Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Conflict for Dessert

Sunday night I arrived in Oakland for the start of a four-day visit, and I had dinner with my friend (and host), Jeffrey Harris, an ex-Dancing Rabbit member. We went out to a neighborhood Italian restaurant with his partner and housemate Ha, and enjoyed a lovely dinner, replete with caprese, carbohydrates (fresh bread & pasta), and conversation.

Though we had our eyes on tiramisu for dessert, alas, they were all out! While they also had cannoli on the menu and that seemed to me a perfectly acceptable runner-up selection, Jeffrey talked me into going out instead to a nearby specialty ice cream shop, Tara's, which features organic and exotic flavors (I had cherry fudge, mango agave, and tarragon chocolate). It was pretty damn good. Jeffrey assured me that they use low-fat milk in concocting their delicacies, yet it was incredibly rich tasting nonetheless. Yum.

• • •
Last night I accepted a dinner invitation at a co-op house within walking distance of Jeffrey's, and once again I did not have cannoli for dessert. Instead I had conflict.

The person who'd invited me to dinner was struggling in her relationship with another house member and she wanted my help in facilitating an attempt to help them work through their dynamics. While it was flattering to be asked, I generally prefer not have these requests sprung on me. Still, here we were, and it seemed ingracious to decline. (Are professional facilitators ever off duty?)

As it happened, the other player in the conflict (a guy) also didn't know about this plan for postprandial processing. So it was a surprise all around. Fortunately for the woman (and my story) the guy was willing to give it a try. Even though he was tired from a long day at work and wanted to get to bed early, he was willing to give it 10 minutes.

(Well, I knew that that wasn't working—if it's serous conflict, 10 minutes is rarely sufficient to hear even one side of an upset, much less get the whole picture and make an attempt at working it out. I figured though that once we got started, things would pretty much move along on their own momentum, and, sure enough, a half hour went by before anyone thought to check a watch.)

While the presenting incident involved the proper use of dish racks in the common kitchen, I was never under any illusion that that was the underlying issue. It didn't take too long to uncover the pattern. Her story was that he is always defensive and resists her attempts to work through issues she has with his behavior. His story was that she's always pushing him to change and doesn't respect any boundaries about what or when to discuss her concerns. He was defended to guard against her pushing; she pushed to break through his defenses. Each thought they were responding in a measured way to what the other had started. This is how wars get started.

After many months of living together, they had found themselves on a merry-go-round that neither wanted to be on. Going round and round was not proving to be productive, and it was never merry. The good news is that they both wanted it to be different. I got the woman to see how she might get different results if she did two things differently when she had a bone to pick with him:

a) Ask the guy if this was a good time to talk about an issue, and respect his answer if he said, "No."

b) Once they had agreement to talk about her concerns, that she start by hearing how the incident in question looked to him and that she not proceed to tell her side of the story until he indicated that she'd understood his experience of the incident. (Note: When trust is low between people it is generally not sufficient that she felt she had heard him out; he needs to acknowledge that he feels heard as a prelude to the conversation staying constructive.)

Going the other way, I got the man to commit to:

a) Not agree to hear her feedback unless he thought he was in a frame of mind to work with it constructively.

b) If he puts her off in the moment, that he take primary responsibility for coming up with an alternative time that was not unreasonably distant (Hint: something sooner than "when hell freezes over"). It's not cool to expect her to come to him, if he requests a postponement.

c) When it comes time for her to state what's been hard for her, that he offer her the same thing she offers him: an acknowledgment to her satisfaction that he got it. (Note: affect here is typically just as important as the words.)

Finally, I got both of hem to be allies in jointly bringing to a future house meeting the topic of:
What are the expectations of house members to provide a reasonable avenue to hear feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the house?

At the end of the day, conflict is most often about the same incident being experienced through different frames of reference, and misunderstandings about other people's lenses of reality. Fortunately, sociopaths are much rarer than TV would have us believe, and few people are truly evil. While behaviors that are selfish or unmindful are numbingly common, if you can remind yourself that no one actually meant harm, it will go a long way toward helping you find a way through the slough of ill feelings.
• • •
So dessert has been a surprise adventure each of my first two nights in the Bay Area. Tonight, I think, I'll just bring my own damn cannoli.

1 comment:

Alline said...

Fig with Port! Truffle with carmelized pear! White pepper chocolate chip! Leave the cannoli, take the ice cream! (I can't wait to go back to berkeley and go to tara's!) Thanks for sharing, even if ice cream wasn't the REAL topic of the post...