How to solve the people problems we all face

Unless we become hermits and live in isolation, we are bound to have difficult relationships. And since we can’t wish them away, the sooner we learn to deal with them, the more peaceful life becomes. Here’s how to saw off the painful edges of difficult relationships

Chess pieces caught in a deadlock

It was a big day for me. I had recently passed the driving test—on the second attempt, I might add—and successfully convinced my mother to let me take her blue Pontiac to school. In my mind’s eye I pictured this occasion unfolding this way. First, I would pull up to the school and park. Then, as I emerged from the vehicle, groups of girls would gather and watch from a distance, impressed beyond words, yearning deeply for the chance to date me. Members of the “in group” would say to each other, “We need to ask that guy to hang out with us. Man, he is so cool.” Driving the car to school would be my ticket to popularity.

Assured that all had gone as planned, I smugly took my seat in first period, having confidently crossed the threshold into the world of Cooldom. Just then we heard the principal over the intercom. He said, “May I have your attention please. May I have your attention please. There is a blue Pontiac parked on Riverside Drive. The doors are locked, and the motor is running.” The class I was in exploded in raucous laughter, as did other classes up and down the hallway. “What kind of idiot would do that?” some questioned. What a goob!” others exclaimed.

For a fleeting few seconds I considered joining in to ridicule this anonymous nitwit. No way I’m going to admit to this, I internally reasoned. I’ll leave it running. It’ll probably just run out of gas. But then the little sense I did possess kicked in, and I walked to the front of the classroom to confess the car was mine. My teacher displayed a mixture of graciousness mixed with an “I’m so glad I’m not you” attitude. As I ran the gauntlet to the principal’s office, people were still racked with laughter, and I heard words such as “nincompoop” and “loser.” I was told later that my friends [I use that term loosely] in other classes all loudly proclaimed, “Godwin! That’s Alan Godwin’s car.” For a single day I had the dubious distinction of being the most conspicuous person at school—but not in the manner I’d hoped. My mom wasn’t so pleased either.

At times, what we desire the most—personal relationship—is the source of our greatest consternation. I was thrilled about taking the car to school that day, not because I liked driving it—it was a powderblue Pontiac Catalina, for crying out loud. Instead, I was pumped about the relationship enhancement possibilities. My motivation had not been automotive but relational. And the discomfort I felt for the rest of that day had little to do with understanding the potential car damage and everything to do with the damage done to my esteem in the eyes of others. Relationships fulfill us the most, but they can also hurt us the most.

Anthropologist, Charles Schulz, made this statement through Linus in his Peanuts comic strip: “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” When we get connected to people, we inevitably have problems with people. Our imperfections rub against each other and friction occurs. The closer the contact, the greater the conflict potential. No matter what the setting—in marriage, at work, at school, in friendships, in families, at church—people connections involve people problems. We may not like it, but it happens. People have people problems but don’t know what to do about them. Or if they do know what to do, they often can’t figure out how to implement what they know.

Some attempt to avoid people problems by matching themselves with like-minded others, the assumption being that compatibility makes problems less frequent or less difficult to resolve. Compatibility certainly has its place, but the ability to handle the inevitable incompatibilities is far more important to the success of a relationship. Some couples, while remarkably compatible, are trapped in bad conflict because they don’t work through differences. Other couples with limited compatibilities do a great job of resolving differences and have great relationships. When appearing as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s show, evangelist Billy Graham was asked to explain the secret of his successful and lengthy marriage to his wife. He replied, “Ruth and I are happily incompatible.” Compatibility is desirable, but the ability to resolve differences is essential. Soul mates are more often developed than discovered.

Relational success has less to do with what we have in common and more to do with how well we work through our differences. The absence of conflict is impossible, but successfully working through differences is achievable. If handled poorly, the relationships fail to provide us with what we need and want. Hence, relationships work well only when conflict is handled well.

The conflict trap

» Why can’t we all just get along?

As a clinical psychologist in private practice, I spend much of my time watching conflict or hearing about it. Over the years, it’s been my observation that adults often argue like children. Having begun my practice when my kids were in elementary school, I was sitting in my office one day listening to a client describe a workplace dispute and thought, This sounds exactly like what I hear at the end of the day when my kids tell me about playground squabbles. The only difference is the age of the combatants.

Two men arguing with each other like a child
The problem with grown ups is that they often argue like children

Everyone starts off fighting like children, but some people never grow up in this area. They are brilliant when it comes to making a living but brainless when it comes to solving personal conflict problems. They’ve earned advanced degrees from the University of Conflict Avoidance but flunked Conflict Resolution Kindergarten. They teach fair fighting rules at work but fight like cats and dogs at home.

