In my last three columns, I’ve highlighted the most common ways in which people deal with conflict. This week I look at the fourth (and least understood) “dance step”. Again, this story comes from my experience officiating weddings.
By the time I met with Moira (name changed), she was beyond distressed. The problem was her mother, who criticized almost every choice she’d made in the wedding planning. Moira’s mother expressed her disappointment with tears, tantrums and long silences.
The proverbial final straw was when Moira, her four bridesmaids and her mother went gown shopping. Everyone except her mom fell in love with “the” dress. Apparently, the bridesmaids teased her mom for not supporting Moira in her choice. Later, Moira’s mom broke down sobbing, accusing the bridesmaids of being disrespectful.
She demanded that Moira force her friends to apologize and if they didn’t, she wanted Moira to un-invite them as bridesmaids. Moira refused. Tears, accusations, and all the stuff of emotional blackmail ensued.
Eventually, her mother admitted that, most likely, the women hadn’t intended to be rude and she may have misinterpreted what they said. Still, she wanted Moira to demand that they apologize.
At the time we met, things were frosty between Moira and her mother. Moira didn’t care if she came to the wedding or not. But, of course, she cared — why else would she cry when she said she didn’t care?
She told me that this was how things went between her and her mother. They argued, didn’t talk, and then got back together — without ever resolving what first led them into not talking. Theirs had been a dance that alternated between being passive and passive-aggressive.
There is, though, one other dance step, and that’s to be assertive. You’re assertive when you decide to express your thoughts, feelings, and needs to a person in a clear and respectful way without playing games.
Of all the dance steps, this is the one that most people are unfamiliar with. Yet, it’s the one technique that has the greatest chance of reducing stress and increasing your chances of getting heard.
I suggested to Moira that she have two different conversations with her mother. The first conversation needed to be about the general pattern with which her mother dealt with their disagreements. They had to talk about her emotional blackmail, i.e. unfair demands followed by teary tantrums. Only then could they have the second conversation, which was about the wedding dress incident.
Oftentimes people are difficult because they don’t think they’re appreciated. Most likely, some of that was going on with Moira’s mother. In next week’s column I explain how Moira prepared for the conversation with her mom and how it all turned out!
Please send your questions to JP Reynolds at: firstname.lastname@example.org