Five Questions and Strategies That Can Save Your Sanity, Time, Relationships, and Money
Winning Through Experience
This article is excerpted from Dr. Steinberg’s forthcoming book, Life Control: Five Principles You Need to Take Charge and Get Ahead in Your Business and Personal Life
Have you ever desired a workable method for dealing with difficult people, conflicts, perplexing situations, unpleasant adversaries, or individuals behaving in a contrary or stonewalling manner?
Of course! Life would be easier if only people would see things and do things your way. But alas, reality intrudes with pressing opposition and consternation. Things often don’t go smoothly or sensibly. Sometimes, events and people are downright confusing and frustrating, despite your best efforts and sacrifices.
Read on to learn a practical methodology for dealing with conflicts and unpleasant emotional confrontations, and for resolving the blockages that keep you stewing, fuming, and recycling your frustrations.
By studying and practicing the outline below, you will achieve better outcomes in difficult situations and with opposing parties. You will save time and money, preserve and put a positive spin on difficult but important relationships, and you will remove yourself from prolonged enmeshment with toxic relationships. Most importantly, by internalizing and practicing these steps, you’ll develop flexibility and confidence in responding to antagonism or subterfuge, and you’ll come away from vexing encounters feeling good about yourself and the way you handled troublesome and sensitive situations.
The following steps provide a structure for identifying and assessing “the problem” that keeps you spinning your wheels and beset by obstruction. It is a guided system I’ve developed that has proven effective over decades and across a multitude of challenges. This system of five questions and corresponding strategies tied to your answers to those questions allows you to progress to emotional and practical resolution for the quandaries you face.
- What is the conflict? To what extent is it resolvable? What would constitute a win (good outcome)?
(Assessment and goals)
When you face an impasse with another individual, you must identify specifically what the issues of disagreement are that are impeding you and the other party with whom you are dealing. In order to move forward, you must also consider and develop your view of the extent to which the conflict is potentially resolvable. Most conflicts are solvable, but some are not, owing to a variety of situational factors, available resources, and impinging personal or cultural values. If you are fatalistic and believe that no viable resolution will come from engaging in the conflict, then there’s hardly any incentive for you to try.
It’s critical to keep your “eye on the prize”—meaning specifically a goal or goals for resolution that would be acceptable to you, break the logjam, and create a good outcome. Naturally, this implies that the opposing party would also be satisfied. Regardless of the particulars, compromises, or sacrifices, a good outcome implies a win-win perceived by both sides.
Conflicts give rise to strong emotions, and it’s easy to lose focus and direction when you feel wronged, taken advantage of, or violated. But you must stay on track with the desired outcome (prize) always in focus.
- What are the traumas and what are the grievances? What are the petitions (i.e., the appeals for action you are requesting or demanding)?
Because of the heightened emotions, justifications, and defensiveness inherent in conflicts, it is vital to recognize and address separately the traumas and grievances that comprise the conflict.
We usually think of a trauma as a severe event that renders us helpless, without sufficient coping resources, that places us at the mercy of an overwhelming tragedy, such as natural disasters, physical assaults, loss of a loved one, grave illnesses, and so forth. Surely, these are traumas; however, any event or perceived event that emotionally rattles us qualifies as a trauma.
The traditional concept of trauma is predicated on an assumption of a catastrophic event outside the range of usual experience. However, trauma often encompasses a much broader range of contributory situations and is a very common occurrence. Traumas are universal, and they occur intermittently in everyone’s life.
Trauma occurs when we are caught in an “attack” on one of our “weak links,” whether the attack was intentional, random, or even imagined. The essence of trauma is that it penetrates defenses, seizes upon vulnerability, and leaves us feeling hurt, defenseless, and usually causes us to “relive” in some way the embedded traumatic experience. Common sense observation and your own experiences will confirm this cause and effect link.
Here’s a common example: after a vehicle accident or near-accident, many people habitually begin to tense up when reminders or even vaguely similar conditions present themselves, as if girding up for another accident. For example, suppose you were in an auto accident that really rattled you, perhaps even injured you. For a long time afterward, you might become anxious when approaching the scene of that accident. Or, say the police were pursuing a speeding car that blew through a red light and almost hit your car. Subsequently, you might panic whenever you hear in the distance the sound of a police siren while you are driving. This reaction evokes both physiological (fight-or-flight) and psychological / mental / emotional responses. The set of defensive responses to an anticipated offending event (in the absence of its presence or direct evidence that it will necessarily occur) is called perseveration: responding to an event that is no longer present.
