Bradford L. Glass - June 2022
Do you suppose we might meet any wild animals? … Mostly lions and tigers and bears … Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – from The Wizard of Oz
Have you ever experienced a simple difference of opinion or perspective that devolved into blame, judgment and anger, perhaps explosively, with no stops along the way? All too common for most. And in our polarized world, situations like this are growingly used as “intentional strategies” … to gain the perception of control in a chaotic and uncertain world. While differing views are both an aspect of human consciousness and a product of imprecise language, resorting to blame, judgment and anger – even unconsciously – serves only to keep conflict alive. Any perceived satisfaction gained by making someone else wrong is both fleeting and ineffective.
Although I’m both a student and a teacher of constructive approaches to conflict, I still step in the lake now and then. This life-long process of learning by experience has taught me a lot – about causes, and about resolution:
A path forward belongs to you. It’s futile to change others; you can change yourself. Non-judgmental acceptance of this fact is a crucial foundation for ideas that follow. Others need not play in order for you to find peace.
Contention is a result of two opposing forces; one of them, therefore, is you. Neither your opinions nor life’s events cause conflict; how you learned to see and think about them does. Simple example: situations don’t ask you to respond; you choose to! Get to know your triggers, what pulls you off center. Gaining awareness of where you are reactive offers a big opening for possibility. Times of conflict invite your best behavior, not your worst.
Most of the time, people who resort to blame, judgment and anger are those who lack awareness, perspective, and emotional maturity. Afraid of themselves (self-trust), their own truth (critical thinking), and consequences of their choices (personal responsibility), they lash out, an unconscious reaction to what they simply “don’t like.” And because they lack awareness, they miss the fact that there are many perspectives, many steps, many choices between their opinion and an amicable resolution. (Making you wrong is just one … an ineffective one.)
St. Francis of Assisi said (but popularized by Steven Covey), “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If you do choose to engage with somebody on a rant, seeking to understand them goes a long way to calming your own consciousness, and may even calm theirs, too. Most people simply want to be understood. (Some will always just want to be “right.”) Note: understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t mean you agree with it.
In the face of the intransigent blame artist, “No, thank you” may just be your best friend. Wayne Dyer said, “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” Walking away preserves both your integrity and your well-being. And although meaningless, walking away also forces them to find another victim … which they will.
A simple, yet powerful, reminder: you are not here on this earth to live up to somebody else’s expectations of who or how you “should” be. You are here to live the innate potential that dwells within you. These are vastly different, sometimes opposite, things. Awareness of what matters most – to you – opens the door to self-trust.
With a bit of practice (practice of personal awareness, mostly), you’ll find your tendency to react starting to wane. This alone makes you far more resilient when confronted with outbursts from others. From this place of emerging peace, you see how their reaction is more about them than about you, making it easier still to let it all blow by like the breeze and get on with your life. More peace. Two powerful, yet complementary, forces are at work here: (1) internally, your growing self-trust is the greatest asset you’ll ever have for living a life you love; (2) externally, showing respect for others – even if you don’t agree with them – is an act of courage and wisdom (and self-trust). Again … this does not require that you agree with, engage with, or become trapped by their anger.
Exercise: One of the simplest ways to “practice your way” into reducing your reactivity in the face of the blame, judgment and anger of others is to “try on,” as in experiment, with new ways of approaching conversations that are potentially contentious. Here are several unique, powerful, and vastly underused “openers” for conversations of this sort. This month, you might simply notice opportunities in everyday life (they shouldn’t be difficult to find), where each of these conversation openers can soften contention, open new possibilities, preserve your integrity and honor your sense of well-being. And who knows, they might even change the course of a judgmental “other.”
· The simplest conversation we rarely have: “Thank you.” (This opens space and softens tension.)
· The most powerful conversation we rarely have: “I love you.” (Often a reminder, but always a simple way to create a larger context.)
· The most freeing conversation we rarely have: “No, thank you.” (This is an act of true wisdom for unresolvable conflict, and a way to eliminate the useless conversations that rob time and spirit (which is most of them!))
· The highest potential conversation we rarely have: “I need your help.” (This invites the other person into your context. Powerful.)
· The most courageous conversation we rarely have: “I’m afraid.” (Being vulnerable is an act of courage, not the opposite; it invites connectedness.)
· A non-judgmental opening to an emotionally charged conversation: “Things just aren’t working for me.” (This can be effective for performance reviews, personal disagreement, and even divorces.)
· A powerfully positive opening to any emotion- or conflict-laden conversation: “Help me understand.” (Again, it invites the other person into your context. This reduces tension, builds shared space.)
Life Lessons from Nature: Confronters, Tolerators, Avoiders: Anywhere you go in nature, you’ll find examples of her three equally effective ways to respond when life encounters limited resources: (1) step back from them – avoid; (2) change them – confront; (3) tolerate them – accept. Any of the three relieves the constraints imposed by challenging conditions. Here’s an example from the desert, where large temperature fluctuations and minimal moisture create significant limitations: (1) avoid – a saguaro cactus has waxy branches to hold water to get through droughts; (2) confront – an ocotillo cactus loses its leaves when it’s dry, then re-grows them as soon as it rains; (3) accept – a creosote bush grows long root systems so it can survive extended dry periods. Our problems arise because we’ve invented a fourth choice: we avoid, confront or accept (as does nature), but with judgment. “I don’t like things the way they are, so I’m going to blame, judge and fight.” In my 70 years of loving and learning from nature, I’ve never seen a plant jumping up and down bitching about lack of rain.
Book of the month: Living Beautifully, with Uncertainty and Change, by Pema Chödrön. While all her writing is heartfelt, artful and extremely practical in today’s world, this is a favorite. Her point is straightforward: the ground underneath your feet is always going to be shaky … but you don’t have to be. Chödrön helps us to become comfortable with shaky ground, be open to learning, live without judgment, and connect more deeply with others. It’s a recipe for peace in a world that might seem to convince us that’s not possible. If you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.