My husband and twenty-eight-year-old stepson get into arguments that are emotionally hurtful to both of them. They don’t listen to each other, and just yell, blame, and berate each other. In the past, I have stayed out of it and let them “duke it out.” But I don’t like how it makes me feel or the spirit of contention it brings to our home. I don’t think I would let them physically duke it out and I think the emotional damage is as harmful as a physical fight. What can I do as a bystander to help them address their difference of opinion in a healthier way? Should I address it during the heat of the moment or try to teach them skills when the emotions aren’t so raw? Or maybe a combination? Please help.
Stuck in the Middle
A popular tenet of the Kaizen method teaches that it is better to have the wrong solution to the right problem, than the right solution to the wrong problem.
One of my very early clients began every interaction with this oft-quoted phrase. Over time, I began to mature in my problem-solving approach. In the beginning, I believed that as long as I had the right solution, everything would work itself out. Later, I realized that in order to get to the right solution, I had to make sure I started with the right problem. I’ve since discovered that having the right timing for the right solution is also important. Sounds like you’re trying to figure out that third element.
I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to watch the conditions of respect and civility erode right in front of you. Like you, most choose to stay out of it—and it’s not usually a case of bystander apathy. Usually, these are well-intentioned individuals who suffer from bystander agony. They’d like to step in and stop the mayhem, but just aren’t sure how to do so. It turns out, it’s only slightly more painful to be involved directly in a conflict than to watch it happen.
So, when and how to intervene? To explore that, let’s take a look at a story I received permission to share with you. It comes from one of my co-workers, Dax, who found himself in a very similar situation to your husband and stepson. Read on to see how Dax broke out of the cycle that caused his family pain.
“Almost 15 years ago, when I was young, my father and I fought constantly. Both of us were bullheaded, aggressive, and had no time for anyone else’s opinions.
This went on my entire childhood and progressively got worse. We reached the point where we actively avoided each other, or risked an all-out war.
One day, my dad came home with a book someone gave him at work. It was called Crucial Conversations. He asked me if I would read it with him.
We spent the next few weeks sitting down and reading the book together, chapter by chapter. After finishing each chapter, we discussed what we read.
Our daily battles suddenly turned into crucial conversations. When we started getting heated, we asked each other, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational person do or say what you just said?’ We laid out the facts rather than told ourselves a story about what we thought the other had said.
After just a few months, we went from actively avoiding each other, to having a real relationship not strained by misconceptions and hurtful words.
At present, our relationship is stronger than ever and we rely on each other equally for guidance with our day-to-day crucial moments.”
So, what should we learn from Dax’s story? Upon first read, it’s easy to see how two people benefitted from a solution that appeared to resolve their problems. But there’s also a subtler lesson. There was a third party, a not so apathetic or agony-ridden bystander who intervened—a co-worker gave Dax’s dad a book. That book turned out to be the right solution for the right problem delivered at the right time.
So often, our efforts fall short because we deliver our solution at the wrong time. We miss, or misinterpret, when the teachable moment is. This coworker didn’t try to offer the solution in the middle of a heated argument. He or she shared a solution in a moment removed from conflict. My personal bias is to let conflict play out unless it’s leading to serious and/or long-term relationship damage, in which case it’s okay to step-in. But just because you’ve paused the interaction doesn’t mean that’s the most teachable moment for those directly involved in the conflict. Remember, emotions are chemical while thoughts are electrical. You’re likely much further ahead in your crucial conversations thought process than either of the chemically-overpowered individuals you’d like to coach. Be patient. It takes time for the effects of the chemicals to subside so the brain can think clearly again. Look for a time when the person or persons can be reflective and open to suggestion.
Once you’ve found the right time, here are some ideas on how to get the best response.
I’ve found it to be overwhelming when I’ve been handed a book that contains the solution to my problem. I’d like to get some relief, but don’t want to wade through an entire book to figure out what I should do. So, don’t yield to the temptation to dump whole chapters or highlighted passages without any direction. I’ve found it helpful to point people to a specific idea or skill. You can use a book to do so, but take a little time to help them navigate the content. This way they experience the value of the content along with any tips or insights you have about application opportunities.
In these situations, it’s also helpful to work out a Mutual Purpose. Many of you who’ve found yourself in this situation are probably thinking, “but that’s the problem—we have no mutual purpose!” The beauty of mutual purpose is you don’t have to agree in order to experience it. The whole approach to finding mutual purpose is by creating an interim purpose. “Let’s see if we can jointly come up with a solution to our conversation process challenges because we don’t seem to have mutual purpose in regard to the topic that’s causing conflict.” It helps people experience what having a mutual purpose feels like—the shift from what “I” really want to what “we” really want.
I’m going to close with another over-quoted, yet applicable adage: it takes a village. Or in this case, it takes one well-intentioned bystander to offer the right solution in the teachable moment. I hope you can find this with the relationships you value most. Good luck, and stay focused on what you really want.
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