The trouble is, most of us don’t argue well and are naturally inclined toward bad conflict, which allows for few if any differences to be resolved when its methods are used.

We see it on political talk shows where issues are “debated” between combatants, each one occupying a quadrant of the split screen. One person makes a point while the others roll their eyes or use body language suggesting, I think you’re a Neanderthal.

They interrupt each other, talk over each other, condescend to each other, fail to answer questions, and mischaracterize each other’s positions. After three to five minutes of loudly and rudely reacting to each other’s reactions, the host thanks them for coming and cuts to a commercial. Though points may be scored, these verbal slug fests are extremely frustrating to watch and generally accomplish nothing.

This is what happens if we do nothing to counter our natural inclinations. Handling problems badly requires no thought, no training, no practice. We spend our energy reacting to each other’s reactions, leaving the problems unsolved. Bad conflict may also be called the conflict trap because it easily ensnares us and, once we fall in, it’s hard to exit. Everyone falls into it, but some people seem to establish permanent residences there.

Bad conflict occurs anywhere we find people—on the playground, in families, at work, at school, in the community, in politics, between nations, and even at church. The results are personal stagnation and relational alienation.

» How we fall into the conflict trap

Bad conflict, or the conflict trap, comes about as a result of a natural progression.

Flaws and differences become evident: When we live with or work closely with others, the flaws we spoke about earlier become evident. We also become aware of our differences—different styles, different opinions, different approaches, different preferences, and so on. And the closer the contact, the more likely we are to notice the flaws and differences. We all look better from a distance. That’s why it’s said, “Fish and company stink after three days” and “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Buttons get pushed: When we’re in agreement, no problem. But when flaws and differences come into play, buttons get pushed. Buttons are places where we feel insecure, weak, particularly sensitized, or easily threatened. Sometimes we refer to buttons as insecurities—areas where we feel inadequate or fear that something may be wrong with us. We all have them.

When buttons get pushed, we feel threatened. There are two main types of threats. If I swing a stick at you, I’m threatening you physically, and you’ll go into self-protective measures. The spoken or unspoken communication is, I’m going to physically hurt or kill you. Your brain perceives the threat and certain physiological responses occur such as dry mouth, racing heart, and sweaty palms.

But we can also be threatened conceptually. With conceptual threats, the spoken or unspoken communication is, You’re wrong or Something is wrong with you. Being wrong threatens us emotionally every bit as much as a stick threatens us physically, and our brains produce the same physiological responses. Again, conceptual threats are just as real to us as physical threats. With physical threats, we are fighting to stay alive. With conceptual threats, we are fighting to stay right. Buttons are places of conceptual threat.

Reactions occur: If I got in your face, yelled, and repeatedly punched you in the shoulder, you’d probably react by punching me in the nose. Why? Because we’re wired to protect ourselves when physical threats occur. When conceptual threats occur, the same thing happens. We react automatically, instinctively, reflexively, without thought or conscious deliberation.

Negative reactions send us into fight or flight mode. When a tiger feels threatened, it goes after its attacker [fight]. When a turtle feels threatened, it goes into its shell [flight]. Both are reactions to physical threats. When threatened by conceptual attackers, we do the same thing, being like tigers on some occasions and like turtles on others. We attack or withdraw, shout or pout, spew or stew, blow up or shut up.

Woman upset with her husband
When partners quit being frank with each other to avoid conflict, the marriage and people in it die a slow death everyday

The other person’s buttons get pushed: Whichever type of reaction we display—fight or flight—it pushes the other person’s button and elicits his or her reaction, which may repush our button, leading to another reaction, and on and on.

And here we are—in a conflict trap, the cycle repeating itself and feeding on itself. Like the wheels of a car spinning in mud, we go “ ’round and ’round” but never get anyplace.

Living in the conflict trap for long stretches of time is hurtful to the participants. When we’re caught in the conflict trap, all energy goes into button pushing and reacting and none into problem solving. Consequently, the problem that caused the conflict in the first place continues. Trapped couples often say, “We never resolve anything” and “We’ve been having the same argument for 15 years.” They spar for a while, but when the conversation ends nothing’s been solved. Their arguments don’t reach resolutions; they reach stopping points.

