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Jack and Jill Go Up a Hill….and Argue!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Imagine this scenario: “Jack” is having a conversation with “Jill” about whether to go up the hill to fetch a pail of water. ( From out of nowhere, Jill makes an offhand but biting remark to which Jack responds negatively. The ensuing conversation gets totally off track on whether they should go up the hill and instead focuses on Jack’s personality traits and then on Jill’s personality traits. Without realizing it, they have spent many many minutes on what to an observer appears to be nonsense. Whether to go up the hill has long been forgotten about. And … as this “conversation” proceeds, it appears to follow a pattern that has repeated itself innumerable times.  To listen to them hurl their accusations at each other (which by now are all personal and have nothing to do with the task at hand; fetching water!) one would think they are reading from a script. And… indeed they are … in a weird sort of way.

In his book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Daniel Shapiro (Viking 2016) discusses emotional patterns that are part and parcel of conflict.  As we all know, the success of settling any dispute depends on one’s mindset: “mindset matters”. (Id. at 23.) It will make the difference on whether a resolution is reached.  Part of our mindsets involve our identities and whether the dispute at hand is threatening our identities.  Most disputes come down to a “me versus you” or “us vs them” mentality. Shapiro aptly calls this “The Tribal Effect” which leads to reactive devaluation: we discount what the other is saying simply because it is coming from her, our “adversary”. (Id. at 25.) Because of this Tribal Effect mentality, we tend to be adversarial, self-righteous in our position, and closed minded; we are right and the other party is wrong! (Id. at 24-25.)

Because this Tribal Effect is emotionally based, it can cause us to engage in certain patterns of emotional behavior. The first is what Shapiro calls “Vertigo” which “… is a warped state of consciousness in which a relationship consumes your emotional energies. (Id. at 26.) As in the example with Jack and Jill, the conversation can start off innocently enough. Then suddenly, one makes a biting remark and the conversation becomes highly emotional and time seems to fly by. Without realizing it, the parties have spent 20-30 minutes or more in a very heated conversation that is way off the original topic. The parties’ sense of time is warped due to the emotional energies being consumed by what the parties may later realize to be an inconsequential conversation.  (Id. at 31- 50.)

The second pattern that can ensue (and we all have witnessed it) is the repetition compulsion: it “…compels the reenactment of the same behavior patterns time and again.” (Id. at 51.) If one were watching a movie, it would be watching the same scene(s) repeatedly.  As much as the parties try not to engage in it, this repetition compulsion is “…a dysfunctional pattern of behavior that you feel driven to repeat.” (emphasis original.) (Id. at 51.) While the situation may be different, the trigger will be the same, and once triggered, the “habit” or repetitive behavior will occur, without the realization that it is, indeed, repetitive. A party will think that since it is a new or different conflict, the behavior is new and is due to present circumstances. (Id. at 50-58.)

And so… how do Jack and Jill escape their downward emotional spiral and repetitive behavior so that their discussion begins and ends with whether to go up the hill to fetch some water? With respect to both- Jack and Jill need to become aware that their emotions are taking over and then stop themselves from going down the “rabbit hole”.  With respect to Vertigo, perhaps they should take a break from the conversation entirely, or change the topic entirely. They might think about changing their physical environment and perhaps externalizing the conflict by giving it a name as a mental way of separating their selves from the “conflict.”  (Id. at 38-49). With respect to the repetition compulsion, again, they need to become aware of it and catch it as soon as possible.  Each must resist the urge to replay the same script once again, and instead, look for a new routine or “habit” with which to replace it. She should try to preempt it by engaging in another behavior. (Id. at 56-68.)

So- Jack and Jill are having a conversation about whether to go up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jill makes a nasty remark. Jack- rather than responding, – catches himself, realizing that if he responds the way he has in the past, they will both go down the twin rabbit holes of vertigo and repetition compulsion. Instead, he ignores Jill’s comment by changing the topic or suggesting that they take a walk for a few minutes to admire the flowers on the hill and then revisit their “plan of action”. Or, in response, Jack puts a name of Jill’s rude and insulting comment, externalizing it and stating that he is not going to go there with her, this time…. And changes the topic.

The book discusses other traps that we fall into (to be discussed in a later blog?). I just found the above two to be ones with which we can all easily identify. Unfortunately, we have all seen them play out with much too much frequency.

…. Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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