One Next Step

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

YEARS AGO, WHEN I FIRST STARTED working in collaborative communication, I spent a lot of time worrying about my endgame. When I sat down to do a mediation, I thought I should know at the outset exactly how the conflict would be resolved. When I began a coaching session with a client, I thought I should know up front what would need to be said an hour later. I had already been teaching for some time and understood how to design curriculum. Surely I could—and should—plan other communications from start to finish. If not, it must mean I was a fraud.

So I tried to map out these conversations in advance. And tried. And tried some more.

At some point before total meltdown, I realized that predicting outcomes ahead of time was never going to happen. A little further down the road, it occurred to me that this might be okay. That maybe all I needed was a starting point and a degree of trust that if I put one foot in foot in front of the other, I could reach my destination. If I could be fully present, if I truly listened to what people were saying, I could respond in the moment. And together, sentence by sentence, we could find our way through chaos and back to connection.

SOME TIME BACK I was visiting close friends, a married couple I’d known for many years; let’s call them Jane and Jack. Jane had been very ill and was just starting to feel better. We had a lovely dinner and caught up with one another. It was over coffee that I managed to get into a huge argument with Jack. I have absolutely no memory of the content of this epic battle of wills, but whatever it was seemed excruciatingly important. Were we fighting about politics? Religion? How to carve a turkey? I can only say it appeared momentous at the time.

As we argued, I kept thinking, “Lisa, stop. Jane has been sick. You’re a guest in this house. Please: stop.” But I was wound up and kept going. At various intervals, it occurred to me that I knew exactly how to defuse the argument (a little empathy would’ve been nice), but I was too upset to do it. So we battled on.

At very long last, some healthier part of my psyche piped up and reminded me that if Jane, who hated conflict, suddenly succumbed to a heart attack, I was going to feel really, really bad. Like, forever. I still couldn’t manage to voice compassion so I stood up and stated, “I’m leaving now.” It wasn’t elegant, but in the moment, it was the only way I could find to stop doing damage.

MY CAR WAS PARKED in Jane and Jack’s driveway so I climbed in, locked the door and cried for a long time. Eventually I caught my breath and phoned a friend (let’s call her Jessica) who fortunately picked up. I told Jessica everything that had transpired, and tried to get her to agree that Jack was a terrible person and the whole thing was his fault. She declined and offered empathy instead. I was so not interested. I told Jessica more wretched things that Jack had said and she had the nerve to make an empathy guess for HIM. I considered disowning her but couldn’t afford to lose another friend. We were both silent. At last Jessica asked me if I felt calm enough to drive home.

“I can’t,” I said. “I have to go back in there in and fix this.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked, sounding horrified.

“I have to fix this. Jane has been sick. If I go home and she has a relapse, I’ll never forgive myself. I have to fix this now.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“Not a clue.”

We tried to formulate a game plan to no avail. Finally I said, “Wait. I just thought of one thing I can say that’s both true and non-attacking. I’m going to go back in there and say THAT.”

“Okay, but then what will you do next?” Jessica asked.

“I have no idea.”

“Well, good luck,” she replied. “Call me later and tell me what happened.”

I GOT OUT OF MY CAR and rang the bell. It had been almost an hour since I’d left; Jane and Jack came to the door, looking surprised and wary. Jack wasn’t actually holding a pitchfork, but otherwise appeared to be posing for Grant Wood’s famous painting “American Gothic.” I took a breath.

“You said some things that I really didn’t like,” I offered. “And I said some things that I really didn’t like. And the argument we had is most definitely NOT how I wanted to spend time with the two of you.”

Jack glared and said, “What?”

I tried again. “You said things I didn’t like. And I said things I didn’t like. And the argument we had is absolutely not what I intended for this evening.”

Jack scowled. “Are you saying you regret some of the things you said?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Then come on in,” he said.

I did. And we fixed it.

I have absolutely no memory of the content of this momentous reconciliation and maybe that’s the point. I figured out one thing I was willing to say, one thing I thought would cause no harm. I said it. Jack replied. I listened. I found another thing to say. I unearthed a little understanding. I discovered a smidge of compassion and used it. I didn’t know the endgame; I just took one next step. And eventually we emerged from the battleground, having left our weapons behind.

 

LISA MONTANA offers personal and executive coaching, conflict resolution and facilitation of group meetings and decisions. She works with individuals, families, businesses and organizations around the country. Lisa came to conflict resolution from the business world, where she witnessed frequent disputes, most of them handled in ways that nobody liked. In collaborative communication, she found a model in which everyone’s needs matter and against all odds, has seen wildly antagonistic foes find common ground.

Contact Lisa at: lisa@baynvc.org

Copyright 2018 Lisa Montana. Reprint with permission.

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