Find the courage to apologise and invite by understanding the deep hurt

When we are outraged, we don’t make a lot of sense

I went to a fairly “diverse” university during a civil war: we had black students, white students, and others!

Life as an “other” was interesting. People who were partisan assumed that you were “for” them, or “against” them, on whatever criteria they thought relevant. It was nothing to do with you exactly ~ you just happened to fit in to some fantasy narrative they had in their heads.

As an “other”, you also spoke to people on both sides and you got to hear what they thought of “the other side”.

Conflicts are deadly. Don’t get me wrong, but if people knew how funny they sounded, maybe they would stop to hear themselves.

I don’t hate you because you are different ~ I make you different so that I can hate you

This is how it went.

Black students said white students were ‘thick’ and white students said white students were ‘thick’

The evidence, on both sides, was that ‘they’ had to work so hard!

I studied psychology and sociology, and even if I didn’t, I would have known that we are ignorant about people we never speak to and that we over-simplify their stories. We also describe common human failings as evil, rather than common human failings.

What was amusing is that both sides perceived working hard as an insult! That was what we all had in common.

Yaz stupid if you have to work hard!

Being lazy wasn’t an insult, but stupid was.

We make people different when we hate them but we are not all the same

Not all cultures believe that being lazy at college is cool. I taught in NZ for a number of years and we had many students from China.  Almost without exception, they would arrive talking about ‘working hard’.  Invariably, by third year, they would be saying, “These Kiwis might have something going here. They don’t do half as much work as I do and they get by”.

So what we value is not universal by any means. Our insults are not universal by any means. Indeed, when our families haven’t spoken for generations, it is a bit of a miracle that we think the same way.

When people don’t ‘like’ us, we make them different

People locked in conflict often do have heaps in common. Most of all, they want attention from the other side.

  • They want to be heard.
  • They want the ‘other side’ to acknowledge them.

Conflict is about status and belonging. We should never forget that.

The conflict spiral is a contorted, complicated process.

It goes like this.

  • I do something (following my imaginary but highly valued story in my head).
  • In that story, I am somebody.
  • My actions set up a relationship with you (good, bad or indifferent).
  • My actions may give you pride of place (or take away your status).
  • If I have taken away your status, you have a choice of reactions.
  • If I am very powerful relative to you and I have many resources that I could share with you, you might choose to go along with my abrogation of your status.
  • If I have power but I lack anything that you really want and can only get from me, you are more likely to react.
      • You might react angrily. In which case of course, my status is threatened and a new process begins. If I have more power than you and very little social sense, I will probably hurt you.
      • You might have great social skills and make a joke which would allow me to apologise quickly, should I be so inclined.
      • The culture that we share might have other solutions. There might be ways that I can “pay you back” that are understood and accepted. Irony is one such leveller.
      • The culture might have solutions that allow me to pay you back in ways that you don’t know about ~ you spit in my tea, for example.
      • Or you might choose to seek redress in other ways. The most likely way is that I lose status in your eyes. You stop believing that the status that comes with my power is legitimate.

In the short term, I might never notice nor care. I have the power, right?  Why should I care?

But I no longer have your respect. In time, you will slowly start to make me the mirror of all you worry about in yourself. If you think that working too hard is a sign that you are no intellectually-equipped to be at university, that will be what is wrong with me too. Not because it is true, but because I don’t talk to you any way. As I don’t talk to you anyway, you might as well be the place where I “dump” all that worries me about the world!  You make me different (in a way that is intelligible to you) to explain why I don’t like you!

And as our relationship descends in to one based only on power, I will be able to live out my fantasy narrative without worrying about how it affects you.

We are on a one-way hiding to nowhere!

So how could we have resolved the conflicts at my university?

We were in the middle of a war and on the whole, the university did a pretty good job of keeping things moving.

  • We were open and we were studying. Under the circumstances, that was pretty good going.
  • We did have a class of “others”. Some of us were crossing the divide and learning a little. Painfully, sometimes. But stripping away generations of animosity has got to be more painful than removing a sticking plaster, right?
  • We did have tutors who held up mirrors to our interaction. Social science lecturers often drew a map of where we sat and showed in other ways how we thought and behaved.

We needed more though. The trouble is that in a civil war, the attitudes of young people reflect the attitudes of their elders and who was going to do ‘more’?

What we learn from communities who’ve lived through intense conflict

The message for those of us not living in communities torn apart by strife is this.

Don’t go there! Don’t move along that path!

When you are ‘dissed’ by someone .  . .

.  .  .you will be angry, disappointed, powerless and dejected.   You will want to retaliate.  You should remember that your ultimate weapon is contempt. By diminishing your status, they have lost status too. The have last status enormously, actually, because the only way to regain that status is with your good will which is not available right now.

Maybe when they insulted you, they meant to be aggressive. It is possible.  Maybe they have got carried away with their fantasy world. We may be want to head that off gently!  Or, maybe their lack of sensitivity to us was caused because we were insensitive in some way to them. Maybe, we did something to inadvertently kick off the spiral of contempt and conflict?

