Complete Wellness

A Place for Healing MindBodySpirit


Integrity and Conflict

I talk to a lot of people about how they deal with conflict. I end up talking a lot about feeling good about your self at the end of the day. If you’re really a nice person, you feel lousy if you behaved in a mean or angry fashion. I’m not saying you have to be a pushover or let people walk all over you. You just have to learn how to stand up straight and be you.

My real lesson in dealing with conflict came in my residency. My attending physician, my mentor, my teacher was leading us to the Emergency Department to see a patient one day. The ER doctor saw us coming and started toward us with fire in his eyes. He started yelling “You people are always blah, blah blah...”
We always end up having to blah, blah, blah.” (By the way, any sentence containing the phrase “you people” should probably be disregarded right off the bat.)

Dr V., my fearless leader, stood there quietly. I watched his neck straighten and his shoulders go back. He took a deep breath, and when the tirade let up, he said “I see you’re upset. What can I do right now to make this situation better for you.” The ER doc blasted back “Why do you guys always expect us to blah, blah, blah..” Dr. V. then said “Is there something I can do right now to help you feel better about this?”

The ER doc was completely taken off guard and he had to refocus his thought process toward finding a resolution rather than on his anger. It was brilliant. He didn’t apologize or back down or fight back. He just stood his ground and redirected the attack.

The real clue to the success of this technique came a few weeks later when Dr. V.’s toddler son came into the office for a visit. The little boy had a temper tantrum over something or other and started to cry. His dad came over and said “I see you’re upset. What can I do to make this better for you?” Sound familiar? He didn’t back down or give in, or take it personally. He just stated the facts as they were and stood his ground. (For tips on effective conflict resolution with actual toddlers, go to the child rearing chapter.)

That led me to the understanding that, in conflict, we all turn into three year olds. They say whatever they are feeling, don’t have too much of a vocabulary and certainly don’t care if they hurt your feelings. We can all get like that really easily, and really fast. If two people are arguing and both become toddlers mentally, no one is really in charge and not much good or productive is going to come of it. And worse yet, you might be inclined to say things that will make you feel bad about yourself later. 

The word “integrity” reminds me of the math concept of an integer…to be one. To be something simple that doesn’t change with the winds; steady, constant, whole. The image I use with people comes from Star Trek and their transporter. A lot of times when things in life are confusing and upset, you don’t really feel too solid. As if you were stuck in transport mode and not fully you. In this state, your boundaries are easily breeched. Outsiders can reach right in and scramble things up. So the goal is to get your self whole and solid enough to keep people out of your energy field.

The other image I like to use is that of a solid, big, heavy, unmovable stone column, like those that hold up ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Be like that. If you’re really sure of something, don’t budge. 

When you are in conflict, you really have to take time to figure out what the real problem is and what you would like to see happen. The frustrated three year old is great at voicing his displeasure, but the trick of fighting like an adult is to achieve a goal. I often tell people to take some time and really think about what the problem is and what they would like to see as an outcome.

In families and in the workplace, the conflicts are often recurrent. We find ourselves fighting the same fights over and over again. It happens between siblings, spouses and workmates. It is very helpful to write out a script. The arguments are so repetitive and predictable that you can plan it out pretty accurately. It’s kind of fun to introduce some humor, or be so over the top that it gets absurd. You can probably predict the responses to your script and respond appropriately.

In my house, my husband’s leaving his suit coats over the back of the chair in our bedroom was getting on my very last nerve. I had decided long ago that his laundry on the floor didn’t bother him at all so it must be my problem. I decided that if I wanted to pick them up, I would do it because I wanted to, not for him. But the coat thing, all these years later, was just bugging me! I had to stop and think about it for a while, like two or three days, and I finally figured out that the problem was that I felt disrespected. That was the real problem. Hanging up a coat is no big deal, but not being appreciated is huge. So I figured out what to do. I would make him thank me for hanging up his coat.

