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Conflict Avoidance: Social Obligations, Larry David and Shame

Conflict Avoidance: Social Obligations, Larry David and Shame

How deeply do you renosonate with the feelings described by New York Times writer Bob Morris in yesterday’s “Age of Dissonance” column, 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, he asks, are we afraid of the meeting (or confrontation) with the guy whose call we didn’t return or manuscript we didn’t read?  Whose invitation we didn’t accept, whose feelings we offended, or who stole our client?


It was my friend and colleague 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 and friend Richard Reuben who taught me that there is no such thing as “bad” conflict.

It was through my communnity mediation experience, however, that I finally learned it was better to address than to avoid conflict.  I have also learned that people will, given the right conditions, spontaneously reconcile.  Those conditions?  Having hope that reconciliation can be achieved without fear of sustaining psychological or physical harm, opening and maintaining channels of communication, 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.

Listen, I have seen an elderly mother reconciled to a child who sued her and then served her with an eviction notice after two years of estrangement.  I have seen (in a documentary film on restorative justice) a woman whose brother raped her at knife point, collapse sobbing into his embrace at a prison where he’d already been incarcerated for this crime for years.  I have seen a man who refused to speak to his gay neighbors for five years stand up at the end of a community mediation and say, “may I hug the two of you?”

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.


Mr. Morris asks us what it is that drives us to cower behind clothing racks to avoid seeing someone whose telephone call we “forgot” to return.  What indeed, when when we live among people who have reconciled with brothers who raped them or assailants who killed members of their family?

The answer to the question is shame, the most powerful constellation of emotions we are capable of experiencing. The lengths to which we will go to avoid these feelings was hilariously depicted just last night on Curb Your Enthusiasm, an episode you’re just going to have to see. 

Your punishment for not getting your shame-education from pop television references is to read an excerpt from an academic article (written by someone very close to me) on the origins of shame and its role in restorative justice.

The word shame is derived from the Indo-European skem which means “to hide.” Shame makes us want to hide – from ourselves, our God and our peers – making shame an existentially isolating state of mind. Feeling shame makes a person “dejection-based, passive, or helpless,” causing the “ashamed person [to focus] more on devaluing or condemning his entire self” than upon his behavior. He sees himself “as fundamentally flawed, feels self-conscious about the visibility of his actions, fears scorn, and thus avoids or hides from others.”

The shamed individual wants “to undo aspects of the self” whereas the guilt-ridden one wishes to undo 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 psycho-biology of the constellation of emotions we call “shame” is innate.  It produces a sudden loss of muscle tone in the neck and upper body; increases skin temperature on the face, frequently resulting in a blush and causes a brief period of incoordination and apparent disorganization. No matter what behavior is in progress when shame affect is triggered, it will be made momentarily impossible. Shame interrupts, halts, takes over, inconveniences, trips up, makes incompetent anything that had previously been interesting or enjoyable.

A state of cognitive shame follows this initial cluster of feelings. After the painful jolt of shame, we begin to search our “life scripts” for some way to integrate the shameful experience with our prior experiences, to make sense of the pain and disorientation caused by the sudden upset of a positive emotional state.

There you have it.  Though it may seem more outrageous than comic for wildly successful adults to feign compliance with a social obligation by showing up a day late for a party pretending to have gotten the date wrong (the Larry David episode) it is no more or less absurd than the ordinary daily ways we all have of avoiding someone who might make us feel ashamed.

Tomorrow we will discuss ways to positively engage yourself with those who you may have inadvertanly offended.


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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