. Pause. Observe. Avoid judgment and evaluation.
Let me know how it goes or otherwise share your comments below. Don’t expect it to be easy at first. It’s a skill that takes practice.
Wishing you wisdom,
Great blog today, Deborah! As I’ve found myself in this situation many times, it’s helpful to have a “next step” after the pause and I really needed the reminder today of suspending judgement and making more objective statements … just the facts, mam! Very helpful. Keep ’em coming… our world really needs this right now.