Because conflicts with others stimulate arousal, internal fight-or-flight responses, and fearful or aggressive emotions, the emotional and neurological “attachment” to prevailing successfully in the conflict launches a survival instinct that often confuses logic and facts. Thus, it is crucial to identify the emotional trauma that always coincides with a heated stalemate. Once you do this, you can eliminate the trauma associated with the conflict by using the self-healing techniques of Thought Field Therapy that is comprehensively described on my website (http://marksteinberg.com/tapping/#/introduction) and in my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times.
Once you’ve separated the trauma from the material points of controversy (e.g., your negative feelings about the other person undermining you or cheating you examined separately from the specific agreements or understandings that have been violated) you are in a position to spell out the grievances
A grievance is a complaint, a reason for belief that a circumstance, condition, or action induces harm, loss, or makes the complainant less whole. We typically find the word grievance in a formal context, such as a court proceeding or a labor dispute. However, the term, grievance (actually meaning “to suffer the loss of”), is aptly applied to signify what injustice has been done to you.
It can be simple and straightforward, such as someone jumping in line or being served ahead of you. Or, a grievance may be longstanding, repetitive, and emotionally frustrating, such as deprivation (e.g., withholding love or sex, unequal treatment, discrimination, unjust financial transactions, insensitivity to legitimate communication/intimacy needs, etc.).
The important feature distinguishing a grievance is that it has some basis in fact. Because the experience of being wronged invokes strong negative feelings and often an instinctual fight-or-flight protective response, it is easy to focus on the feeling and ignore or downplay the facts.
To move forward productively in resolving conflict, you must understand and articulate grievances and then differentiate the rationale and evidence of the dispute from the emotional overlay that disguises it.
Taking control of an inflammatory situation and quelling the fury of an opponent requires savvy and strategic acknowledgment and tactical handling of traumas and the sensitive, but logical examination of the factual bases of the complaint.
A petition is a request or demand for action. Whereas a grievance is a complaint and/or a reason for belief of harm, a petition is an appeal for specific relief based upon a grievance. Thus, if you believe that your partner is disrespecting you, depriving you of something to which you have a right, or perhaps spending too much money, the petition (typically a request for action, change, compensation, or relief) is a formal request for specific and measurable change or relief.
When you air your grievances, make sure you plan ahead and rehearse privately what you want from the other person to relieve the grievance. You must communicate concisely the specific actions, restraints, or compensations you are requesting. This important message turns your complaint into a petition for action.
- What is the evidence for the merits of the grievances, and petitions?
(Evidence, merit, and principles)
Everybody thinks he’s right. It’s the nature of the human mind to self-justify, triggered by strong emotions and bolstered by habit. Even those who concede their shortcomings resort to feeling victimized and justifying their actions on the basis of circumstances or what the other person did. It’s convenient to bury one’s own flaws and transgressions under the banner of righteousness, fairness, and even myopic self-pity.
It requires insight, psychological sophistication, and practice to uncover the true basis (if any) for the disagreement or fight. True basis is what constitutes a grievance. It purports to be the underlying reason for the complaint.
Often, the sensitive and successful elicitation of your adversary’s grounds for complaint and the impassive detailing of your own evidence exposes the emotional resentment and allows for the evaluation of actual facts and rules.
I remember when my kids were young, my former wife became very frustrated with my constantly busy schedule, the trials and frustrations of raising rambunctious children, and her perception that I was “never around on weekends.” In actual fact, I was almost always around on weekends! Being continually present and engaging in multiple activities and time spent with the kids and her did not prevent her routine Sunday night laments that the weekend was over and I’d hardly spent any time with the family.