When that happens, many people unwittingly create a mental list of topics to be avoided. As long as we don’t talk about these things, the thinking goes, we’ll get along just fine. The phrase used to describe this is “elephants in the living room,” as in “There’s this elephant in the living room that we keep walking around.” As time goes on, the list of to-be-avoided topics can become quite lengthy. John Ortberg addresses the detrimental effects of this:

Marriages can last for decades—sometimes for a lifetime—and look quite pleasant from the outside. Not much conflict, not many storms. But the reality is that the husband and wife are living in pseudocommunity. They talk about the kids or the job or the mortgage, but it doesn’t go beneath the surface. They haven’t told the truth in years about their loneliness or hurt or anger. Their sexual desires and frustrations go unnamed. They are disappointed in their marriage and each other, but neither has the guts to speak frankly and honestly. So every day they die a little more.

Many people say, “We argue over the silliest things.” Small problems result in big arguments when bad conflict is the method used to solve them. The trouble is not so much with the particular problem as with the system—bad conflict—being used to solve it. That’s why couples build their dream homes, move in, and then divorce. Or churches split over which color to pick for the carpet. Or adult siblings no longer speak after an elderly parent dies. In each case, the inability to solve the problem divided them more than the specific problem causing the conflict.

We exit the conflict trap by stopping the cycle of bad conflict at any one of three places. First, we control what happens to us by restricting our buttons, keeping them from being so easily pushed. Second, we control what we display by turning our natural reactions into chosen responses. Third, we control what we do to others by refraining from pushing their buttons, thus stopping the negative cycle.

» There’s a good way to solve conflicts

The alternative to bad conflict is not the absence of conflict but good conflict. Bad conflict is bad because nothing good comes from it. Good conflict, on the other hand, has a positive outcome. Every winter my son and I go skiing in the mountains of North Carolina. I’m an average skier and not a pretty sight to behold as I descend the slopes, but I can do it. The first year we went, I taught my son to ski. I had never given anyone skiing instructions and struggled to articulate just what to do and how to do it. At one point I said, “Remember, if you do what comes naturally, you’ll wipe out. You sometimes have to do the exact opposite of what you think you should, leaning this way when you think you should be leaning that way. If you do that, you’ll stay up.” Conflict is like that. If we lean the way that comes naturally, following our intuitive impulses, bad conflict results. If we lean in new ways, making counterintuitive choices, good conflict results. For good conflict to happen, we must go against the grain and intentionally do certain things to make it happen.

It may feel bad when we’re in the middle of it, but the results are good so it’s worth the effort. It enables us to say:

  • We argue but we work through our problems.
  • We settle things and forget about them.
  • We do well with each other despite our differences.
  • I’m handling my conflict with that person in the healthiest way possible.
  • I don’t let that person get to me like I used to.

Transitioning from bad conflict to good conflict is easier to talk about than it is to do. Good conflict is achievable, but like I pointed out earlier, it’s not automatic. It requires: deliberateness, humour and realism—the healthy balance between two unhealthy extremes: pessimism and idealism. Inevitably, something won’t go as planned. One person will be more determined than the other, it won’t go as fast as we’d like, it will be more complicated than we thought, or old patterns will be more ingrained than we imagined. If our expectations are unrealistic, we’ll become discouraged and give up easily, declaring, “I knew this wouldn’t work.”

How people are

Conflict with people goes well only when we first know and understand what we’re up against.

The house I grew up in was next to a neighborhood park, and one of my playmates, Hector, lived across the field. He and I would play in the park with other kids from the neighborhood. Several things stand out in my memories about Hector. First, I had never known anyone else with that name. Second, he always wore the same pair of dirty, untied tennis shoes. Third, he drooled a lot and wiped it with a handkerchief his mom had given him. Finally, he was always smiling, and we had lots of fun. This story probably makes you feel good if it conjures up pleasant memories from your own childhood. But I left out an important piece of information. Hector was in his twenties back then. He had a condition that left him mentally and physically impaired. His shoes were untied because he couldn’t tie them. He drooled because he was unable to control his saliva. He was happy playing with little children because his own mental development had stalled at the level of a small child.

Now how do you feel about the story? Hector, it turns out, was chronologically old but developmentally young. It’s tragic when a discrepancy exists between the two. Unreasonable people have that sort of discrepancy.

None of us reaches adulthood in one piece. There are parts of ourselves that are developmentally younger than our chronological age. In other words, we have “gaps” between how mature we should be and how mature we actually are. Usually we’re unaware of our gaps until they become apparent in relationships. Relationships are mirrors in which we catch gap glimpses—reflections of the immature parts of ourselves. If we make use of gap glimpses, we grow. While everyone has maturity gaps, unreasonable people have pervasive impairments in their abilities to handle people problems. Some of the parts that are needed to flex and adjust in conflict situations didn’t develop along with the rest of the parts, leaving them inflexible and rigid, lacking the “give and take” possessed by reasonable people. They are grown-ups who haven’t grown up.

