Tag Archives: conflict

What Icebergs and Conflict Share In Common

News headlines are sagging under the weight and bulge of people in conflict. North Americans are conflicted over — well, I don’t need to list all we’re in disagreement about because it’s front and center stage global news.

It seems that, like South Carolina’s 1 in a 1,000 year rain, the U.S., if not much of the global community is journeying through an epochal period of polarization.

Given widespread conflict and disagreements of perspective, opinion, and value:

How can two or more people with significant dissimilarities attain a respectful, dignified and trusting understanding of one another?

Three days post-Umpqua Community College’s mass shooting I re-shared a Facebook posting of a picture of Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver with his hands out and his palms open, expressing what I assume is incredulousness. The caption above his head read, “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb, and we all have to take our shoes off at the airport,” and the bottom-concluding caption read, “31 school shootings since Columbine and no change in the regulation of guns.”

One friend decided this was an opportune moment to inject his opinion on this “stupidest of comparisons.”

Other friends weighed in, too, mostly anti his perspective. Wasting no time, I simply responded that his opinion seemed to derive from Fox News (“Bullshit Mountain” as Jon Stewart and The Daily Show re-named the network), and that he should practice his own advice on “thinking,” because all he seemed to be communicating was raucous vitriol.

An example of how not to develop trust and build bridges of understanding!

To my shame I singularly presumed ignorance and negative intent on his part, particularly given my past association. I responded only to his words and my perception of his attitude and intent; ignoring formative and unknown-to-me influences that most certainly shaped his worldview and values. And I sought to win the battle of opinion with minimal expenditure of effort and inconvenience.

Like icebergs, whose above water visibility reflects only one-ninth its real size, so, too, words, both in ordinary conversation and especially during conflict, reflect only a fraction of what co-antagonists think and feel.

As Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most demonstrates, people’s unspoken, invisible-to-the-eye feelings are “usually where the real action is. Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their core about feelings. Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music.”

Conflicts or difficult conversations, therefore, are seldom if ever about “getting the facts straight.” They’re about differing perceptions, assumptions, interpretations, and values, with all sides each and on every occasion contributing something to the discord no matter who might legitimately be “most wrong.”

Conflict generates, perpetuates and escalates around accusations of blame, which in turn threatens punishment, which naturally, then, meets with save my (own) bacon denial and counter accusations.

Sadly we default to negative and embittered exchanges, rather than inquisitive discourse that seeks to imaginatively understand each other’s life story—aka, the formative experiences, persons and information that we don’t have access to, yet which shaped and influenced our antagonist’s worldview, interpretation of sensory input, and his/her subsequent words, actions or beliefs.

Funny story. When my middle child was six she shared a bedroom and a bunk bed with her older sister, “Mana.” One night she was lying on her top bunk ranting and wailing because of some disciplining “act of parenting.” After a prolonged period of wailing, their room went silent, after which a quiet, quivering, six-year-old voice asked her sister, “Mana, what was I crying about?” After her older sister reminded her why she had been crying, loud crying again ensued!”

Translated: Conflict and blame take on lives of their own, when, in fact, often times and over time the precipitating facts and feelings are forgotten.

To minimize conflict and difficult conversations, Stone, Patton and Heen argue that we should intentionally and by disciplined practice, move away from a “message delivery” (i.e., “I’m right and you’re to blame”) stance to a “learning stance”—one in which we “walk around the sculpture of our own feelings and observe it from different angles.”

That is, we need to become more adept at asking thoughtful questions when conflict occurs and emotions are heightened. Questions that seek to imagine oneself in the other person’s life story. Questions that seek to understand one’s own inner, vulnerable, and complex emotions and sense of identity.

Or as Chapter Two aptly summarizes it: “Stop Arguing About Who’s Right” and instead “Explore Each Other’s Story.” Regrettably, most disagreements—including that of my classmate—center on proving “I’m right and you’re wrong”; a heated exchange of conclusions, rather than an openness to hearing one another’s stories.

Listening and expressing feelings are critical tasks during conflict. When feelings are expressed, the urge to blame subsides. Ironically, an inability to listen well to one’s adversary is symptomatic of an inability or unwillingness to express one’s own feelings well. Why is this so?

