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Conflicts (that are) of Interest June 7, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Education, Family, Love, Morality, Parenting/Children, Self-Worth.

In my recent post about removing emotion from discipline, both in the home and at the workplace, several people have commented that there is value in expressing hurt feelings and disappointment. To quote:

…its more valuable for them to know that after a fight things go back to normal, and it’s all forgotten

When it comes to kids seeing their parents dealing with disputes and conflict (“a fight”) I agree 100%. However, discipline is a different story.

All Your Past Sins are Since Passed
[Apologies to Billy Joel for co-opting that line for the heading.] One of the few, and I mean FEW clear mistakes that my parents made was hiding their disagreements and arguments from us. As a result, I developed a sense that a “no conflict = happy home.” This is far from the truth, and is one of the many reasons that I struggle with passive-aggressive tendencies in my personal and professional life.

For me, a huge breakthrough was reading Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” Ostensibly, the book is about managing teams in a work environment, but it shows in personal relationships too. The first dysfunction he spells out is a “lack of conflict.”

Without giving away too much of the story, Lencioni suggests that a lack of conflict is a sign of lack of trust, because it’s perfectly normal and healthy for two individuals to experience conflict on a regular basis. If the conflict isn’t visible, that means it’s being suppressed–it doesn’t mean that conflict doesn’t exist. In this light, it’s perfectly normal and healthy for kids (and co-workers) to see and understand that something upsets us. However, when we’re at a point of enforcing discipline, going “nuclear” can have devastating consequences.

A Father, a Son, and a Fencepost
There are several variations to this fable. Here’s my version:

A father was counselling his teenage son about rage and anger, and required him to drive nails into a fencepost whenever he lost his temper and lashed out at someone verbally. After apologizing for his outburst, the father would remind the son to go and pull the nail out of the post. After this routine became a habit, the son started doing it on his own. Years later, as the boy was ready to move out, he and his father stood by the fencepost. Noting the many holes, each one representing an outburst and a corresponding apology, the father observed, “Words are like nails, driven into this post. An apology can remove the nail, but the hole it leaves behind is still there.”

My experience is that the effect of words is even more powerful when they travel from parent to child, and not just from peer-to-peer. Harsh words that I speak as a parent, in anger, may create a wound in the soul of my child that never heals, no matter how much I apologize for the intensity of my response.

Do my sons need to see me modelling effective conflict resolution? Absolutely. However, if a “nuclear” response is seen as an appropriate consequence of a child’s behavior, that’s almost certainly what the child will model later in life. This will be true in their relationships with their spouses (should they marry), friends and co-workers, and potentially, with their children. What kind of response would I like to see them have? One that leaves a scar on the soul? Words that destroy and humiliate?

Maybe someday, one of my sons will be in a position where he will have to choose a response to be a consequence of someone else’s behavior. I consider myself a “Hawk” (in terms of international affairs), but if one of them should happen to become President of the US, I would hope that would think carefully about a nuclear response.

What buttons would you have your children push first?


1. Mia - June 8, 2006

My request would be the “respect” button. As feelings are neither right nor wrong, teaching my children that they are entitled to their feelings, goes hand in hand with holding them accountable for being mindful of love and respect.

Yes, we are all human and sometimes our buttons pop when we’re pressed beyond our boundaries. In times like these it helps to have someone who is supportive of our best intent as parents. Someone who assures us that “this too shall pass”. Someone who makes us laugh at the irony of our own childhood mishaps and the grace we’ve learned about along the way.

Conflict resolution is definitely something that is witnessed even when we don’t plan for it. Which is why being a parent can be so humbling. Sometimes when we see red – our children are the one’s who are calm and focus on how “not major” the real issue is. But rather that we’ve reacted for any number of reasons – not short of disappointment in them, ourselves, or something far removed from the current circumstances. Which is why taking “time outs” can be beneficial to all and admitting to our thin skin can actually aid them in appreaciating our own “realness”.

Having shared that, respect of those involved with regards to their own feelings and emotions, and the extending of grace, which is forgiveness and a hope for a tomorrow, which brings with it the possibility of a lesson already learned and applied…. should be one of our top priorities as people… period.

(Long deep sigh) May we always seek insight, understanding, and discernment, as we communicate love and respect to those whom we’ve been entrusted to influence day by day.

Blessings always,

2. litlove - June 8, 2006

I think you may be quite right. But now I have another problem for you – how do I tell my sister-in-law? But kidding aside, I’m interested in what you say about trust and conflict. I detest conflict and will avoid it whenever possible and I do think my main psychological flaw is to have very little trust in the world. I don’t believe things will just resolve themselves. And I was brought up in a family in which failure to agree was taken as a lack of love. I shall ponder on what you say.

3. Tim - June 8, 2006

Mia, thank you for the observation. Very insightful!

Litlove, imagine that you’re going to discuss something with a co-worker about an upcoming project. You think it should be done one way, and she thinks it should be handled another. That difference of opinion, unexpressed, represents an unresolved conflict. (It may not *seem* like conflict, but it is.)

If you never discuss the difference of opinion, how do you decide what to do? Just go with your preference, or hers? That eliminates the possibility of the other person learning anything from the interaction, and presumes that one person is always smarter, and the other is always less-so. How often is this the case? In my life, it’s almost NEVER the case, so I almost always benefit from hearing another view.

So if you assume that two people’s opinions are different, what do you do? In Lencioni’s view, you “mine for conflict.” You dig around and unearth the things that cause you to disagree. Why? Well, how committed are you going to be to someone else’s strategy? Within the family context, how committed are you to a financial decision if your spouse wants to do something, you don’t, but you end up agreeing, just to avoid conflict?

The key to all of this is trust. If I trust that you have the same agenda as I do (moving the organization forward), and you trust me the same way, then we can get to a point where we don’t interpret a difference of opinion as a personal attack. A “failure to agree” is nothing more than stated independence. If independent thought is a Bad Thing ™, then you really can’t move forward on expressing disagreements and exploring conflict.

However, if we can tolerate a different opinion, and explore why someone else feels a certain way (different from how we feel), then we’ll sometimes find that there is a “right answer” that we can agree is the best solution. This is what becomes “healthy conflict.” Even if we don’t come to a point of agreement, it’s good for us to have a more complete understanding of why someone else feels a certain way.

More and more, I’m of the opinion that we (people) have moved to a mode of social interraction where we hold back our true feelings and thoughts, and therefore hide conflict. I suspect we do so for several reasons, but fear is probably at the top. Fear of being wrong. Fear of someone else thinking our ideas are stupid or weird.

For me, the more I love someone, the more I’m going to openly share my disagreements with them, and they with me. Make sense?

4. litlove - June 9, 2006


5. Parable: The Holes are Still There « A Fool and his Words are Soon Parted - September 28, 2011

[…] of my knowledge, rooted in an actual event. I’ve heard several variations, and have quoted one of the shorter versions on this very blog. However, there is a longer version that I heard recently, and it bears repeating here, though this […]

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