This seemed beyond reason; to her, the facts didn’t exist (or didn’t matter in light of her resentments). So, I countered by keeping a detailed log of dates, times, and activities spent with the family over a month’s time. When she next reiterated her Sunday evening complaint, I calmly and non-superciliously confronted her with my written and time-detailed account of the many conjoint family activities in which she and I had participated over the past month. I did not do this to “get even.” Rather, my objective was to prompt her to revisit her feelings and needs in light of my efforts and the facts. The goal in this situation was to lead her to see that I was indeed available, active, and caring. The win for her was to feel cared for, secure, and that I took her seriously. The win for me was to open her consideration of addressing her misperceptions and feelings of abandonment differently and more productively.
Interpersonal friction forms the basis for much resentment and conflict. Also, needs for and disputes over money—that “never enough” resource—underlie the frenetic activities and resentments that make life less healthy and satisfying. Money is, of course, very important. But staking a claim must follow the reason of rules and evidence. Simply crying, “Not fair!” doesn’t establish a valid case. The grievance underlying the petition for redress must be evaluated for merit.
Someone may want a refund on a product or service because he was not satisfied. (Sometimes, the dissatisfaction is an unconscious projection that has nothing to do with the present demand). Granted, many commercial entities will accept products and provide refunds, “No Questions Asked.” This is a norm for competitive retail businesses. However, many products and services are legitimately and reasonably nonrefundable. If you purchase gas for a road trip and you don’t enjoy the trip, you can hardly expect a refund on the fuel! If you eat out or visit the doctor, you are not entitled to a refund because you didn’t enjoy the meal or you continued to have health issues. Sure, if there is provable incompetence, violation of established rules of conduct, or a faulty product, you may be entitled to compensation. But refunds on such transactions are not due simply because you didn’t like it.
Wading through controversy and conflicts productively necessitates accommodating the insight that complaints are oftentimes fueled and overshadowed by the emotional trauma of feeling victimized or treated unfairly. By separating traumas from grievances in each instance and addressing them each methodically, you gain distinct leverage in moving the dispute toward a better resolution. In this process, you’ll maintain your dignity and composure, preserving whatever integrity possible in the relationship, and you’ll usually save yourself time and money as well.
- Is the behavior of my adversary in character or out of character?
Whenever I’m confronted by behavior that flaunts respect or displays obnoxious attitude, violates boundaries, or seems to attack or take advantage of me, I ask myself the question: is the behavior of my adversary in character or out of character?
My answer to this question—based upon keen observation and analysis of the person’s behavior patterns over time—is pivotal in letting me make sense of offensive behavior and helping me decide upon my best course of action (or, perhaps, inaction).
In order to make sense of our experiences and to plan for effective survival, we rely upon expectations (again, refer to my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times for a comprehensive explanation of the role of expectations in our lives). When someone’s flagrant behavior crosses us, we need to assess and categorize that behavior as typical or atypical for that person.
If the behavior is typical (i.e., more of the same in line with the person’s character and predictable responses to similar situations of not getting their way), then we tend to confirm our opinions and biases with regard to adversarial or overly selfish behavior. For example, people who argue over or question routine charges (as if they will get cheated unless they scrutinize every item with suspicion) usually do so repeatedly. They are hard to deal with in the arena of monetary transactions. Financial exchanges are usually fraught with tension and questions. Dealing with such individuals requires patience, itemized explanations, and occasional limit-setting with regard to implied or alleged unfair treatment.
On the other hand, when a person who usually handles financial exchanges with comfort and routine uncharacteristically raises a red flag, this may signify and unusual or errant circumstance, and extra care and flexibility seem warranted.
Another apprehensible domain for interpreting in or out of character behavior is a person’s timeliness and fidelity in keeping appointments. People who are late or who miss appointments typically do so repeatedly or intermittently. Therefore, such spottiness or irresponsibility comes to be expected (often by themselves, too, and denied or justified, to boot). Therefore, knowing this pattern allows me to adjust accordingly and to hold the perpetrator of such inconsiderate acts accountable. Though I’m displeased by the behavior and do not condone it, expecting it on the basis of past experience and attributing it to “in character” for that person allows me to not overreact and thereby fuel more resentment or animosity. Knowing what to expect, I can channel my decisions to enact more favorable outcomes, or at least to limit the fallout.
Alternatively, if a person who is usually on time and faithful with appointments does not show up or is unusually late, I will react differently, based on this event being “out of character” for that person. This awareness and assessment is extremely helpful in averting unnecessary resentment and conflict. It also allows for accommodating “errors” into the relationship and pattern of expectations.