“Good listening requires an open and honest curiosity about the other person, and a willingness and ability to keep the spotlight on them. Buried emotions draw the spotlight back to us. Instead of wondering, ‘How does what they are saying make sense?’ and ‘Let me try to learn more,’ we have a record playing in our mind that is stuck in the groove of our own feelings: ‘I’m so angry s/he treated me like that!’”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under conflict resolution, Dialogue, Life, Perspective, Relationships

“A Good Fight” | Essential for Forever Relationships

People, like carriage horses with blinkers on, tend to restrict their social engagement to people and circumstances they find emotionally safe and comfortable. Pugnacious individuals are rare.

horseblinkers

While holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year are perceived and celebrated as family centered and joyous occasions, a common yet under-acknowledged fixture to each–like angel ornaments are to Christmas trees–is interpersonal and familial conflict.

My family is excitedly waiting this Friday’s midnight arrival of our eldest daughter and her husband. Despite only 1,326 miles (2122 km) separating our home from theirs in North Carolina, we’ve not seen them (apart from Skype) since December 2012.

Two days out, minds are singularly and excitedly fixated on the immediacy of family reunion: bear hugs at the airport, as well as laughter and squabbling in the minivan as each one-eighth member of our family vies against other family contenders to inject and condense 365 days life experience into a single 30-minute drive home.

cropped-kids.jpg

Inevitably, though–whether a few hours or days into our reunion–differences of opinion and perspective will occur, resulting in varying degrees of conflict.

A South African friend, who our middle child is named after, loved “a good murder” on the telly (TV).

Similarly, contrary to what some people, in particular couples, allege (i.e., that they never fight) it’s my family’s experience that wholeness and longevity of relationship occur only because of “a good fight.”

A “good fight” is

-An oft times emotionally charged conversation over differences of perspective and opinion . . .

-In which everyone involved stays engaged/committed (often through coaxing or by one another’s insistence) . . .

-Despite frequent and intense impulses to flee from the associated unpleasantries of conflict . . .

-And which, persists however long until either respectful and/or affectionate feelings and actions for one another return.

A representative example is Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) angrily pleading with Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) to remain with him instead of running back to her fiancé in The Notebook; a romance drama set in the 1940’s, in which a wealthy teenage big-city girl and a much poorer, small-town boy find true love over one summer, and how their ultimate forever love for each other was nearly sabotaged by Allie’s meddling mother and overly austere father.

Toward the end of the movie, the following discourse occurs–

Noah: “Would you just stay with me?”
Allie: “Stay with you? What for? Look at us! We’re already fighting!”
Noah: “Well, that’s what we do! We fight! You tell me when I’m being an arrogant son of a bitch and I tell you when you’re being a pain in the ass, which you are ninety-nine percent of the time. I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings. You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.”
Allie: “So, what?”
Noah: “So it’s not gonna be easy, it’s gonna be really hard. And we’re gonna have to work at this everyday, but I wanna do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever. You and me. Everyday.”

Strong, forever relationships are not only messy, but more often than not occur at inopportune moments of life. They require more work (fights) than one has the patience or time to give at the end of an overly crammed work day or week.

Ultimately the potential wholeness and longevity of relationship comes down to whether or not one or more persons really want or value the relationship.

In my family, truth be told, we often frustrate, irritate, and fight with each other.

No, we haven’t to date engaged in physical altercations, or, to my knowledge, rattled off a litany of profanities against one another (although I understand via the sibling grapevine that I have been called “a dick” at least once). One or more of us, however, have been known to slam a door, hurl a hair brush from the car on to the lawn, slam down hard some ready at-hand object like a glass or a book, or get up and stomp away from a discussion while the other person is still talking.

Fingers crossed . . .

So far conflict has only strengthened versus inflicted any fatal blow in all immediate family relationships of mine, although regrettably, it has effectively ended several friendships.

In the case of friendship losses, they resulted in large measure, I believe, because they chose to disconnect . . . to walk away from, and to stop fighting for the relationship.

Evidently the necessary hard work and discomforts associated with conflict–e.g., as in The Notebook, sometimes hearing or sharing the hard and painful truth that one’s being a big pain in the ass, or acting like an arrogant SOB–outweighed for them the value of having relationship.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Family, Life, Memories, Perspective, Relationships, Success

Prejudice & Racism | Sometimes Unconscious, Always Unconscionable

No one likes to admit to or think of oneself as prejudicial or racist.