Simple but profound. Well you’d think it was simple, but not so much. The first time I approached the coats, I picked up one and said, “I’m going to hang these coats up, and I just need you to say “Thanks”.” What?!?! “I was going to do that.” He said. “OK, but there are three coats here, and I’m going to hang them up because I want to, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d just thank me.” After a couple of grumphs, I got a reluctant “Thanks.” But it felt good. You could see where that tiny incident could have blossomed into something much bigger.

When you find out that your partner has cheated on you or lied to you, that is a much bigger deal and takes a bit more thought. It is so tough to think past the hurt to the part where you get to think about what you really need. A phrase that is used in the mind-body medicine field is “Given what is, what am I to do?” That phrase takes away guilt, blame, shame, etc. and forces you to look forward when sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is a future.

“Given what is…….” You can’t change it. It already is. Regardless of how it came to be, it is what it is. Then you have to think about the kind of person you think you are and how that person would act. What do you want to say you did in the future? That’s when you decide, “what am I to do?”

A friend of mine whose husband left her when her third child was three months old, went to his substantial wardrobe and cut a tiny piece out of the front of each piece of clothing in the closet. Although it felt pretty good at the time (and sure is a funny story), she is very embarrassed at having done it and wishes she hadn’t. 

Another helpful rule is; Don’t just do something, sit there! That is to say, until you’ve had time to think things through, digest the situation a little and figure out what would be the best way to proceed, don’t get caught up in the whirlwind and start acting out. Wait. Think. Rethink. What do you want to tell people that you said or did? What really reflects the best you? Don’t let someone else’s actions change your behavior. Every person has lots of parts to them. We all have a good side and a bad side and a mischievous side. All those parts can come in handy at some times but in conflict, you want to really be careful which parts you express. As I mention in other areas, life in the electronic age can be very unforgiving. You really don’t want an e-mail or phone conversation recording to come back at you in a negative way. Electronics and the internet are forever. Be thoughtful and be careful.

If your family speaks to you in a way that you don’t like, don’t accept it. Use the phrase, “I chose to hear that you said, “Thank you dear mother, this dinner smells so delicious.” instead of “What’s that?”” Or “I’d love to take the garbage out right now. Is there anything else you need?” Or offer an alternative to whatever they said. Give them the idea that they might say something different from what they’re used to saying. “May I help with the groceries, mother dearest?” might be the suggestion you offer when you’re carrying in bags. “Darling, you look so lovely this evening.” as a suggestion to your spouse when you’ve got yourself gussied up. “The lawn has never looked better, dear!” you say to your wife as a suggestion of what she might have wanted to say.

It’s kind of over the top and supposed to be a suggestion made in jest. It’s supposed to be funny, not cutting or sarcastic. Attitude is very important here. You really have to make it light and airy. Otherwise it could be heard as criticism. You might really have to be pretending not to be frustrated, but it is much more likely to be heard be the listener if he or she is not made to feel defensive or belittled. If you’re just too angry to pull it off, just wait. To be sure, it’ll come up again. 

It’s very important, when dealing with conflict, to be very clear and make things really simple. If you’re talking about one issue, you have to make sure you don’t drag other things into the discussion. And don’t let the other person bring up other things either. If you’re talking to your spouse about what time he or she is coming home at night, don’t start talking about money. It’s easier to do that when you know what it is about the situation that is really bothering you, very specifically. Then you can redirect back to the topic at hand.

Sometimes you just have to walk away, let things settle down, think some more about what resolution you’re looking for.
If you need to talk about sex that is a very special consideration. That discussion should never be had in the bedroom or on the way to bed. I recommend that sexual conversations be had in the car on the way to someplace, not the way home. If you have to talk about erectile function, that should be done nowhere near anytime that you expect an erection. If you need to talk about the frequency (or infrequency) of sexual contact, it should be on the way to some social event where you can kind of get away from each other a little, but then you get back in the car to get back home. No more talking about that, but time to share the rest of the experience of evening. Reconnect.




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