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“C” is for Coward: The ABC’s of Conflict Resolution

(photo by Cobalt 123)

In the ABC’s of Conflict Resolution, we call “cowards” by another “C” term.  We call them “conflict avoidant.”

You can decide whether you are among the “conflict avoidant” by asking yourself how deeply you relate to the feelings described by New York Times writer Bob Morris in his article How to Avoid, Well, You.

THE invitation was too good to refuse — an August weekend at the august home of a friend on a little New England island. Yet, from the moment I pulled up to the ferry dock, there was dread in my soul. Two years ago, I had offended an entire family of friends likely to be there. Would one of them be on the boat, where avoidance is impossible?

Checking a reservations list, I was relieved to find myself in the clear. But later, getting an ice cream on the island’s small village green felt like being in highly exclusive enemy terrain, and I walked with head down and turned in fear from each passing station wagon.
In the church thrift store where space is tight (and the clothes irresistible) I hid behind racks with my heart pounding as each shopper entered.

Why, asks Mr. Morris, are we so afraid of the meeting (or confrontation) with the guy whose call we didn’t return or manuscript we didn’t read? Why do we scan our cell phone to determine a caller’s identity lest she be the woman whose invitation we didn’t accept or whose child bested ours at the last track meet.

Never fear. In the ABC’s of Conflict Resolution, there is always an answer to these perplexing social questions.

Help for the Conflict Avoidant

It was my friend and colleague, mediator Ken Cloke who taught me there were five means of dealing with conflict (suppression, avoidance, resolution, transformation and transcendence) and   University of Missouri Law Professor Richard Reuben who taught me there is no such thing as “bad” conflict. However, it was my community mediation experience that taught me just how much better it is address conflict than to avoid it. Those mediation experiences have also taught me that, given the right conditions, people separated by hurt and anger can and do spontaneously reconcile.

Those conditions?  The creation of an atmosphere of hope that reconciliation can be achieved without fear of further psychological or physical harm; the opening and maintainence of channels of communication among people who have closed them down; and, the assistance of a third party who is willing to patiently and lovingly sit with those in conflict like a parent with children recovering from a fever or bad dreams.

As a mediator, I have seen an elderly mother reconciled to a child who sued her for back rent and  sought to evict her from the family home after two years of estrangement. I have seen a man who refused to speak to his gay neighbors for five years – because “I’m afraid of them” — stand up at the end of a community mediation and ask each of them for a hug. I have seen parents set aside years, even decades, of mutual emotional abuse for the purpose of creating a loving home for their children.

These events are not the rare occasion or the exception to the rule. Nor are they the result of anyone’s brilliant mediation or conflict resolution skills.

They are the norm, the product of the process rather than the result of the technique.

A mediator can probably prevent these spontaneous acts of reconciliation, but s/he does not create them. At best, s/he presides over them, serves as their sponsor or appreciative audience, and counts herself privileged to have participated in them from the sidelines.

Why We Avoid Conflict

Mr. Morris asks what it was that drove him to cower behind a clothing rack to avoid seeing someone whose family member he had recently insulted. What indeed, when when we live among people who have reconciled with brothers who raped them and assailants who killed their loved ones?

The answer to the question is shame, the most powerful constellation of emotions we are capable of experiencing.   Shame makes us want to hide – from ourselves, our God and our peers – making shame an isolating state of mind. Feeling shame makes a person passive, or helpless. It causes him to focus more on condemning his entire self than simply owning up to and criticizing his behavior. The shamed individual sees himself as flawed to the core, feels self-conscious in the presence of others and fears scorn.

Because of the depth at which we all experience shame, it makes us want to do the impossible, to erase or destroy the parts of ourselves that make us feel ashamed. The guilt-ridden person, by contrast, only wants to do what he is capable of doing – changing aspects of his behavior.
It is therefore not surprising that guilt tends to motivate restitution, confession, and apology, whereas shame tends to result in avoidance or anger.

The Straight Skinny on Shame

Neuroscientists who study such things will tell you that shame is not a single feeling, but a group of emotions. They will also tell you that shame affects the body nearly as powerfully as it upsets the mind. Shame, we are told, makes us lose muscle tone in our necks and upper bodies; increases the skin temperature of our face (hence the “blush” of shame); and causes us to be uncoordinated in body and confused of mind.

No matter what we are doing when the experience of shame overtakes us, our activities will be made momentarily impossible. Shame interrupts, halts, takes over, inconveniences, trips up, makes incompetent anything that had previously been interesting or enjoyable.

And those are just the physical effects of shame. On the heels of the painful physical experience of shame, we invariably begin to search our recollection and our estimation of ourselves for some way to integrate the shameful experience with our sense of ourselves. We try to make sense of the pain and disorientation caused the sudden upset of a previously positive (or at least neutral) emotional state.

No matter how slight our transgression of the social rules that govern our relationship in a group, our “shame” for violating one or more of those conventions is generally enough to make grown-up professionals and otherwise dignified people like Mr. Morris cower behind clothes racks in second-hand stores.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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