There is no such thing as prejudice, racism or bigotry. They are mere fabrications of an elite and liberal media!

At least this is what a former student of mine in effect argued to his class of peers several years ago. From his Deep South, predominately white, and socioeconomic sheltered childhood, to his burgeoning young adult affinity with Joel Osteen’s prosperity Christianity and Mike Huckabee politics, this young man became near incensed on several occasions during the semester when he felt our collective, yet honest class discussions on matters of race and stereotypes was unfounded, merely perpetuating long since left behind racial antagonisms.

My student’s opposition to discussion merely supported David Shipler’s statement in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America–

“Fears and assumptions, often far beneath the surface prevent honest discussion from taking place. When it comes to race, we do not know how to talk to one another.”

Regrettably, this young man’s denialism and lack of awareness of the often subtle and nuanced versus overt prejudice and racial bigotry still pervasive in many parts and communities of the United States isn’t exceptional, but rather, representative.

For instance–and what prompted this blog to begin with–the December 2013 issue of The Costco Connection, contains a section entitled “MemberConnection / Changing the World,” in which several short paragraphs highlight individual Costco members’ social development non-profits.

One piece entitled, “A Dream Made Real,” focuses on “The O’Brien School for the Masai” situated in rural Tanzania, yet begun and operationally managed by a woman and her daughter from Hinsdale, Illinois.

CC

According to Fran Schumer, Costco Connection writer, the O’Brien School “stands as a testament to how one (read: American) woman, with the aid of family, friends and anonymous well-wishers, can transform a village.

Schumer quotes the school’s founder, Kellie O’Brien, as saying, “Living in a dung hut does not determine who you can become in this world.

Translated: “Rural Tanzanian Masai live in genuinely shitty houses, but this unfortunate reality need not restrict their evolutionary and prosperous development! With our help an entire (read: uncivilized or backwater) village can be transformed–i.e., ‘developed’–and from this benevolent act of ours future Tanzanian leaders will be educated and shaped by our (read: white, American) core values and worldview.”

The issue I’m focusing on is not whether international aid or kind and well-intentioned donor benevolence, in this case a gift of education, is wrong or misplaced. After all, and understandably so, few, if any resource struggling people would look a gift horse in the mouth, including the Masai community where the O’Brien School is located.

Rather, my focus revolves around attitude or perception toward people different–especially, so-called “needy” people.

Should it be of any importance, I self identify as bicultural. That is: I am a white, Texan, North American, Protestant, middle-age male, who spent many years of childhood and adulthood in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

It’s because of my shared white identity that this blog is intentionally and disproportionately pointed at my own “white America,” maybe, even, especially, “Christian America,” the likes of Franklin Graham, who frequently spews vitriol against anyone “non-Christian,” especially Muslims and Islam.  This blog speaks particularly to the white elephant of “white attitude” toward difference.

I hope it goes without saying, that despite my stated focus above, I believe prejudice and racism to be a universal reality (common to all of the world’s people) and circular (e.g., blacks discriminate and are prejudicial against whites, too).

The relevance and particularity of speaking to white America lies in our to date disproportionate global power/influence in all matters social, economic, media, political, military power, etc.

In The Costco Connection, both the writer and the non-profit founder express disrespectful attitudes toward the “different other”–a community of Masai in Tanzania–attitudes that are paternalistic and prejudicial, yet also most likely unbeknown to them, i.e., they’re unaware, unconscious of their prejudice.

Their personal attitudes toward and perceptions of the “needy Masai,” is in full public display because of their choice of words and manner of expression in a printed magazine.  It could be argued that it also reflects negatively on a corporate institution because Costco’s editorial team failed in its censorship responsibilities prior to the publication of its December issue.

Perhaps most revealing in terms of attitude, however, is O’Brien’s reason for why she and her daughter founded the school in Tanzania–

There comes a point where you go from success to significance.” Translated: After you’ve made your millions–enough to live comfortably for the remainder of one’s lifetime without formal employment–it’s time to focus on your legacy.  If you can help needy people living in needy countries, so much the better!

As I read this short piece I wondered whether O’Brien ever paused to consider whether or not a traditional Masai or African house, aka, manyatta or rondavel hut made with mud, dung, sticks and thatch is considered a negative and inferior existence to so-called European architectural development by those who live in them, as she intimates?