The first possibility to avoiding ridiculous conflict

When we are over our initial irritation (which we feel like it or not), our first possibility is to attempt to restore their status. Just gently. Invite and apologize.

When you have power (and you may have more than you think) .  .  .

.  .  . you will probably be thinking something like “I am right”.  You will be justifying your actions to yourself.  That is a good sign that you are riding roughshod over someone.  Watch yourself!  Remember it is easy to do because it is easy to do.  When you have power, it is oh, so easy.  You more than anyone must bring to a halt this one way hiding to no where.  When you leave people with no alternative but to think “He, or she, has behaved badly.  I have to pretend to offer respect but that is all it will be.”  Then the spiral begins, so slowly that you may not notice at first.

When you notice the spiral, stop.  Don’t worry where it began.  Don’t worry who began.  Just stop and say to yourself.  My loyalty to this person is worth more than anything else.  I can absorb a little irritation.  I can absorb a relationship where I don’t throw my weight around quite so much.  Let me acknowledge that they want my respect as I want theirs.

Let me just stop and show my respect.  Apologize and invite, as Ben Zander says.

Apologize and invite, no matter who is right and who is wrong.  Anything to avoid getting into deep conflicts where we make each other the bad guy to cover up our hurt.

 

The positive psychology of anger and hate

Hate is such an aggressive word

Some time ago, I worked with people who used the word “hate”, a lot.  I was mesmerized.  I “loathed” doing my tax return. I “loathed” broccoli (I like it now – good with a lemon sauce).  But “hate”?

Hate is an active word.  Hate is a doing word.  When we hate something, we want to do it harm.  I didn’t want to do my tax return harm.  It wish it wouldn’t bother me.  But I didn’t want to do it harm.

I also never used the word loathe for people, either.  I sometimes said that “I can’t stand so-and-so”.  I didn’t want to be around them and avoided them if I could.

More often I would say something like “I think so-and-so annoys me because <reason>”.   Once, my reason was that “he seems to think he is my equal.”  My interlocutor agreed with me.  “I think that’s why he annoys me too.”

With that out of the way, we could relate to this “johnny-come-lately” without visible annoyance and without allowing our sense of his impudence to impede a constructive relationship.

Hate is a funny thing – it comes from anger

Hate is closely linked to anger, of course.  Some people make a career of anger.  Others have had so much go wrong in their lives that they’ve lost hope of being treated decently.

For that is what anger is about.  Disappointment and dejection that people who we treat well, treat us badly.

So my colleagues had probably had hard lives.  At the time, I was young, so I thought they should get on with being positive.  I sure they could have done.  With age I have become more compassionate and recognize that they might have had a lot of shit-happen.

Anger is a funny thing – very dangerous but easily resolved

If hate is a contorted emotion, so is anger.  It is so easy to help someone who is angry.  Agree with them.  Let them know that it is OK to be angry.  Watch them relax as their status is restored.  Then help them make a plan.

It is much harder to deal with your own anger.  The triangle of disappointment locks us in.

  • We like so-and-so.
  • They disrespect us and don’t care what they do to us.
  • We can try talking to them about what they are doing to us but we run the risk they confirm they don’t care!

We are left with 4 choices.

  • Living with an uncomfortable double bind where we know they don’t care about us but we all pretend that they do.
  • A dishonest hypocrisy where we know our relationship is rubbish.  But we keep up a pretense and do the minimum.
  • We walk away but wonder forever if we could have restored the relationship.
  • We bring up the problem and have our worst fears resolved.

This choice of 4 bad choices is why social support is so necessary.

Social support cleans up anger in families and organizations

In well run families and work organizations, uncles and aunts and other senior members of the organization step in to resolve conflicts.

  • They alert people to the effects of their behavior on others.
  • They broker apologies and restore status.
  • They suggest equitable separations when a relationship must end because it no longer has an honorable foundation.

Sadly, when we are made angry we don’t tell many people.  We are already suffering from an acute sense of shame and aren’t going to advertise our loss of status to the world.

Unless the uncles and aunts and elders of an organization or community are alert, a lot of anger gets buried.  Pressures and tensions build up and eventually they explode.

People have personal policies for dealing with anger

  • Some people raise the problem immediately.  Their policy is that if you choose to disrespect me, you will live with it.  It is a case of Strike 1 – you know I am unhappy.  Strike 2 – I ask you for an apology.  Strike 3 – If you don’t make good, we share the discomfort -I won’t absorb it alone.  Some people do this explosively.  Some people are brilliant at making a joke.  Both are asserting themselves and making it clear that you should deal with them respectfully or accept loss of status yourself.
  • Some people never raise the problem.  They try to absorb the tension themselves.  They really shouldn’t because the other person might just be clumsy.   But they’ve made a habit of absorbing tensions and will continue to do so.  Watch out for those quiet ones.  It’s not good for any of us that they absorb all the pain.
  • Some people won’t raise the problem but retaliate in due course.  “I don’t get mad but I get even”. I know people who pursue someone else for years until they get even.  One fellow I know would sit in his office doing nothing and keep someone waiting in his outer office for the same time (or more) that he was late.  He would agree to give references and then spike them with faint praise.  His aggression was never overt.  The other person might never know.  But he felt better.  I looked on in wonder.  A lot of energy went into this.  Why not just say “you are late!”?  Well, for the obvious reason that the relationship might break up altogether.

