Friday, October 22, 2010

The Big Question

Do you have a conflict with a boss? A spouse? A co-worker? An ex? And do these conflicts seem unsolvable to you?

Often I find myself in the middle of conflicts like these as a counselor. And over time, I have found a simple question that often changes everything about these conflicts when I ask it. I call it The Big Question. Here it is:

"Is the other person simply a bad person?"

If the answer is "yes," all you can do is set boundaries for yourself. But if the answer is "no," this question can lead you to the common ground where the solution lies.

You see, every conflict fundamentally boils down to a dialogue that goes something like this: "Me, me, me, me, me." "No, me, me, me, me, me." "Yeah, but me, me, me, me, me." And soon we get entrenched in our positions and start building a "villain story" about the other party: "He is out to get me." "She won't listen to common sense." "They are constantly stabbing me in the back."

In reality, we all have a powerful survival instinct that leads us to push back against people who confront us, criticize us, or disagree with us – listen carefully – no matter how right they are. Which means that the laws of physics work against you every time you go, "Me, me, me." So most conflicts normally continue until one party or the other finally goes, "OK, I see: you, you, you." So let's see how this ties in with The Big Question:

-If you believe that your mother is simply meddlesome and judgmental for the sake of pure evil, you may never convince her to stop. But if you realize that she is worried about how well her grandchildren will turn out, then the two of you have something to talk about.

-If your boss is simply a ruthless taskmaster, you may have no option other than to leave. But if you know that he feels people don't respect him or listen to him, there is light on the path.

-If your husband married you for the sole purpose of making you feel worthless, you probably won't stay married much longer. But if underneath it all he needs down time while you need attention, there is hope.

Sometimes people are, in fact, bad people. When someone is sexually harassing you, stealing from your company, or posting compromising pictures of you on the Internet, you don't need to communicate better with them. For some situations, the right answer is to take them to court, talk to your HR department, or simply say "No more."

But in reality, most people aren't just bad people. And if they aren't, chances are that you know it. So ask yourself The Big Question, and take the first step to putting your conflicts behind you.

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