My sisters and I got talking at a recent family reunion about how differently we each deal with conflict. We recalled our teen years when one or two of us would easily blow up at my mom or dad when something didn’t go their way (I’m not naming names!). This kind of reaction, which we all remembered, was unbelievable to those of us who would bite our lip, act like everything was fine, and skulk away to lick our wounds.
I’m one of the ones who would skulk away. But the sadness or anger (usually the operative emotion) didn’t evaporate. I nurtured it by feeling sorry for myself, thinking bad thoughts about my parents, or complaining to a friend.
Perhaps it’s this time of year — I’m listening to birds chirp as I write — but as we talked, an image came to mind of me in a garden: tending the hurt, cultivating the self-righteousness, and watering the victim-y place in my body and heart.
I grew up an accomplished gardener. I was well into adulthood before I understood that I wasn’t really growing anything but resentment. And I was slowly killing my relationships and myself. Afraid of venting the anger and hurting the relationship, I was, in my own way, doing just as much damage. So I began to look for another way.
In conflict and difficult conversations, we usually see two paths: act out the anger in tense and harsh ways (blow up), or avoid and pretend things are fine (shut down). I began to watch communicators who had found a third way; who combined a direct, straightforward approach with empathy and curiosity. People who could stay present, address their concerns, and be heard.
I was motivated to learn and gradually got better. I made mistakes. Sometimes I was too assertive; sometimes too acquiescent. Teaching these skills for almost two decades, I’m still learning.
Here are a few practices to help you make a third choice when you’re about to lash out or shut down:
Stay. Pema Chodron talks about the ability to stay present with whatever is going on in your mind, heart, and body. I call it centering. Don’t react. When you can stay present with yourself, you can do it with others.
Know your purpose. The power of purpose always trumps reaction. What do you want to accomplish with this communication? How do you want the relationship to look? Focus on what you want.
Be curious. Of all the skills I teach, curiosity is in the top three. (You’ve already read the other two.) Decide to be interested, fascinated, and open to learning – about them and about yourself. This is how you stay powerful and present.
Every difficult moment is a ki moment. Take advantage of every opportunity to create the life you want.