Sometimes when you’re engaged in a quarrel with someone the thing takes on a momentum of its own. Even when you want to hold back on the nastiness; you want to resist that below-the-belt blow, somehow you say the cutting thing anyway. And so the rift between you deepens and widens. The other person reciprocates and it becomes even less likely that you will be able to resolve your differences. Indeed, the more the above scenario repeats itself the more committed both of you become to being hurtful and doing damage. You’re simply not in a state of mind to seek a constructive solution.
What may have started out as a disagreement that could be resolved in several ways, becomes an impossible heaving mess of emotion, distrust, blaming, self-aggrandisement (you have to keep on convincing yourself that you’re right), lobbying (you have to recruit support from others who will keep telling you that you’re right). The original issue pales in the face of the escalation.
Someone has to call a halt, but there’s that rule about ‘who blinks first loses’. Yet it is usually the person who is willing to blink first, to avoid any more harmful dust and shards of nastiness damaging their eyes, who is able to shift the fight. Don’t be misled by the sanctimonious cliché that says ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ The opposite is true. Love is accepting one’s own part in fuelling a conflict until it gets out of control. Love is admitting that one played an active part in moving further and further away from a solution and that one is willing to apologise and to offer a first conciliatory step.
I was approached to mediate a family dispute some months ago. The person who blinked first was hurt and puzzled and felt the pressure of old age, failing health and time: it became imperative that a peace be brokered in a family that felt like it was falling apart, before it was too late. Let’s call this person Amy. The other family member remained unapproachable. Let’s call this person Harrison. A third family member, whom I will call Penny, was recruited to attempt to get Harrison to agree to mediation. I would work with Penny until she felt ready to have the conversation with Harrison. Penny declined. It was too much pressure and she was uncertain that the outcome could ever be positive.
And so I continued to work with Amy for a bit. Rather than being their mediator I became her conflict coach. We worked on moving out of the past. She opted to show Harrison that she’d blinked: she made an overture to reconnect. It was rejected. For a time I felt I’d failed Amy and had to tell myself that people can move only at the pace they can handle, and therefore not to personalise the lack of success. Things happen when they will.
However, it was not a failure because everyone chilled and avoided any further escalation. There was some introspection throughout the family while I remained on standby. And then unexpectedly Penny stepped in as the family mediator: she found her own way of proposing a rapprochement/reconciliation. She did it gently, cautiously and with great love. She proposed a family event to which she invited both Harrison and Amy, soliciting each one’s agreement to attend, in the knowledge that the other would probably be there.
Amy had misgivings. Trust was still low as could be. I was invited back in, to conflict-coach. We did two things: We talked about love and we talked about introspection, not because I wanted to, but because the time was right.
Amy blinked again. She was suddenly clear of vision. She knew what she had to do. It included taking only one baby step – for now. She took it. Are they fully reconciled now – Amy and Harrison? No, but they shared a common family ritual and they hugged when they parted. There’s another clichéd saying ‘walk, don’t run’. She walked in addition to blinking first. It took a great deal of courage to risk yet another rejected overture but love can overcome such fears and so it came to pass.
Can I close the book on this one? I believe they know what needs to happen next. I also believe that it continues to be helpful to test one’s ideas with a neutral third party who knows and understands the background, and so I may be invited back in. I’ll happily go. What do I get out of it? Of course there’s the professional coach/mediator thing that says I must have done my work well to help the family progress as they have. The truth of it is that I unexpectedly feel myself a great deal closer to my own sons. We also went through more than one rough patch over the years. Seeing the relief in my client’s eyes fills me with gratitude that my sons are such a vivid part of my life.