There are very few saints in conflict situations. Nonetheless, too many people are stubbornly wearing a halo.
‘I didn’t do anything wrong. This is all your fault.’ ‘No, you’re the reason we’re in this mess. My conscience is clear.’ People in conflict are very good at seeing the other person’s misdeeds and shortcomings. What many competitive finger-pointers overlook is this: When you are pointing a finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you.
Go ahead and point a finger at the screen. You’ll see what I mean.
Each person in a situation or a relationship contributed something to it. Most likely, each person said or did something that was less than helpful. That includes you and me. You may have consciously decided to do nothing – that is also a contribution. (It took me a while to learn that lesson.) However small your contribution may seem, it still shaped the situation you’re in. And the fastest way to get out of your mess is to acknowledge your own contribution to it.
Ask a martial artist why she got beaten up. You may expect to hear about her opponent being more experienced, a better fighter, taller, bigger, or meaner. But most likely you’ll hear about how she didn’t move fast enough, was intimidated by her opponent’s size, got distracted by the surprise of the first hit, and failed to keep her guard up consistently. This has nothing to do with beating up on yourself – it’s about empowering and improving yourself. You grow as a martial artist, and as a person, when you explore how you contributed to a situation.
It may be true that someone else caused most of the problems. It may be true that he did the best he could. It may be true that she feels like an extra in the movie This Conflict. Still, everybody contributed.
Rather than acknowledging their role in the situation, however small that part may have been in their view, many people audition for canonization. Sometimes their halo is so tight that it makes everybody else’s head hurt, too.
So, how do you open someone’s mind when his halo desperately needs resizing? How do you help someone zoom out and see the bigger picture when he is blinded by the glow of his pure character, thinking he has done nothing wrong?
I really wish there was a simple strategy that worked every time. There isn’t. That being said, here are a few things worth trying:
* Open your own mind first. If you’re wearing a halo of your own, check it at the door. Identify how you contributed to the mess. Listen first – this may make the sainthood contender more inclined to listen to you.
* Set the stage. Make it clear to the saint-in-training that you’re not trying to paint him as the bad guy. This is not Judgment Day – you’re only trying to figure out where things went sideways and what to do about it. If you’re having a hard time with this because you think he really is the bad guy, return to the previous paragraph and open your own mind some more. You may need to forgive him for his contribution to the mess, so you can have a productive conversation – do that, for your own peace of mind.
* Say what you have to say. Be confident, but gentle. Keep it safe for Mr. Saint to listen to you. Resist the temptation to attack, blame, or reproach – while “letting him have it” may make you feel good for a minute, he’ll only get defensive and tune you out. So let him keep his halo for now, and keep him listening.
* Provide new information. People don’t change their mind, but when they get new information they feel free to make a new decision. Don’t assume the would-be saint knows what’s going on for you and where you’re coming from. He may be completely unaware how his actions are affecting you. Ask yourself: what does he need to know to understand my perspective?
* If you’re not getting anywhere, back off. If you try too hard to loosen the aspiring saint’s halo, he may feel threatened in his identity. This will just make him more convinced that he did everything right and you did everything wrong, and your efforts will backfire.
* Bring in a third person. He may refuse to see his contribution, simply because you (aka the devil) are the one pointing it out. Psychologists call this phenomenon “reactive devaluation” – a powerful way our brain filters out anything potentially dangerous coming from our suspected enemies. But there is hope: While he may not be able to hear an uncomfortable truth from you, he may hear it from someone else. There’s no shame in bringing in help.
If none of this works with your halo wearer, give one more pep talk: ‘We’re both part of this mess. The best way to get out of it and keep it from happening again is for each of us to figure out how we contributed to the situation and what we could do differently.’
If you can’t convince the saint to take off his halo, make peace with the mess, knowing that you did your part in trying to clean it up. Then distance yourself from the halo model and do whatever you need to relieve your own headache. You may not be a saint, but you can be sane. I’ll take that any day over a halo.