I’ve spent the last few days immersed in family history, including the story of two brothers who split apart, became business competitors, and apparently did not speak to each other ever again.
Talk about having an argument! Something tells me this was over more than who got the wishbone after Thanksgiving dinner.It is of course pure supposition on my part, but my guess is that they never resolved their conflict because they focused only on what had happened in the past, instead of how they could work together in the future.
It doesn’t matter whether the conflict is about something monumentally significant or infinitesimally small; a conflict is really about one person losing so the other can win. I have to be right. So that means you must be wrong.
The past will always be the past. If we want to resolve a conflict, we do not need to try to right what did or did not happen. Instead, we need to talk about what we are going to do differently to make the future better.When we shift our goal from winning the argument to making the argument go away, we shift our perspective from rehashing the past to creating a different future.
More importantly, we also shift from blaming the other person to blaming the action. When we recognize that it is something the person does, not who the person is, that bothers us, we can focus on agreeing to a different way of acting. With effort (and professional help), this approach can even prevent divorce and other permanent splits that tear apart families and companies.
When we make statements like, “Why are you so careless?” or “How many times do I have to tell you?” we’re doing more than expressing our disappointment, we’re creating an atmosphere of blame and shame. Instead, by adopting an attitude of neutral curiosity, we can discover what the other person was thinking or intending. A favorite conversation opener of mine is, “So, what happened?”
If you can’t get all the way to the end of the conversation without anger, take a break and agree to come back and try again. It can be discouraging, but remember your goal is to get to a new place and we all make a wrong turn from time to time.
After the two of you have talked through the situation in a calm and dispassionate manner you’re then just one step away from being ready to quit living your relationship by looking at the limited view of a rearview mirror. Before you can focus again on the glorious expanse of life that is ahead of you, there’s one more thing the two of you must do. To resolve the conflict, you must together determine a new way of doing things. After all, nothing changes if nothing changes.
Fortunately, most of our conflicts don’t escalate to the level of these Hotchkiss brothers. I’d like to think there was one other thing at the heart their conflict, something greater than a desire to determine a winner. I’d like to think that in their heart of hearts was also a desire to patch things up. Too bad they didn’t seem to know how. Don’t let their ignorance be your ignorance.
Life Is Honest, Open and True: We already know that the actions of the past are harmful to the current relationship, so any more time spent focused on what hasn’t worked just delays creating a solution that can lead to a better future. The next time you find yourself in a repeating conflict, set aside your desire to prove who is right and carefully choose your words to help the two of you focus on doing what is right. Remember, even deeper than the desire to be right is the desire to remain connected.