Can conflict be creative? My older brother and I fought a lot. “Fight to the death!” we said. It scared our mother, and scared me, too, I guess.
I remember at age eight fighting in our back yard with Bruce Keller, the son of the police chief who lived on the other side of the stonewall. Of course, manly pride required that I fight it out with him, but deep inside I didn’t want to.
So there we were wrestling on the ground when it came to me to say, “Hey, why are we fighting?”
I was afraid that Bruce would call me a “chicken,” but he didn’t. He laughed, and said, “Yeah. Why are we fighting?” and we stopped.
I learned a lesson. Or more truthfully, I should have learned a lesson. I have, of course, been in thousands conflicts. You can’t have friends, or neighbors, or a marriage, or children, or teach, or run a school without conflict. So you’d think that the strategy I learned when I was a child would have become a conscious strategy by now. But instead, I always felt moments like this were little miracles, or that I had just gotten lucky. Only in the last few years, as I think back on some of these little miracles, have I realized that there is an actual strategy. Finally, I’m ready to propose a name for it: Change the Game.
Once our amygdala has given us the fight or flight signal, we begin playing our conflict game. Of course, each of us tends to play the conflict game differently, (aggressive, evasive, submissive, combative, etc.), but regardless of the size of our conflict repertoire our choices are limited as our moves tend to be complementary to moves of the person who has become our adversary. Both of us are stuck in the adversary dance.
If, however, one of us does something surprising that communicates that we are playing a different game, it can be disarming. If we let our genius join the fun it will be more creative, more productive, and happier for both of us. All that energy that was preparing for battle can be transformed into more imaginative interactions. Often, but not always, you can get smiles rather than grimaces, laugher rather than growls. Often, we both come away having created a better moment by liberating our imagination.
I notice, now, that I have been writing about these little miracles (mine and others’) ever since I started this blog over six years ago. Here are a few. My mind files the stories according to the words that popped to mind at just the right moment to change the game:
- “We belong to a mutual confrontation society, don’t we?”
- “You’re kind of a comedian, aren’t you.”
- “Yes. I’m worried about how he will do in 7th grade, too.”
- “As your advisor, I suggest…”
- “Then what would happen if you hit him back?”
- “Look, a couple of your clients.”
So, all these stories do have a moral: if you are in a conflict, and you don’t want to fight, let your genius join the conflict and Change the Game. (I’m open to better names for it, and would love to hear your stories.)