Unreasonable people are everywhere. We run into them at work, at school, in the community, at the doctor’s office, in government, in entertainment, at family gatherings, and in marriages. In fact, there are sleeper cells of unreasonable people all over the place. We are simultaneously fascinated by and frustrated with them. They are often people with dazzling positives alongside glaring negatives, and it’s that mix of opposing traits that makes them so interesting and confounding.

Unreasonable people have an aversion to personal wrongness that extends far beyond anything experienced by reasonable people. To them, being wrong presents a threat to survival that equals most physical threats. They put all of their energy into safeguarding rightness—to staying safe—and none into solving conflict problems. They’re not interested in solving problems if doing so requires the acknowledgment of wrongness.

So here’s what we’re up against when we have conflict with unreasonable people. They automatically assume we’re the ones in the wrong, they fail to see their contributions to the conflict, they claim no responsibility for any part of the problem, they’re not bothered by the impact of their words and actions on us, and they change nothing because nothing about them needs changing. Is it any wonder that unreasonable people are so difficult for us to handle?

When a reasonable person argues with an unreasonable person, they have different objectives. The reasonable person’s conflict goal is resolution while the unreasonable person’s goal is rightness.

My two oldest children are girls born three years apart. They are both now extremely articulate, but when the youngest was first learning to talk, she was consistently out chattered by her loquacious older sister. Realizing her verbal disadvantage, the youngest would start swinging her fists. She hoped to accomplish physically what couldn’t be accomplished verbally.

Similarly, an unreasonable person in conflict with a reasonable person is at a disadvantage because he’s fighting someone who has something he doesn’t possess—“reason muscles.” He lacks what’s necessary to do the right things with the wrongness. Therefore, he opts for a different conflict goal—rightness—which requires no wrongness acknowledgment. When the dust settles, he doesn’t care about mutually satisfying problem solutions, but he does care about being right. To the unreasonable person, being right is entwined with his identity as a person and/or survival. He needs to eat, he needs to breathe, and he needs to be right.

Reasonable people have what unreasonable people lack—effective reasoning abilities. With reasonable people, good conflict generates positive feelings because it feels good to work through differences. With reasonable people, we can solve conflict problems and get closer. Reasonable people have “reasoning abilities,” while unreasonable people don’t. Having good relationships necessitates handling people problems the good way—with both groups of people.

The dance of porcupines

Man and woman lying down facing opposite sidesIn Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them John Ortberg talks about the “dance of the porcupines”: A desire for connection draws us toward people, but the fear of hurt causes both of us to stick out “quills” for protection. The pain of getting poked causes us to move away. Alternating between moving in and moving out is the dance. Let’s look now at the individual dance steps and what must happen to alter the pattern.

» Moving in

Throughout our lifespans, we need and desire what psychologists refer to as attachment, a bonding with another person. From one end of life to the other, we spurn loneliness and seek the company of others. The “moving in” step of the dance is driven by this universal need to attach.

» Getting poked

But when we attach ourselves to someone, we invariably discover that this sought-after object of attachment has flaws and rough edges that hurt when encountered. Indeed, there is something “wrong” with all of us. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world with other imperfect people. We’re drawn to people’s positives but experience their negatives when we move in close. And coming in contact with those negatives can hurt. Anticipating the potential pain of connection, we instinctively stick out quills for protection, the internal thought being, If I let you in too close, I could get hurt.

We crave attachments but hate pain, so we move out. For protection purposes, we distance ourselves from relationship—the very thing we desire the most.

» Moving back in

Distancing protects us from pain. But it gets lonely out there. Eventually we move back in, seeking the attachments we so desire and need. The cycle has now run its course and then repeats.

» Changing the dance

The “Porcupine Dance” is an attempt to handle the tension between two competing drives—attachment wishes and pain avoidance. We want to be close but don’t want to be hurt. We seek what relationships provide but shun what relationships all bring in some form—problems. But the dance doesn’t resolve the tension, it only perpetuates it. And for some people, it’s a dance marathon that lasts a lifetime.

So how can porcupines stop dancing? Or, to ask the question in human terms, how can we be close to people when closeness is certain to bring problems with people? Porcupines get close by relaxing their quills; people get close by solving their people problems—problems that stem from being flawed and imperfect. Closeness to others necessitates solving our problems with others.

The good way to spar

man having a good chat with his father
When we are able to handle conflicts well, relationships become enriching, not burdensome

On occasion I attend meetings run by parliamentary procedure. I usually hate those meetings because the deliberations feel stilted and cumbersome. And yet motions are made and discussed one at a time, votes are taken, and problems are solved.

