Making Conflict Creative

by Rick on April 10, 2019

We see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.—Corinthians 13:12

Many years ago, I faced the challenge of “doing something about” a noxious employee who worked in the development office. She was competent at the technical side of her job, but her personality was subtly doing damage to the school climate. I met with her once a week in an effort to get her to change, but (surprise, surprise) I wasn’t succeeding.

Then one day I surprised myself. In the middle of one of those conversations I said, “So, Rachel, do you like to be rejected.”

She was incensed. “Rejected? Of course, not. Nobody likes to be rejected. How can you ask me such a ridiculous question?”

“I understand,” I said. “It’s a funny question. The thing is that a development person has to risk rejection all the time. Making requests is at the core of the fundraising business: asking for money, asking people to ask for money, recruiting volunteers, asking for help. You have to put yourself out there every day. But asking someone for something makes you vulnerable. It opens you up to rejection. The other person might say, ‘No.’ If you can’t face being rejected, you don’t ask, and if you don’t ask, fundraising is a hard career for you.”

She got even madder, and the conversation ended shortly after that. A week later she told me she was resigning, which was a good enough outcome under the circumstances. Labor lawyers would have given me advice on how to fire her without getting sued, but with people I would rather get to a truth that both of us can agree on. That’s trickier.

“Do you like to be rejected?” Where did that question come from? You might say it’s counter-intuitive to pop a question like that on someone who is not a good friend. It is certainly counter-cultural. My brain’s executive director never would have thought of it. And yet, it was perfect for producing the breakthrough I needed in what seemed like an impossible personnel situation.

Where did that question come from? It came from some reservoir of resources I keep forgetting I have: a fountain of creativity. It’s as if I have a repertoire of good lines somewhere in my brain I don’t know about—like I had a muse or something.

BRING YOUR WHOLE SELF TO  A CONFLICT

We all have this repertoire inside us, this reservoir of potential, a well-spring of good lines. Poets aren’t the only ones with a muse, and whatever our line of work, we need it. Relying only on what we think we know, compromises our ability to function effectively in the world, because the world has so much more in it than we think we know. Our senses cannot provide us with all the information we need in order to make good decisions. “We see through a glass darkly.” It’s the way the brain evolved from chimpanzees. Our executive self has a bias toward reacting efficiently to risk. It’s designed to see “the important stuff,” and to screen out “irrelevant data.” Our brain has a nasty tendency to blind us to possibilities, because it focuses on probabilities.

When I decided that that person sitting across from me was the important stuff, and let go of my fear that she was ruining the social climate that I was responsible for, my frontal lobe took a break and allowed other messages to come to mind. Some might say I listened to my heart.

This principle applies in all decision-making. Leaving problem solving up to the crisis manager of the brain compromises our decision-making, especially good social decisions. We need to train our brains to listen to our heart and use the whole self. Difficult interpersonal situations provide us with some of our most important opportunities to think creatively.

What did I do right?

  1. I Let go of fear, frustration, needs and goals.
  2. I felt: “That person in front of me is all that matters right now.”
  3. I let humor come to mind and had a thought that made me smile.
  4. I asked her about her.
  5. I Let go of the outcome.

“We see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.”

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Marianne White Dunlap April 18, 2019 at 12:20 pm

“. . . get to a truth that both . . . can agree on. That’s trickier.” Amen, it is so!
And it gets trickier the more I try to communicate through technology (“through a glass darkly”) about issues that are better served by “face-to-face” contact with tempered honesty.

Rick April 18, 2019 at 1:06 pm

face to face. so important. I used to have a rule instituted 20 years ago: Never have a disagreement by email. When someone emails something you disagree with go have a talk face to face. The other person’s and your no-verbal communications are so important. You can’t smile by email. even an emoji is not fully communicative.

Patricia Lathrom April 18, 2019 at 10:04 pm

Brilliant!

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