On ‘how’s your asshole, asshole?’ and other lessons in conflict resolution

As a kid growing up in New York City in the 70s and 80s, my ‘training in conflict resolution’ was specific to that city and that era of broken everything. Broken windows, broken subways, broken hypodermic needles in the playground, broken souls.

I was reminded today of being a 13 year old skateboarder on the hill behind our local jail – where the accused were waiting on arraignment. From high-rise cells, somebody would yell: “I’m gonna get you, white boy!”. As we flew past on our boards with fluoro-coloured wheels, we would yell back: “How’s your asshole, asshole?”.

The truism is that ‘conflict is normal’ and indeed it was the norm. What was abnormal was its resolution in any other way but more conflict, including aggression and violence. So, because the past is always present when we’re not present, my modus operandi for a long time as a reasonably successful adult was to have only one strategy: beat the other guy.

And, I probably picked the one profession that not only tolerated but actually rewarded and promoted my bad behaviour: the bear pit of NSW politics (which non-local readers might think of as cage fighting without the pleasantries).

Then, the inevitable happens – besides thankfully losing your teenage homophobic jibes. You get older and slower. The other guy beats you. Because you hate losing, you up the ante, but then another guy beats you worse. Then, you go all in, and life in general beats you too: relationship wrecks, personal irresponsibility, road rage in the carpark of a Hungry Jacks in front of your kids…

For no other reason than survival at first, you start thinking: “Gee, it’s not a lot of fun getting the crap kicked out of myself. Maybe, I’ll try something different.”

Genius. 30 years to put away the wise-cracks, the subway scuffles, the bar-room brawls, and maybe ‘walk and talk’ in the world in a different way.

One little part of that different way is something I call NOTES. I don’t always read my NOTES well – because it’s hard to take the Queens out of the boy – but hell it’s been better than slow and certain self-destruction.

NOTES helps me get the “me” out of situations; it opens up my mind and my heart to other people’s worlds; it brings me to the humble realisations that we are all in it together for better or worse, and that there’s something bigger and better than bitchiness.

It’s a bit like a group of stranded people using a flint to start a fire in the middle of pine forest in the middle of a snowstorm. One person does the work, while the others watch and rub their frozen hands together and jump in place in their parkas. The shared act of striking flint to send embers to tinder, of intense concentration, of aiming for a result like warmth and comfort – it all somehow gets us to a shared space for our souls. Think of the relief when the flame takes hold. Here’s that flint work as applied to conflict.

N is for Normalise.Conflict is indeed a regular part of life. We’re imperfect creatures who neurologists reckon spend 80% of our brain capacity worrying about food, clothing, sex, and shelter – if not how the Newtown Jets are going this season. It’s not surprising that we’re constantly seeking to meet those needs and scanning for risks – real or perceived – from any competitors. Nor is it surprising that we expend a lot of energy bumping up against others as we try to survive and prosper, even as we need those very same others to survive and prosper. When I take the view that conflict is actually a continuous and uncompleted negotiation of the social contract, it’s not personal and it’s a lot easier to deal with.

O is for Observe.Curiosity may kill cats, but it saves at least this human in many conflictual situations. Once I know I’m in a conflict, I now know to be inquisitive rather than combative. It’s no longer about fighting the blue corner; it’s about finding out what’s going on in the red corner. What’s going on over there? Am I the one in fact who is being an arsehole? Where’s my responsibility in this thing? Do I have a responsibility to a higher principle or Power that I need to meet here? I wonder what triggers Helen or Howard like that? Is this about us or about something bigger than us? Questions are like an Opal card; they are cost effective way to go from personal to principle.

T is for Test. And, while questions play a good role inside my head, they also have value coming out of my mouth and really hearing the answers. A mate once noticed office colleagues in a conflict with a client. The colleagues were going to elaborate lengths to plot and then game the situation. Whiteboards were out. The mate simply said: “Have you picked up the phone and asked them why?” Dialogue – based on non-judgement and open listening – is more disarming than détente. Often we’re all just hungry for respect – or for acknowledgement of our unique situation and struggles – and the best way to show it is with our ears.

E is for Engage. You’ve picked the right emotional standpoint and you’ve proceed with care and concern. By now, you know what the real story is – not just the missed deadline, or the contractual clause, or the fourteenth version of the org chart, or seventh edition of the legislative amendment. At some point by this point, your ‘conflict co-owner’ may well have said: “I only said that because…” Once you to get to ‘why’, as Simon Sinek has rightly urged us all, all the ‘what’s’, ‘how’s’ and ‘when’s’ toward doing stuff or sorting stuff out accordingly follow.

S is Succeed. Some of my best conflicts have led to the best work I’ve done. There’s a very simple reason: conflict opens us all up. It’s when we peel all the corporate crap away – strip away the artifices of office life – and get to the human (and sensitive and flawed and vulnerable and soulful and miraculous) in each of us. Real conversations and real understanding lead to real results. The stuff that’s not said is the toxic stuff that corrodes cooperation. I would call it sinful stuff too, but that may not be your bag.

You know what? Sometimes, I can’t remember my own system! A few years ago, I loved that series of books around the concept ‘what would the Founding Fathers do?’. It was a great reminder of starting from first principles and applying them to everyday problems. My own version is ‘what would the Dalai Lama / Reverend Bill Crews / Father Daniel J. O’Leary / Jesus my Buddhist teacher Prah Mana / [INSERT OTHER PERSON WISER AND KINDER THAN ME] do?’

It’s a great wormhole to the same destination, which is outside the confined and confused space of my own head  and my own limitations. And then, truly, ‘deliver me from evil’, aka, the need to send that horrible email or be unnecessarily vindictive over a work dispute.

Sometimes, when we are not desperately trying to be ourselves, we are our best selves. We can have a freedom that’s better than that found on a flying skateboard.

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