In their masterful book, Crucial Conversations, the authors talk about the pivotal importance of examining the stories that our minds create when we attempt to interpret what other people do.* When people do something that leads us to feel angry, scared or hurt, it is crucial to examine more closely the stories…both theirs and ours…in order to stay in dialogue with them and reach reconciliation. Here’s an example of that.
Ron and Megan both use the same classroom at church. On Sundays, Ron teaches his 7th and 8th grade Sunday School class in the room. During the week, Megan uses the room to lead an after-school art and music program offered by the congregation. This last Sunday, Ron came into the room just before Sunday School was due to start and discovered water color paintings lying all over the tables where they had been left to dry. Even the Bible verses Ron had posted on the wall were covered with more paintings and paint brushes were scattered on the countertops. “What a mess!” Ron shouted inside his head. “Not again! Megan doesn’t even think about my class. She’s into her kids and her art, and nobody else matters.” Ron was furious, but he didn’t want to make a scene. He managed a nod and a brusque, “Good morning,” when he passed by Megan in the narthex after church, but generally avoided even looking at her during Coffee Hour.
When someone does or says something that seizes our attention, we instinctively tell ourselves a story to explain what happened and why it happened. The content of that story or explanation leads to the feelings we have about the event and our feelings then lead to how we will act or respond. Typically this isn’t a conscious or drawn-out process. At the conscious level, we see or hear something and then immediately have a feeling about it. But in between the facts of the event and our feelings, there is another step that happens. We tell ourselves a story.
Ron’s story is that Megan is self-centered and uncaring towards him, which understandably leads him to feel disrespected and angry. When we are angry, hurt or scared, we most commonly respond with silence or violence (“flight or fight”). Ron chooses churning silence, which doesn’t promise a good future for their relationship.
Instead of silence or violence there is a third path, which in fact can transform conflict into a healthy outcome. This third path is the path of dialogue guided by what I call respectful curiosity. When we find ourselves having strong negative feelings towards another person, rather than avoiding or attacking them, we can choose to investigate what happened with respectful curiosity. We can invite them to tell their story about what they said or did. We can also think about and state to them more clearly our story about why we reacted as we did. This dialogue works best when it combines both honesty and respect. Rather than assuming the worst about the other person, respect means that we communicate that we value our relationship with them and want to hear their side of the story.
In Ron’s case, it could go like this: Ron could ask Megan for a chance to talk with her and then say, “When I came into the room last Sunday, there were paintings all over the tables that I use and by the time I cleaned them all up, I was ten minutes late in starting my class. I’m sure you weren’t intending this, but I started to feel that you didn’t even think about my class and that you don’t care about us. I’m curious about why the art works gets left out some weeks. I’m asking about this because I want us to work well together here at church.”
A key ingredient for conflict transformation is creating a safe and respectful moment in which people can explore the cause of their feelings and hear each other’s stories at a deeper level. When people have this kind of dialogue, they very often discover that they share common goals and are able to agree on strategies for a positive outcome.
No matter how complicated or painful a conflict may seem, an essential and effective starting point is simply learning to use the words, “I’m curious about what happened. Let’s talk!”
*Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. (McGraw Hill, 2002) I highly recommend it! It is practical and engaging to read.