An atypical African rondavel

An atypical African rondavel

For example, Frances Colenso, wife of John W. Colenso, nineteenth century bishop of the Church of England in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarked in an 1880’s letter to a friend–

“The (Zulu) Chiefs, who have some of them never been in a square house before, did not appreciate the comfort of it at first—they thought their round huts with a fire in the middle much more snug, and described a square house as a ‘collection of precipices’ with a hole in one of them where the fire was laid.

Similarly, yet thirty years prior, an American missionary by the name of Hyman A. Wilder, wrote to his U.S. constituents–

“When we tell them (Zulus) of the advantage of civilization; & of the happiness & comfort & skill & wonderful works of christianized (read: civilized) nations it seems to excite only a brief stupid amazement & reverence, but awakens no emulation, no desire to be different from what they are.”

It’s a fact that early colonial and missionary effort included teaching Africans “practical information on sitting in chairs, eating off plates, and building square houses.”

Regrettably, what used to be widespread and overt racial antagonism, such as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, has subsequently become more insidious, cloaked in jokes, quips, even political satire.

sticker

Two “small” and personally experienced incidents, which reflect how prejudice slides below the overt racism radar, occurred in South Africa and sadly involved a person who should live above the line of decency: an American pastor, as well as executive director of a Christian non-profit focused on vulnerable children.

During a visit to South Africa he was introduced to our domestic (house helper) worker. Since his last visit we had hired a new lady, because the former domestic wanted to relocate 550km back home to her husband and child, whom she had left years previously in search of work in Johannesburg. After being introduced by my wife, this man’s scoffing comment to my wife (in front of our African friend) was, “How many of ’em have you gone through?”

"One of 'em" - our friend Precious

“One of ’em” – our friend Precious

On a separate occasion, this pastor/ED met with my multiracial colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  The director of the children’s research and development non-profit was soon-to-be visiting the United States and planned to include a trip to Houston where this man lived.

My Belgium director friend enquired of the pastor/ED whether he would have any trouble proceeding through Houston’s airport immigration check-point with his dual Belgium and South Africa passport. The response was, “You won’t have any problems. But it would be easier if you were black!

My hoped for purpose in writing this blog is similar to the author of American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict.  That is, it is not to condemn white America, white Europe, or white any country, but to facilitate understanding between people, which in turn, hopefully, will lead to greater awareness of our respective life realities, and lead to a new spirit of mutual responsiveness and empathy.
World Solidarity / Unity

World Solidarity / Unity

1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Diversity, Life, Memories, Pedagogy, Perspective, Prejudice, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Success

3 Benefits of House Cleaning for Children’s Development

Preface: I admit this blog is not my hippest or masculine of topics, yet last week my wife completed a 3-year long MSN program at UT-Austin. During this period I assumed most management responsibilities of home and family.  The following are just a few personal observations gleaned from my more concentrated time at home.

Our house lies within 150 yards of a Northwest Austin two-lane, east-to-west road, which, in effect, serves as a boundary marker between quarter-of-a-million-dollar (or less) houses and those 2 to 4 times that amount.

We live in a 3/4 mile-long sliver of a neighborhood where the two residential zones (for lack of a better descriptive) overlap.

Differences between communities on either side of the boundary road are noticeable.

One noticeable difference, is the prevalence of small business home cleaning companies in the more white collar zone.  Cleaning ladies (I’ve yet to see a male) usually arrive in personal, nondescript cars, which contain a variety of house cleaning solutions and equipment.  Occasionally a company fleet car is parked curbside, with a logo and slogan painted on the side, such as this one from a Chrysler PT Cruiser I photographed last week and then cropped for blogging usage:

Life'sTooShort

Is house cleaning really so menial a task that it detracts from and diminishes life?  Is there no inherent or transferable value in a few hours of weekly or bi-weekly house/yard cleaning?

I say yes.

Insisting on each family member’s weekly/bi-weekly participation in house/yard cleaning chores, provides at least the following benefits:

It counters negative minds and inert bodies. It’s Behavioral Therapy 101.