Unfortunately, when people argue outside a business setting, they are prone to argue in an unstructured way about multiple problems simultaneously. And when the conversation is over, the problem that started the argument usually remains unsolved. Here’s what happens in many arguments. The conflict starts over a problem of perception or preference. During the discussion, one person commits a process error, which triggers the other person’s process error. Tensions escalate and, in that state of heightened sensitivities, additional perception problems occur, such as, “What’s that look supposed to mean?” This leads to additional process errors. “As long as we’re at it” attitudes prevail, and previously unsolved perception or preference problems get brought up and added to the mix. Before we know it, the number of problems being simultaneously discussed is in the double digits.

How can we solve 24 problems at the same time? We can’t! And to attempt it is to set ourselves up to fail. So we must have a clear answer to our first conflict resolution question: “Which problem are we trying to fix?” When couples argue in my office, I will sometimes call a time-out and ask them to answer this question. Most often, they give me two different answers…and I usually have a third one.

Conflict becomes less confusing if we learn to do personally what mediators, negotiators, and parliamentarians do professionally. That is, we must identify individual problems and then solve them one at a time. We may still get sidetracked when other problems pop up during an argument. When this happens, we have two options.

Hit Pause, Fix the Problem, Hit Resume: Stop the discussion of the selected problem, quickly address the new one, and get back to the previous discussion. For instance, suppose you’ve narrowed your focus to one issue but, while discussing it, a process problem pops up. Your opponent says, “Well, excuse me, Mr. Smarter-Than-Anyone-Else.” Your natural inclination would be to react by saying, “Well, I’m certainly smarter than you, idiot.” If that happened, the focus on the original problem would be lost while the two of you veer off into IQ comparisons. Instead, handle it this way: Look, we’re going to accomplish a whole lot more if we can drop the use of sarcasm. I’m trying to avoid sarcasm with you and would appreciate it if you wouldn’t be sarcastic with me. Can we agree on that?

If your opponent agrees, you can get back to discussing the first issue. Also, if a new subject gets introduced into the current discussion, it helps to say, “That’s an important topic, but it’s not the one we’re discussing right now. Let’s make note of it and come back to it later. Okay?”

Ignore It and Stay on Track: Sometimes it helps to just ignore the new problem. Let’s take the same example in which you’re called “Mr. Smarter-Than-Anyone Else.”

Your internal dialogue might sound like this: Boy, that was really snotty. Everything in me wants to fire back right now, and I could. Oh, could I ever! But if I did, the discussion would get sidetracked, and we really need to get this thing resolved. So I’m going to ignore the comment. I’m not going there. I’m going to keep my cool and stay on subject. At a later time you may choose to give this problem—the use of sarcasm in arguments—its own focus.

» Coming back to the main problem at hand

Once the problem is selected, the most natural tendency is to argue vigorously for our particular way to fix it. Energy is then devoted to getting our point across rather than understanding the other person’s viewpoint. Discussions change into sparring matches over whose preferences have greater validity, neither side feels understood by the other, and tensions escalate.

Instead of convincing the other person that our view is right, we need to focus on understanding the other person’s view. Why does he or she feel so strongly that it must be done that particular way? A mutual commitment to answer this question de-escalates the conflict tension and provides a springboard for answering the other questions.

Neil and Laura had differences about their son Kevin’s Europe trip: Laura wanted Kevin to go; Neil did not. Neil and Laura were making a common mistake. Each ascribed to the other inaccurate motives for the chosen preference. For example, Laura stated emphatically that Neil’s only concern was financial—“All you care about is money.” That’s why he was against the trip. Neil sarcastically exclaimed that Laura had “spoiled the kids rotten.” That’s why she was for the trip. Erroneous conclusions were drawn because neither questioned and listened to the other. To establish accuracy, they had to willingly suspend their previously drawn conclusions and give the other person a chance to correct them. That wasn’t easy or natural. Finally they asked questions, listened to the answers, and sought to understand what was being heard.

When Laura probed a little deeper, she found that her simplistic conclusions were inaccurate. It wasn’t that Neil only cared about money but feared that simply giving him the trip would deprive him of an opportunity to learn some important financial lessons. When Neil better understood Laura’s position, he realized that he had been wrong as well. It wasn’t that Laura was spoiling Kevin. She wanted to provide him with enriching experiences, the kind she was never allowed to have.

Through taking time to study the reasons for each other’s preferences, they came to understand that they shared a common goal—Kevin’s best interest. Where they differed was on how to get there. Once they understood that each of them had a valid rationale for the chosen preference, they quit arguing about whose reasons had the greater validity.

