Let’s say you’re reading this because you’re fed up with a wiener-butt-poopy-head and you would like to tell that guy where to go. You might be hoping that my advice would be something like, “Punch that idiot in the face!” or “You’re right and he’s wrong so you should force your will upon him and make him do it your way!” or “Tell him he’s a complete jackass and an epic failure!” As fun and satisfying as it sounds to beat someone into submission, whether physically or verbally, it won’t help us to actually resolve the conflict. Unless you can punch really, really hard.
First of all, let me start by saying that anyone, including yours truly (gasp!), can qualify as a difficult person when we don’t see eye to eye. Of course there are the chronically difficult, and those people are a real hoot. My husband may think I’m chronically difficult, because he chronically has to live with me and he can’t go home to his spouse and complain about this wacko broad because I am both his spouse and that wacko broad. So we’re using a loosey-goosey definition for the word difficult today.
As the cliché goes: we can’t change other people, we can only change ourselves. I hate that cliché because we can change the other guy, or at the very least we can change how we think about the other guy and how we react to him, which is almost as good as actually changing him.
Here are my ways to resolve a conflict with an irritating buffoon.
1. Accept People the Way They Are
Don’t roll your eyes and shut your browser. I’m not saying to let the moron trample you because you are just going to let it all happen. I’m talking about a subtle mind shift that will help you feel less annoyed. And you’ll learn a little bit about yourself in the process.
Zen Master Mary Jaksch at Goodlife Zen says that when you take issue with somebody and you find yourself wishing that this person were different, what you’re often actually wishing is that this frustrating individual was more like yourself.
Try it with me for a second. If there’s someone whose behavior is pissing you off, do you find yourself wishing that she would act the same way you would act?
If you give her the space to be herself and accept that she has different perspectives and agendas than you do, it helps you be more empathetic about what makes her tick. Different ideas make her feel good, and maybe her family raised her with different values and behaviors than your family raised you. She also has different experiences and different anecdotal evidence about the way the world works.
To get a better idea of how to grasp the other person’s perspective, here’s an example of how empathizing with my husband’s mindset helped me to untwist my knickers.
A Story About Relaxation and Conflict
For relaxation, my husband Steve prefers lounging in front of the TV for some escapism, while what works for me is entirely different. When I’m sitting still, I tend towards overthinking and brooding, which is definitely counter to relaxation. This often results in obsessive listmaking and checkboxes, which will cause my husband to smirk. What relaxes me? The opposite of what relaxes Steve. I want to move my body, preferably outside. Any form of physical activity helps clear my mind, makes me feel liberated, and the stress melts away. I’m happiest outside in the sunshine or at the gym if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Of course everyone needs to veg out sometimes; we can’t physically run ourselves ragged forever, and I do enjoy my TV time to allow my body to rest in the evening. However, I get antsy when I sit in front of the TV for too long, especially during a nice weekend day. It makes me anxious, I wonder what I could be accomplishing and I often feel like I’m WASTING MY LIFE. Nothing gets me thinking about death and mortality more than thinking about the hours of my existence I’ve spent zoned out in front of the TV and what else I could have done with that time. Not very relaxing, no.
Our Conflict Over Leisure Time
I’m ashamed to admit that, because of my own notions about relaxation, sometimes I can make it hard for Steve to chill out. Part of it comes with, I think, a wholesome agenda: I’ll wish that he’ll come out and play with me so I can enjoy his company while I’m out getting physical. I love spending time with him, and what’s better than spending time with the man I love doing stuff I love doing. And if we’re active together, we’ll have a long, happy and healthy marriage and family life, right? Right?!
However, my asking can turn into cajoling, which then can escalate to frustration and aggravation when he proves to be immoveable. He says he doesn’t want to come out and play with me, because right now he’s relaxing! He says he will go exercise on his own time. Having lost the battle, I’ll stomp out of the house by myself. Then I’ll go relax and have a grand old time, albeit bittersweet without my husband, while he decompresses alone in the equivalent of a man cave – on the couch without me.
2. Get to the Source of the Conflict (Hint: It’s in Your Head)
So what’s the true conflict here? Is it simply the difference between Steve’s way of relaxing and mine? Not really. The conflict is that I have a particular perspective about the best way to spend free time. I think, “I’m improving my physical health by being less sedentary, so there.”
Nine times out of ten when you have a conflict on your hands, it’s because you feel that your perspective is superior. Just take a minute to get into the other person’s head and determine why their perspective is also valuable.
Looking at the issue from the other guy’s perspective is hard to do, especially when we want to be right and, by extension, have things our way. In my case, we’re talking about relaxation here. Steve uses a couch. That’s a perfectly valid method of relaxation. Understanding that Steve actually is relaxing and not thinking about death and feeling guilty helps me get why he needs to do it his way. He doesn’t collapse the acts of exercise and relaxation into the same activity like I do. And I admire his ability to relax. Let’s face it, he’s better at it than I am.
Putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes could help you get to the root of your concern. Maybe my true anxiety is that I don’t want to be my husband’s caretaker some day. I want us both to be able-bodied individuals in our old age for max enjoyment of this one, short life we get. That’s a very different issue than my wanting to enjoy Steve’s company while I take a hike, and it’s a concern that’s resolved by Steve’s exercise routine.
3. Don’t Get Defensive, Communicate
Tina Su over at Think Simple has some great ideas for dealing with difficult people. She says our natural instinct when dealing difficult people is to attack back in order to defend ourselves, but reacting harshly can escalate the scenario into nasty territory, and rarely solves the issue.
Sometimes we think we’re in conflict with someone and they don’t even know it! How many times do we think in our heads about how that person is wronging us, or we think that they disagree with us or that they are wrong about something based on some comment they made. We stew and we fester and we build up a case in our minds as to why they are wrong and we are right.
The Dirty Kitchen Story
My husband and I share the household chores, and one of my jobs is to keep the kitchen neat and clean. Alas, I’m not the neatest person in the universe. In fact, if you look at where I fall on the neat-to-slob continuum, I fall squarely in the slob camp. That said, I work hard to fight my natural tendencies. Sometimes (like when I’m tired and pregnant) I fail more than I succeed, but my efforts keep me far away from any TV show with the word “hoarder” in the title.
There was a time when I was neither pregnant nor tired and just plain didn’t keep the kitchen as well as I could have. I never had a good rhythm of keeping the dishwasher empty and ready for dirty dishes. So dishes would pile up in the sink.
When the dishwasher actually was empty and Steve would throw his dirties in the sink anyway, I would feel frustrated that he was making my job harder. Because I sometimes start emptying a clean dishwasher and then get distracted partway through the job, from his perspective, how the heck is he supposed to know that a dishwasher that’s half-full is clean or dirty? So he just stopped checking the dishwasher altogether and began using the sink entirely.
So the conflict in this case would be Steve wondering why in the heck his wife can’t do something as simple as keep a kitchen neat in a two-person household. (I don’t know, babe, I don’t know. I blame it on our freakishly tiny dishwasher.) The other minor conflict was when I would wonder why the heck my husband couldn’t manage to take 10 seconds to put his dishes in the dishwasher.
Communicate Your Frustration
Steve is an infinitely patient person, but after a while, even he had to say something. He began to show hints of annoyance and I got the hint. When I realized how much this issue was bugging him, I made more of an effort to correct myself.
I discovered that half the battle of a clean kitchen is keeping the dishwasher empty so it’s always ready for dirty dishes. My rules were:
1. Leave the sink spotless so no one is tempted to put dishes in it.
2. Run the dishwasher every morning so that I can empty it and have it ready for dinner dishes and pans every night.
3. Clean up immediately after dinner; load and run the dishwasher and clean out the sink so that the kitchen would be fresh for breakfast in the morning.
Steve noticed and appreciated that I was trying to make it better, and his praise reinforced my good behaviors. Plus the more I kept the kitchen clean, the more he pitched in to help. No more dirty dishes in the sink! It was easy to put dishes in the dishwasher, because it was usually empty. No surprises or wondering why the dishwasher was half full and whether it was clean or dirty.
Appreciate What Communication Can Do
This dishwasher story could have had an entirely different end. If Steve never let on how annoyed he was, I could never have bothered to figure out that our dishwasher needs to be run morning and night to keep our kitchen out of the weeds. He could have spent the next 70 years wondering what in the hell is wrong with his wife.
Of course the saga continues, as what is currently wrong with his wife is that her back and legs start aching within two hours of getting out of bed in the morning. But at least we know this is a temporary setback in our efforts towards a clean kitchen and I will once again return to good wife status when I regain use of myself as something other than home to our beautiful, parasitic baby. (Baby, if you’re reading this, you’ve been born and I’m only referring to the part when you were in utero, okay? We’re cool now.)
The point is, unless we open up a dialogue with the person who is bothering us, it’s impossible to know how they really feel about the issue, and especially how they feel about it in relation to your opinion. Before he said something, Steve might have thought that I didn’t give a flying crap about a clean kitchen. I did care; I just wasn’t giving the issue the attention it deserved until he said something about it.
If you offer your thoughts, you will often be surprised that you’re on the same page and that a solution is within reach. So to sum up, 1) Change your mindset: accept your opponent by practicing empathy, and 2) Get to the source of the conflict. Given the other guy’s perspective and your own quirks and opinions, what’s the real issue? 3. Communicate: express your own perspective to make some progress.
Problem solved, no punching necessary. Unless you’re into that kind of thing.
What’s your favorite way to resolve a conflict? What has worked well for you in the past? I’ll meet you in the comments!