Only the transgressor can truly resolve anger

The trouble with anger is that its resolution is in the hands of the transgressor.  If the transgressor does not apologize quickly, then we are in a lose-lose situation.  It doesn’t matter how you deal with anger – you are still in a lose-lose situation and yours style is just a matter of preference.

Pick your style

Maybe we should just live an “extreme life”?  Deliberately work with people who make us angry for a longish period until we settle on a style that makes the best of lose-lose situations – though there is nothing best in them.

A positive style for dealing with your anger

Or we could be like Ben Zander, the orchestra conductor who lectures on positive psychology:  apologize and invite.

Apologize to the person who made us angry and invite them join in.  Would that work for you?

Is my salvation yours?

And who sat next to me?

Many years ago, I was flying from Harare to Johannesburg and I sat, by providence, next to Dr Shahidul Alam, who I was to discover is a very well known photographer and activist from Bangladesh.  In those days, email newsletters were quite the rage, and overtime of course, we have updated to blogs and RSS feeds.

I use Pageflakes as my feedreeder and I have a page for the feeds I check first thing in the morning, a page for UK blogs linked to my profession, another page for non-UK links in my profession, a page for venture capital, etc.  And I have a page for Evening where I feed blogs like Shahidul’s from Drik Gallery in Dhaka. Whether you like to be informed about events around the world, or whether you just like good photography, I recommend it.

Today, I stumbled upon an article about the 1971 generation, Bangladeshi men and women who were disappointed by the outcomes of Bangladesh’s Independence.  Dashed hopes are sadly quite common when we have worked long and hard for change.

Is your liberation, also mine?

Today’s post began with a quotation from an Aboriginal activist group from Australia.

If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

It is attributed variously to Lila Watson and the Aboriginal Activist’s Group Queensland 1970’s

This is a sentiment I learned growing up in southern Africa with all its inherited problems.

When we are sufficiently well off, we often approach a conflict as if we have nothing to gain from its resolution.  Our patronising attitude is very irritating to the other side.  We may be surprised to find that what we think is good will on our part is generating  considerable contempt.  We may be shocked to hear that we are regarded less positively than people who are downright aggressive.

The alternative takes a lot of courage.  Can we approach conflict resolution and negotiation without any preconditions, and in particular without commitment to being a senior partner?

It is amazing how often we refuse to engage if we are not guaranteed a superior position in advance.  It is also amazing how often we project this stance onto others when they are just calling us on our unwillingness to negotiate in good faith.

So many of the world’s intractable conflicts would be resolved in an instance if we could only get down from our high horse.  And this is true too, in business.

Examples in business

For example, think of the typical networking event when people introduce themselves.  There is little discussion of common goals.  I say what I do (hoping it sounds important).   Others listen, not for something they could do for me, but for something I can do for them, pretending all the while that they want to help me!  Such social contortions!

Imagine if the atmosphere were different and we could say openly, in the next year I want to achieve X?  How many of us would dare?  How many of us listen with and offer “I can help you from there to there” without trying to be important?  I have seen it done but it is so rare that it stands out!

Think too of the typical job advertisment looking for people who are ‘the best’.  And think of the tension that implies.  I want the best but I am recruiting from the open market.   I do not employ the best? Nor I am able to train them?  Ow!  I am really very dependent on the applicants for their skills but I cannot contenance admitting that!

Imagine again phrasing a job advertisment honestly.  This is what we want to achieve this year.  Who believes they can help us?  Please reply stating how we can help you in return.

So why do we get involved with this posturing?

The simple answer is that predicating everything on a pecking order is the central characteristic of  masculine cultures. Britain and most English-speaking countries are very masculine.  And when every one else is attending to the pecking order, to neglect it is dangerous.

Other cultures though, and to some extent the culture we have bred in our midst, Gen Y, are less attached to the pecking order culture.  They are often amazed at our shenanigans and they find our collegial skills somewhat lacking.

Towards an unexpectedly prosperous 2009?

Are we able to abandon the premise that some people are more important than others?  Are we able to abandon the act, that I am safe and OK, and this negotiation affects only your position and not mine?  Do we have the courage to define our future collectively?

It may be important during 2009.

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Making molehills out of mountains

Oh! I do like this expression. How do we solve large problems or answer large questions? Break the question into as many small questions as we can.

And if we are group or a family, do the same thing. Brainstorm the question and ask everyone to contribute, “two or three (neither more or less) specific things” about how they will be affected by the big question.

Bang on time – this will be useful this weekend!

UPDATE:  Bang on time again.  This is an important hack to add to a manager’s quiver.  2 or 3 specific things (neither more or less) about how they will be affected by the big question!!