The (Difficult) Conversation: What’s your contribution?

The (Difficult) Conversation: What’s your contribution?
March 16, 2019 Ken Ashdown
The Conversation movie poster

How often have you heard the following complaint: “I’m not the one with the problem, S/HE’S the one with the problem!” If you had a nickel for every time, I bet you’d be retired by now. But we all contribute to a conflict in some way, even when we don’t think we do. Moreover, there’s a good chance that we are fuelling a dispute especially when we don’t think we are. (Think of it as the conflict resolution equivalent of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.) No one is completely faultless in any given conflict situation – otherwise, there likely wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. Although each is 100% responsible for their 50% of any interaction, few are eager to fully own their half.

Even when someone genuinely believes they’re trying to defuse a situation, there’s a good chance they’re stoking it. Telling someone to “Calm down!” or minimizing the issue usually has the opposite effect. And aside from obvious button-pushers like interruptions, sarcasm, or insults, there’s paraverbal communication: tone, volume, and body language. Subtle and mostly unconscious, these signals can trigger a negative reaction as easily as a hasty choice of words. Seemingly small things can make a big difference, shutting down receptiveness as effectively as accusations or judgments. (For examples, see my previous posts on “I” language and “Kick ‘But’.”) Every claim of “You’re not listening to me!” can be countered with, “The message wasn’t delivered in a way that I could hear it!”

Because factors like language and paraverbals are external, it’s relatively easy to monitor and manage them, with the help of some corrective feedback and focused attention. But there are more insidious, internal things people may unwittingly contribute to conflict, including their beliefs, values, assumptions, expectations, and subjective notions of “truth.” Too often perceptual filters screen out inconvenient information when it might help solve the problem.

This is beautifully illustrated in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 film The Conversation. In it, surveillance expert Harry Caul (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) develops a theory about his current case. He’s committed to his interpretation of past events to the point where it prevents him from discovering the real meaning of a particular phrase that he has caught on tape. Even though he listens to the eight simple words over and over again, he fails to really hear them. He’s so convinced of his rightness, in fact, that it deafens him to what’s actually happening until it’s too late.

Art imitates life, and this same dynamic is played and replayed offscreen in homes and workplaces around the world. It’s hard to shift out of our own perspectives and see things from another angle, especially when emotions run high; blaming is easier. So the next time you’re embroiled in a conflict and you find yourself instinctively blaming the other person, take a few moments to consider your own role. Ask yourself the following questions as part of an essential reality check, to help you assess your contribution to the problem:

• What have I said, done, or not said, not done? (For example, as long as you avoid a difficult conversation with someone about their problematic behaviour, the issue may be more yours than theirs.)

• What might my perspective prevent me from seeing or hearing, and thus create a barrier to understanding? (Think Harry Caul’s obsessive take on his overheard conversation.)

• What awareness would be useful for me about my tone, body language, or other signals I may be sending consciously or unconsciously?

• What feelings, prejudices, stereotypes, prior experiences, or other obstacles might be preventing me from assessing the situation differently?

• What might I need to give up or let go of if we are to achieve any sort of agreement?

• How is my pride, identity/self-concept, shame, embarrassment, etc., influencing my thinking or fueling my reactions?

• What assumptions am I making, or expectations that I have, that aren’t necessarily shared by the other party?

• How well can I truly distinguish objectively observable and independently verifiable facts and events from my interpretations of them?

• How deeply am I entrenched in my position? To what extent am I genuinely willing to collaborate on a mutually satisfactory solution?

• Is being right about something that happened in the past more important to me than a more friction-free relationship in the future?

• What am I prepared to contribute toward the resolution? (Be honest.)

There are other internal and external mechanisms that can stoke a conflict, not least of which are individuals’ conflict response roles, but there’s little point in cataloguing them all here if they’re just used to find fault in others. First, we should be willing to admit that some of the responsibility for a conflict might be ours. When we are finally able to examine and adjust for our contribution to the problem, we get that much closer to achieving real understanding. Unfortunately for him (and some innocent victims), that’s a lesson the renowned Harry Caul didn’t learn soon enough.

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