When Words Fail


I've spent most of my life believing, and preaching, that good communication resolves all disputes.  It seems logical that talking things out resolves misunderstandings, which we all know are at the root of most conflicts. 

But recently I've been thinking about other ways to address conflict.  Ways that are more personal and rely less on language. Let's just say I'm coming to see the limitations of talking. 

As I've said before, when we find ourselves in a conflict, we shape a “conflict story” in which we lay out the plot, the characters and the climax.  

Here's the format: we're the victim and the other party as some type of villain. The villain took some action or non-action that hurt us.  It may be a series of small infractions but typically it leads to one rather flagrant disregard of respect. That’s the climax.  That's where we get stuck.

We hone the conflict story by telling and retelling versions of it to ourselves and others, adding in juicy bits of information as they occur in order to further our case of victimization.

As this story takes shape in our minds, we typically talk to the people around us to get their feedback.  Naturally, we select people who display sympathy and as a result... we get lots of sympathy.  We might choose to take an active approach toward resolution by hiring an attorney or a mediator to help us get through the problem.  

If we hire an attorney, she'll listen to our conflict story, shape an argument out of it that is supported by law, then prepare that argument for the judge.  If we choose to work with a mediator, we'll tell our story to the other party directly in the hopes of talking it through.  In either case, we expect to convey our understanding of the situation clearly enough that we sway another person's beliefs.

I recently had an experience that brought home the limitations of this strategy when I got a text from my elderly neighbor regarding my dog. Unlike most dog disputes, in this case Barbara likes my dog too much.  She routinely lets him into her home, feeds him tasty treats and cuddles up with him on her couch to watch television.  My gregarious dog will escape all types of containment for Barbara’s affection.  

After months of apologizing for my dog’s trespassing, politely asking for her to not feed him, and explaining the dangers and inconvenience of not being able to call to him to come home when she lets him inside, the issue came to a head one cold night when she sent a photo of my dog curled up at her feet under a blanket with the caption Just chillin'.  I quickly texted back Please don't let my dog in your house.

She answered I care about Zephyr and would never do anything to hurt him and I responded and we went back and forth for too long.  After a frightfully emotional exchange of texts in which I continued to devolve, I stepped away from my phone.  I realized I had exhausted my capacity for reasonable dialogue.  I was entering crazy-land.  This was scary because in that topsy-turvy conflict-mind, if I stopped texting, the nutty neighbor wins. 

In order to tear myself away from the compelling Last Word, I told myself I was "letting go."  This felt much better than "giving up." I had to let go of my need to win this argument, which meant I had to let go of the opportunity to be right.  In fact, even though we were the only two people engaged in this mud-fest, I had to let go of the chance to be seen as the sensible, intelligent person that I like to believe I am.  

Letting go of being right and winning the argument freed me to reframe the situation.  It was like the polarizing dynamic of our text exchange held me in a lock-down with a lonely, aging widow.  Once I realized there was nothing TO win, I was able to move forward into a new picture of the situation.  

The new conflict story that formed at that point focused on me and my dog, two entities I can actually control... at least in theory.  In this new story, the conflict is between the part of me that wants to be a relaxed dog owner who lets her dog run free and a conscientious dog owner who doesn’t put her dog in dangerous situations.  In the new story, Barbara no longer plays the villain but the consistent, known threat.  She could be a highway or a toxic waste dump. 

Instead of being the other side of the pole, she is the fulcrum point at the center of the two poles of my beliefs that causes me to tip from side to side, highlighting the conflict.  

Once I released Barbara from her position as villain and took that on myself, I got complete control over this situation.  I don’t have to waste another minute arguing with my neighbor.  I can get busy at repairing the fence and owning the results of that repair job.  

A list of questions that might help me through this next time:

  • What do you need to say to the other person that you don’t think has been heard or understood?

  • If the other person heard and understood every word you said, would the situation be resolved?  If not, what would cause it to remain?

  • What is the next best outcome if you can’t have what you want?

  • What do you need to let go of in order to have that?

  • What is a new way of seeing your conflict story that has you in complete control of yourself?