When Someone Twists What You Say or What You Mean
One of the most common frustrations infusing conflict and dealings with difficult people is the phenomenon of perceptual distortion. This is a psychological term that refers to the misinterpretation or “twisting” of one person’s communication and intent by another person. Perhaps you have faced the exasperation of someone who just doesn’t “get” what you say—despite your repetitions, clarifications, and the simple self-evidence of your message.
Unfortunately, when someone habitually distorts, twists, or misinterprets your communication, it’s probably a substantial part of his “in-character” behavior. This is common in people who have a fearful outlook or negative self-image. They are usually unaware of their denial and tendency to distort information. They tend to interpret what you say as offensive or denigrating to them. Even the slightest mention of accountability or disclosure of your own needs and feelings can be taken the wrong way. This type of personality and character disposition is unlikely to change quickly in the time frame you need to resolve the conflict.
A good strategy to accommodate this resistant difficulty is to communicate with extra emotional sensitivity, to monitor your language and choose words that are less emotionally charged, and to use “I” messages as disclaimers to shift the attention away from their defensiveness and toward your own uncertainty and fallibility.
For example, when your adversary is clearly and offensively out of line, rather than react and confront, you might say, “Gee, I’m probably misinterpreting this, so perhaps you could help me out and make sure I got the right message you’re trying to send. When you say or do (quote the offensive message or behavior), I take it personally as insensitive and meaning to hurt me. I’m not sure you really meant to do that. Did I take it the wrong way? Perhaps I misunderstood your need or reaction. What message did you really want me to get?”
- What has been my experience in similar situations, and what has paid off?
Perhaps the most practical and solution-oriented question to ask is: What has been my experience in similar situations, and what has paid off? Asking this question taps into basic human learning from experience; it is likely to lead to the more successful course of responses.
In dealing with people who respond illogically or inappropriately (and, again, the assessment is one-sided, although you may have lots of evidence and validation), you must weigh the probabilities of your course of action. In active and persistent conflict, it is often the case that what seems like the “right, just, or deserving” thing to do will backfire and result in an undesirable outcome that simply doesn’t fit the script of your own intentions and reason.
It is one thing to hold someone accountable, to set limits, and to outline and administer consequences. But you must always take into account the actual results. In so many venues in life—parenting, relationships, advertising, negotiating—the other party doesn’t respond as he should! Yet if you keep forcing the issue by doing the same thing and redoubling your efforts… you’ll most likely get the same unsatisfactory results.
Frequently, a better outcome will result from implementing what seems like a counterintuitive strategy. This defies both reason and gut instinct. For the latter, think about what you learned in safe driving technique when your car goes into a skid: you’re supposed to turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid! Adrenaline and fear makes every muscle fiber in your body want to turn away from the skid. Yet the laws of physics and experience dictate that we go against our instincts to attain a good outcome.
Maturity and experience have chiseled into me a pragmatic, economical, and compassionate bent. Disturbed or unreasonable people usually have more time on their hands than I do; and they feed off of unproductive conflict, victimization, entitlement, and anger. Battling them can become overwhelmingly frustrating, wasting time and money, and leading in the end to regret or a Pyrrhic victory (victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat).
Many times, when I find myself entangled in situations with such toxic people, the prudent and reliable thing to do is to find some way to disengage myself from the relationship. Continuation is not worth it. The smart and economical thing to do is to end it and cut my losses. Concession or exit can yield liberation.
I hate to lose. Though very competitive, I have a generous nature and a positive attitude. I seek to create win-wins, and I’m often effective at achieving such outcomes. The keys to creating positive outcomes derive from employing the questions and strategies described above, relying on years of experience to match current problems and conflicts with essential themes and similarities I’ve dealt with before, and using that information to assess the costs and benefits of particular courses of action.
For me, dignity, integrity, healthy relationships, time, and money are far more valuable than showing my “rightness and virtue” by persistently agonizing in dysfunction with someone who can’t emerge from stubborn pride, fear, and self-entitlement.
Consider these questions and strategies to make you more effective and efficient in addressing conflict and preserving what really matters most to you. Identify the true prize, and do not swerve from the path that leads you there.