How did your parents settle a disagreement? Do you deal with conflict in your life and relationships in a similar way? Is it serving you well?
Overwhelmingly, most of us are conflict avoiders. One of my SMU professors shared that conflict avoiders make up 75% of the population. I’ve been thinking about that, and I believe that’s because some of us might have had a negative experience with conflict growing up, or we weren’t taught the necessary skills to navigate difficult situations. If we have no emotional maturity to model our behavior after, how do we know how to deal with life’s challenges?
In Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s breakthrough book “What Happened To You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing”, they write about a significant shift in perspective that makes room for identifying how our past shapes our current functioning. When we observe ourselves or someone else acting irrationally or destructively in a conflict situation, our first reaction is to ask, “What is wrong with you?” Perry and Winfrey offer an alternative that is both compassionate and insightful. Instead, what if we asked, “What happened to you?” This gentler question applies to how we observed our parents handling differences during our formative years. It also opens the door for a conversation about how experiences shape us, both good and bad.
The holidays seem to bring out the best and worst in us. We’re spending more money, we are busier, and we’re interacting with more people. All this creates stress. When we are with family and friends we want to be on our best behavior. Right? Why is it then that so much goes wrong?
I want to confess right here that I am a mediator, and I am a conflict avoider. As a child I witnessed conflict daily at home, and it wasn’t handled constructively. At times, I unconsciously allow the history of my parents’ pattern of hurtful dialogue to overshadow the skills I’ve acquired as a mediator. I know the power of conflict for both good and bad. I’ve witnessed what I would call miracles when injured people come together, listen, and forgive each other. I’ve also seen the devastation of unmet expectations and hurt-filled words said without thinking. It’s this last sentence that keeps me from addressing conflict with people I care about.
For the sake of protecting a relationship and maintaining the connection, we silence ourselves. I do this too. When I have hurt someone or they have hurt me, I have big plans. I gather the courage, practice what I will say, and still an unhelpful voice asks, “What if something goes wrong?” Or, “You will screw this up!” I end up being disappointed in myself because I settle for a mediocre relationship instead of braving a difficult conversation. Sadly, this all occurs internally, so the other person doesn’t have a chance to be a jerk or a hero. When we choose not to speak, we can’t experience the unity that can grow or the deepening of understanding.
I really do believe if you brave conflict, what emerges can be connection, growth, and a deepening of trust. So, because I make myself do hard things and because I have some hope in my skills as a mediator, I recently did a very difficult thing. I asked a hard question to a friend, and took a chance I wouldn’t be liked.
My husband and I are lucky to be part of a group of friends of about 10 couples. There is one couple that is part of this crowd that seems to struggle with their relationship. The wife complains about her husband’s irresponsible drinking. She says he has driven intoxicated, said hurtful things to her while drunk, and gotten sick. He wakes up and apologizes the next morning, and is on his best behavior for a week or two. Then it happens again. Over the years she has nagged him, threatened to leave him, and pleaded with him to drink less. Nothing works.
Recently my husband and I got together with this group for some holiday cheer, and the aforementioned couple was there. I personally observed the behavior my girlfriend had described. A week later she contacted me and asked if I would be available to mediate a conversation with her husband about his alcohol intake. I declined. A mediator must remain neutral, and I couldn’t be unbiased with this couple.
The Perfect Solution
The next time we got together, I found myself alone with the husband. He made a disparaging remark about his wife that ended with a question directed to me. He asked me if I thought his wife was “overreacting to his cutting loose with a few beers?” I stood there with him for what felt like years. I didn’t think it was my place to step into their mess. I panicked and wondered what harm it would do to deflect his question? Was I getting involved when I should mind my own business? He was asking for my opinion. As a conflict avoider my line in the sand is safety, so I took a leap and asked, “What happened to you?”
The question caught him totally off guard. I think he was prepared for a browbeating, and truthfully that was my initial reaction. I wish I could tell you I maturely weighed all my possible answers to his question, and decided to handle the situation in the perfect way as my peacemaker training kicked in. Instead I think I was so surprised by his question that I just took a beat, which allowed me to respond rather than react to his inquiry. In a Hail Mary moment I remembered Oprah’s book and the effect the question had on me.
He began to talk, and I listened as he shared stories of his childhood and how his father handled stress by drinking. When he was young he was afraid when his father got drunk. His father’s alcohol abuse led to many loud fights and harsh words between his parents. This was the behavioral pattern that was passed down to him from previous generations. Until he shared this memory with me, he had never connected his father’s way of coping with his own.
That one question opened a door for both of us. He uncovered a forgotten trauma and I discovered compassion for a friend. No judgment and no advice. After our conversation he distanced himself for the rest of the evening and didn’t speak to me. I hoped our relationship was strong enough to withstand this exchange. I didn’t know. It was our first serious one. I wondered had I done the right thing?
It felt good that my actions were congruent with my values. I declare safety is my line in the sand, and I showed it. No matter how uncomfortable it was.
In hindsight, I realize I felt closer to this couple because I stepped away from my safe place and took a risk by asking him a tough question. His memories created an opportunity for me to provide a sacred place for him to be vulnerable, and begin to untangle the chaos his choices were creating in his marriage.
I’m happy to report this same man recently contacted me and said he realized he had a drinking problem. His wife had been the only person to express concern until he listened to himself talk to me. He took responsibility for his actions and didn’t make excuses. He had the courage to return to the hard spot we left and pick up the thread of our last conversation. I have new respect for him based on this realization.
I think most people’s opinion of conflict avoiders is wrong. We’ve been accused of not being able to assert ourselves, deliberately ignoring conflict, and relying on others to do the confronting. Not all true. As a self-confessed conflict avoider, I want you to know I can step out of my comfort zone and engage in conflict because I know my deal breakers. When safety is involved in any way, I forget my fear of losing friends, or ruffling feathers. I’d rather risk a relationship than regret not saying anything that could result in injury.
The secret sauce is the question, “What happened to you?” Those four words do all the heavy lifting and remove any need for conflict management skills or picking the perfect words for a difficult conversation. They split the conversation wide open like a ripe watermelon and create space for understanding and compassion instead of criticism and blame.
Test drive those four words the next time you feel yourself getting anxious in an argument or so angry you might do something you’ll regret. Follow this strategy: Step back, take a breath, and say those four words. Those four simple words can change the course of a conflict. They can change the course of a relationship. They can change the course of a life.