The main quality needed to answer the second question, “Why do we feel so strongly?” is empathy, which enables us to see things from the other person’s perspective.

» Ask: How can we agree to fix this?

By asking this, we want to find a solution that most closely satisfies the interests of both sides. We’re looking for a solution that can be supported by both people. Often, clarifying the reasons behind each other’s chosen preferences makes finding a solution less difficult.

In order of desirability, I offer five options for discovering a solution. While the first option is certainly the most preferred, any of them are legitimate ways to resolve a difference. In fact, good conflict relationships will experience all five of these solutions over the course of time.

Our way: Sometimes referred to as collaboration or a win–win solution, this option equally satisfies the interests of both sides. The difference is resolved in a way that enables both sides to get what they want.

Partly both ways: This is often referred to as compromise. Each side gives up something to achieve a solution. It may not be our first preference, but we can live with it.

Your way: This is referred to as deferring and occurs when one party willingly lays aside his or her preference and goes along with the wishes of the other. There are healthy and unhealthy ways of deferring. Unhealthy deferring can’t be done without scorekeeping, the thought being, You win this time. But next time, it’s my turn. You owe me. When deferring is done healthily, no one keeps score because the problem is solved and forgotten.

Wait: Sometimes we get stuck, and no mutual solution seems attainable. At those times, it may be necessary to back off, take a break, and lay the problem down for a while. This is an agreed upon truce, a cease-fire, a discussion moratorium that allows tensions to de-escalate and gives both sides time to consider other solution options. There are healthy and unhealthy forms of waiting. In healthy wait, we decide to “sleep on it” before resuming discussion. Oftentimes what appears to be such a big deal today seems insignificant tomorrow. When the discussion is dropped and not picked up later, that’s unhealthy. The problem remains unsolved.

No way: Often referred to as an impasse, this occurs when no mutually agreeable solution can be found. The sides are unable to “see eye to eye” or have a “meeting of the minds.” Again, there are healthy and unhealthy forms of impasse. Healthy impasse is sometimes called “agreeing to disagree agreeably.” When both sides disagree and fail to define their impasse in open terms, it’s unhealthy. Since they avoid ever discussing the disagreement, the problem has tremendous power. No circles are drawn around the land mines, so the people don’t feel safe to be close.

Neil and Laura had sparred about Kevin’s trip but never came to a conclusion. They discussed it simultaneously with zillions of other unsolved problems. Now they singled it out for discussion and took some time to understand the reasons behind their differing preferences. They had rarely gotten as far as this question, “How can we agree to fix this?” so this was new territory. They were attempting to resolve their difference in a way that met both sets of interests. Actually, once they set their sights on this goal, it wasn’t as hard as they thought. They decided to let Kevin take the Europe trip the next year instead of this year. This satisfied Laura’s desire for Kevin to have a culturally enriching experience. In the meantime, Kevin would get a job and earn the money to pay for part of the trip, satisfying Neil’s concern about Kevin’s sense of entitlement. This gave them a collaborative, win–win, our way solution.

This solution wasn’t particularly brilliant. It had been there all along, but they hadn’t been looking for it because they never stopped and asked, “How can we agree to fix this?” Instead they had been privately asking themselves another question: “What can I do to get him/her to see my side?” Once they started asking the right questions, the answer became apparent. I’m not suggesting this process was quick and painless. They both struggled with it, and it took some time.

» Solutions need to be followed through

Couples having a good conversation
Bad conflicts drive us apart, but good conflicts bring us much closer than we were before

Neil and Laura were mutually satisfied with their decision regarding Kevin’s Europe trip. But they also knew that if they didn’t lay out a specific game plan for Kevin to follow, they’d be right back in the same boat next summer. Answering the question ‘What will we do to implement it?’ enables us to form a structure—to define our options in specific terms so that actions follow statements of intent.

We need clear-cut ways to measure whether or not the option is implemented. Otherwise it won’t happen, and we’ll end up fighting the same battle again and again. Declaration without implementation leads to problem continuation. We must be able to answer this question: “Specifically, what will we do to ensure that our solution comes to pass?”

What’s true for a car is true for solving a conflict problem. Even after we’ve picked a direction, we still have to steer it. Without steering, a car won’t reach its destination and a problem won’t reach its resolution. Answering the question ‘When will we evaluate it?’ enables us to adjust the structure we’ve implemented if and when it’s necessary. If we don’t, we’re likely to conclude, “We tried but it didn’t work. What’s the use?” Bad conflict reemerges, resignation sets in, and the problem doesn’t get solved after all.

