Do some conflicts leave you feeling like a spinning top? Hopelessly dizzy from going around and around, waiting to fall down because you’re running out of steam?
You know what I’m talking about – those arguments about what appear to be “the issues” that just keep going in circles. Who breached the contract? (‘You did.’ – ‘But only after you did.’ – ‘Come on, you clearly breached first.’) Who is responsible for repairing the machine? (‘Not me.’ – ‘Who else would be?’ – ‘I don’t know, but it’s not me.’) Whose turn is it to take the trash out today? (‘Yours.’ – ‘Why always me?’ – ‘Oh, please. When was the last time you lifted a finger?’) The topics may be different, but the concept is the same: You’re on a circular path to nowhere.
An ancient martial arts concept teaches that a circular attack can only be defeated with a linear movement, and vice versa. Applying this to a spinning top-style conflict, perhaps we need to stop running around in circles and think in a more linear fashion. Caution: I don’t recommend that we charge straight at each other – we would just be locking horns and, again, not go anywhere.
What I propose is to follow a linear path in a different direction: Rather than spinning and waiting until we fall down, why not deliberately dig down – below the surface of the disagreement for the real reason why this particular conflict just keeps going on and on?
In all likelihood, what we’ll find are not the questions that had us going around in circles before, such as who breached the contract first, who is liable, or who took the trash out last time. These “issues” may be the reason why the argument started, but they are likely not the reason why the conflict continues.
Going straight in and facing what is really driving a conflict is not easy, because we don’t know what’s in store, and we may not like what we see and hear. There’s a great deal of uncertainty involved when we decide to break away from the circle and go straight in (or down), and the human brain generally does not do well with uncertainty. Our brain – which has not developed much since our ancestors were hunting now extinct animals with crude stone tools – equates uncertainty with danger, and danger is bad. So, even in a modern-day conflict that does not involve savage beasts or other threats to life, we often prefer to stay on the surface, and we take refuge in “the facts” and “the law” and feel somewhat safe.
But are we really safer – remaining ignorant to what lies beneath the surface? Sometimes, perhaps. Sometimes not. Sometimes we simply lack the information or the wisdom to know the difference. And sometimes we just lack the courage to take a look.
If we’re hearing strange noises coming from the basement, it takes guts to open the door and turn on the light, because we have no idea what’s down there. But then again, staying at the top of the stairs isn’t getting us any answers. Is the noise coming from a lost animal? Maybe it will find a way out on its own and won’t chew up the man cave sofa or break Aunt Sophie’s fine China. Is it the boiler? Hopefully it won’t explode. We’re just spinning, awaiting the inevitable fall to the ground and hoping for a soft landing.
Now, we may gather all the data we can, weigh all the pros and cons, and then make a conscious decision that it’s wiser to keep that basement door locked. We may take a thorough inventory of a conflict and conclude that opening a Pandora’s box of potentially overwhelming undercurrents (respect? fairness? power balance?) might be counterproductive at this point.
I get that. Resolving a conflict, especially on a deeper level, is hard work. And it’s not for sissies. Sometimes, the whole picture is not pretty. Sometimes, we would rather not hear the whole story. And sometimes, going straight down to the uncomfortable and scary stuff is the only way to find a solution. So let’s make sure that it’s not just lack of courage that keeps us spinning at the top of the stairs.
Dialogue starts from the courageous willingness to know and be known by others. It is the painstaking and persistent effort to remove all obstacles that obscure our common humanity.