For example, you have a pressing project or assignment due, yet you feel lousy, depressed, and flat.  Somehow you force yourself off the couch and away from the TV. You start clearing the kitchen, while simultaneously stealing glances at the show you were watching. The show ends but you’re now well into the job, and it’s a short step to the laundry room, where you start folding clean but thrown-in-the-basket socks and undergarments. Before you realize it, you’ve done a mini-clean of the house and your body and mind feels invigorated and focused enough to engage that procrastinated project.

It teaches respect for the other(s).

Unless your house is obscenely large, personal and collective activities take place in “shared spaces.” Children need reinforced reminding that consideration of the other’s needs, preferences and (quirky) mannerisms are of equal importance to one’s own. What is one family member’s “clean & tidy” is another member’s stressors and vice versa.

No two families are alike. One family’s siblings do well if they talk or see each other once a year, while another’s are best of friends. My experience is that teaching respect for another’s “life and living space” is a painstaking role parents need to help facilitate.

Keeping house is perhaps a minor yet far from insignificant area where respect can be taught.  Respect for sibling, certainly, but also respect for the diversity of people, cultures, customs and beliefs our children are increasingly encountering on a daily basis.

It provides an opportune and safe place to help children learn how to resolve conflict.

In my family conflict always occurs when cleaning chores are requested, assigned, and finally inspected. House cleaning is almost always a once (or more) a month moment when disgruntlements necessitate we sit down as a family and discuss not only the cleaning assignments, but also underlying and dormant grievances that ‘magically’ somehow surface, yet which in hindsight were developing for days, if not weeks.

As my wife once and wisely remarked, “Parenting well can’t be done in just your spare time.” It’s time and energy consuming.

Leave a comment

Filed under Family, Life, Relationships

More Conversation and Candor, Please

This blog is an appeal for change.

As individuals, groups, communities, societies, even corporate and government, let us please resolve differences of opinion and feeling by a commitment to and practice of “More Conversation” (MOCO) and “More Candor” (MOCA). 

Candor – i.e., frank, sincere, open, transparent, blunt, direct, plainspoken, honest, and forthright.

Like Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign/slogan, why don’t we more often “Just Say It”?

“MOCO” is from Liz Ryan’s Harvard Business Review Blog, “We Approach Diversity the Wrong Way.”

As for “MOCA” . . . as Mike Myers, aka Austin Powers might express it, “It’s my own acronym, baby!”

My appeal for a MOCO/MOCA commitment might on the surface seem silly.  A no-brainer. Yet is it?

My point is this:

Unlike in many African and Asian countries, in much of the so-called Western world there are few, if any, cultural or social norms that exert pressure on individuals or groups to stick with and work through interpersonal conflict.

-Your best friend says or does something that hurts, offends or disrespects you? Disengage. Find another.

-Your pastor frequently speaks on topics that trouble your conscience?  Leave and find another church.

-Your parents persist and insist on managing your life? Go live elsewhere.

-Your neighborhood is morphing into a racial and cultural hue of a different kind? Relocate.

-Your spouse cheats on you?  Forget the kids’ well-being or any extenuating circumstances that precipitated this hurtful indiscretion, divorce the good-for-nothing. Refuse any efforts to reconcile.

Working through disagreement, differences and conflict is more often than not all-consuming for a time.

Sometimes sustained dialogue is unsuccessful in resolving differences, yet it often results at a minimum to understanding and respect for the other’s position.

Yes, the process of sustained engagement and dialogue might leave one feeling physically and emotionally comparable to clothes having been wrung through an old wringer washing machine. And, yes, I realize that life’s pace and socio-political complexities don’t always allow for such privileged hashing out of differences.

I’m not suggesting that we shout more, or be even more of an ass toward others than we already might be.

I am asking that we commit more time, effort and compassionate/empathetic candor to resolving differences and disagreements.

It might not make us popular in the short-term, but it will improve our long-term credibility, as well as strengthen relationships.

Perhaps Wendy Lea’s (CEO of Get Satisfaction) responses about entrepreneurship to The New York Times’ Adam Bryant are a fitting closure:

“If you think there’s a problem, there is. If your instincts say there’s something wrong, there is, and the longer you wait to tackle it, the worse it gets. I’m so tired of having to relearn that lesson. . . . I am open and willing to tell the truth that you need to hear, and I expect people to do the same with me.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Perspective, Relationships