Neil and Laura resolved their difference with a win–win solution and laid out specific steps to implement it. So far, so good. But nothing was ever that easy with Kevin. He had mastered the art of derailing things, so Neil and Laura figured they’d better expect the unexpected. Kevin would probably agree with the plan for now only to sabotage it later. So Neil and Laura built in some checkpoints to see if their solution was being implemented. As predicted, it usually wasn’t. For instance, they discovered during their first inspection that Kevin’s paychecks were being deposited not in the bank but under his bed with the dust bunnies and fast-food wrappers. A tweaking of the plan was in order.

They had Kevin arrange for his paychecks to be direct-deposited so that the balance could be monitored regularly. Neil and Laura had a good plan, but if they didn’t check it and make adjustments along the way, it would never work.

» When the other is unreasonable…

My wife Penny was in the checkout line and our little girl began begging relentlessly for a piece of junk on a rack nearby. Penny leaned over and said, “Begging is not allowed, and if you ask for it one more time, we’ll go home.” As expected, she begged again. Penny quietly picked her up, left the cart, and walked out of the store with our girl screaming her head off, conveying to shoppers that a kidnapping was in progress. Penny calmly strapped her into the car seat, drove home, and no other discipline followed. On the next grocery store trip, the begging started again. But this time Penny leaned over and said, “Now, I’ve told you that begging is not allowed. Remember what happened the last time?” That did it. No more begging. Displeasure, yes; begging, no.

What we see is a drama staged and a drama avoided. Our little girl staged the drama hoping to play the role of master, to be in charge. But remember, dramas only succeed if others play their parts. Penny avoided participation by neither giving in nor displaying aggravation—two different forms of participating. Therefore, the drama strategy failed and was not attempted the next time around.

The goal of conflict for unreasonable people is not to solve problems but to be right. They accomplish this through dramas, which provide opportunities to perform one of several good-guy roles. Drama participation affects us three ways: It makes us sick, drives us crazy, or wears us out. Remember, dramas only succeed if others play their parts. Participation provides a stage on which the unreasonable person’s drama is performed. How can we avoid becoming drama participants? By avoiding three enticements: button pushes, reactions, and pushing buttons.

Don’t react

Man being raged at by an angry womanThe unreasonable person pushes our buttons in predictably obvious ways or ambush us in unpredictably subtle ways hoping for a reaction. Examples of obvious attacks include insults, besmirching of character, slanderous accusations, name-calling, defamations, unjustified criticisms, and blatant lies. The unreasonable person taunts and eggs us on, hoping desperately for a knee-jerk reaction that places us squarely into the drama. While obvious attacks are actively aggressive, subtle attacks are passively aggressive or manipulative. Our buttons get pushed, but we don’t see the attacks coming. We get ambushed or sucker-punched. The unreasonable person desperately needs us to react, to lose our heads, so our reactions can be used as evidence that we’re crazy and he or she is not. To keep from reacting, we must plan our responses so we won’t display any reaction, thus stopping the manipulation.

Reactions are impulsive; responses are intentional. It’s not that we won’t have reactions, but that we choose not to display them. We need to restrain externally what we feel
internally. The adage “Kill ’em with kindness” applies here because displaying kindness versus agitation disallows the drama enticement. Displaying no reaction keeps us out of the drama. And that’s not being passive; it’s being powerful.

If we don’t react, the unreasonable person will likely think his emotional remote control is broken and try to fix it by pushing the buttons harder.

Another way to resist the drama is to avoid pushing the unreasonable person’s buttons. If we follow our natural inclinations and react by pushing those buttons, we’re in the drama. For instance, an exasperated reasonable person will sometimes exclaim to an unreasonable person, “You need counseling.” That pushes the unreasonable person’s buttons because what he hears is, “There’s something wrong with you.”

If we don’t react, the unreasonable person will likely think his emotional remote control is broken and try to fix it by pushing the buttons harder

Let’s take the example of Patti. No one could get under Patti’s skin like her mother. Whenever she did, Patti was most prone to react, either by fulfilling her required role or by getting angry. Either way, the drama worked to reestablish her mom in the starring role of martyr.

The pattern of Patti’s reactions to Mom’s enticements was this: give in, give in, give in, blowup, give in, give in, give in, blowup. But when the blowups occurred, Mom would always say, “I’ve never understood why you get so mad. But then you’ve always had a really short fuse. I just wish you wouldn’t take it out on me. Is everything OK with you and Bill?” In this way, Mom had mastered the art of using Patti’s anger to reinforce her victim stance: “I’m an innocent person being raged at by an angry person.” Since open displays of anger were used against her, Patti practiced these responses:

  • Say nothing in response to Mom’s provocations. Most often Patti found that the best response was no response. When Mom attempted long and wordy guilt trips, Patti learned to say, “Uh huh.”
  • Use matter-of-fact delivery rather than an angry tone. Patti’s every impulse was to “let mom have it,” but she knew if she did, her mom would make Patti’s anger the focus rather than addressing the issue at hand.
  • Politely excuse herself from conversations. Patti often found that the longer they talked, the more likely she was to cave, to give in to the enticement to rescue. Leaving the conversation wasn’t being avoidant; it was being wise.

This strategy of nonviolent resistance, also used by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was extremely powerful in bringing change to institutional structures that had been dominated by controlling, unreasonable people for a long time.

On a smaller scale, that’s exactly what we need to do with unreasonable people who push our buttons, hoping desperately for a reaction that can be used against us.

» Don’t Expect Reasonableness

Let’s go back to the grocery store drama with Penny. Suppose Penny had said this when our child threw her tantrum: I need you to understand my position here. I’m not buying that junk on the rack because it’s expensive and bad for you. Now, does it make sense for you to keep begging for it? No. All righty then, we’ve got that straight.

With 100-percent certainty that wouldn’t have worked. Why? Because it would have been attempting to reason with someone who was being unreasonable. And the exasperation displayed would have made Penny a drama participant. The common temptation when arguing with an unreasonable person is to make our case more vigorously, hoping that he’ll eventually get it. What we discover, however, is that no matter what we say or how well we say it, the person won’t get it. He’ll not listen to, understand, or validate our position. If we react by arguing harder, we’re right back in the drama. We lose simply by becoming engaged in the conversational tug of war.

So remember this rule of thumb: To solve conflict problems with reasonable people, we should talk more. To solve conflict problems with unreasonable people, we should talk less and act more. Conversations with reasonable people can accomplish something, but conversations with unreasonable people accomplish nothing. We can’t reason with an unreasonable person. They “win” by keeping us frustratingly embroiled in the verbal battle.

To solve conflict problems with unreasonable people, we should talk less and act more

» Learn to Set healthy boundaries

Mr. Jones had an obnoxious neighbor with an obnoxious dog, who regularly dug up his flowers and made unwelcome deposits in his yard. All efforts to persuade the neighbor to leash his dog failed, and it became clear to Mr. Jones that he was attempting the impossible—trying to reason with an unreasonable person.

Finally, Mr. Jones put up a fence, which kept the canine terrorist from terrorizing his existence. In this example, no mutually agreeable resolution was reached because the neighbor’s unwillingness to reason made that impossible. But Mr. Jones did find a way to keep the dog out of his yard. The problem was not actually fixed, but a boundary enabled it to be restrained.

Our goal with these people is not for them to grow but for us to contain the effects of their dysfunction on our lives. The fence didn’t cause the neighbor to grow and become better, but it did make living next to him tolerable. Even if he continues to be his nasty self on his side, the fence keeps the reasonable person from being affected so much by the nuisance dog—unless, of course, the neighbor teaches his dog to fly. Containment makes relationships with unreasonable people manageable.

With reasonable people, problems are solved when both sides participate in the reasoning process. With unreasonable people, problems are “restrained” when the reasonable person does a good job of setting boundaries. Boundaries accomplish what reasoning can’t.

Good conflict, even with an unreasonable person, contributes to the growth of our character and identity. It brings out our best; we become better versions of ourselves.

» Parting shot

Remember, there are no microwave solutions for problems that have been stewing in the Crock-Pot for many years. Changing bad conflict into good is neither simple nor easy, but it is achievable if we know what to do and practice what we know. The outcome is worth the time and effort required to achieve good conflict. If we’re not used to doing this process, it may feel cumbersome and tedious for a while. But, like learning to drive a car or use a computer, it becomes second nature once we gain knowledge of it and do it routinely. Implementing the suggestions will help you have healthier, more fulfilling relationships and promote your growth into a better you.

P.S. To maintain sanctity of the source, this article follows American English.
Excerpted with permission from How to Solve Your People Problems [ISBN: 978-0-615-43132-1] by Alan Godwin; Published by Alan Godwin.

A version of this article was first published in the May 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Alan Godwin
Alan Godwin has helped individuals, couples, and organizations develop better ways of handling conflict for over two decades. A practicing psychologist certified in Alternative Dispute Resolution, he conducts seminars, writes magazine articles, and teaches doctoral students. He lends his expert advice to several publications and has been a guest on numerous radio and television programs across the U.S. and Canada.


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