So my Mum has bought herself a shiny new badge....
There we were, on the phone, having a nice chat about her recent trip to Morrisons when she casually dropped into conversation she went shopping wearing her new "I Love Donald Trump" badge.
Here is an artists impression of my facial reaction:
On reflection I think I initially went into shock. I mean, while I have always been aware we have VERY, VERY (and once more time just to be clear) VERY different views, this came as a shock because:
a) She has never been to America
b) She taught me not to drop litter and be kind to old people and cats, so how can she support his policies?
c) We share DNA so how can our views be so different?
So while my face was still stuck in shock mode, my brain frantically tried to make sense of the situation and it quickly came to the question many of us dread...
We have all been there haven't we? Okay so maybe not the bit about your Mum owning a 'I love Donald Trump' badge, but the moment when you realise someone has a very different view / perspective / opinion and you think....
Do I say something or not? Of course it's not just politics where we find ourselves asking this question, we often have this quandry when we don't like someones behaviour, have differing needs or are in a position where we should be giving feedback.
So why do we dread the question "Do I say something or not?"
Well those six little words breathe abject fear into most humans as we often foresee CONFLICT and us humans aren't too fond of conflict...
How does our brain and body respond to potential conflict?
To be fair to us humans our survival brain is super unhelpful when it comes to navigating conflict. As we discovered in my previous blog our survival brain gets first dibs at responding to a situation and it has two responses: AVOID or FIGHT.
So if I let my survival brain rule the roost and respond to my Mum's love for Donald and Boris (yep Boris too) this is what it would do:
Okay so truth time, over the years I have tried both these strategies! Eek, yes it's true, my teenager self went for avoidance and my twenty something year old self went into fight mode. I can confirm no milkshakes were thrown but it wasn't pretty and neither was the impact on our relationship.
What is the potential impact of avoiding or fighting conflict?
When I avoided conflict I felt upset and distance from my Mum and when I responded with fighting talk it quickly eroded our relationship. Turns out avoiding or fighting are only really helpful when the situation is life threatening and when it isn't the cost can be high.
So is there a healthy way to manage conflict?
In times when tensions are high and there are a lot of differing opinions how do we navigate our way through conflict without being too passive or too aggressive?
Well I glad you asked. 10 years of working in the counselling room, as well as many more years finding a healthy way to navigate those big political differences in my family, and I have come up with 4 steps to navigating conflict.
STEP 1: Reframe CONFLICT as a DIFFICULT CONVERSATION
This quick shift in perspective can help your survival brain chill out. As a general rule, if it's a genuine life threatening situation it's conflict otherwise it's a difficult conversation. For example, I recently witnessed two people carrying out a crime and I had to quickly assess - Do I say something or not? Even though I wanted to intervene, I knew as a 5ft (okay 4ft 11 & 3/4 inches) female my safety would be at risk so I instead called the police. In contrast saying something to my Mum about her different political views is not going put my safety at risk. Yes it may be VERY uncomfortable but it is not life threatening.
STEP 2) Is it worth having this Difficult Conversation?
Avoiding a difficult conversation because you are fearful is very different to not having the conversation because either the person will not engage healthily or it will impact your wellbeing or relationship.
To work this out, ask yourself these 3 key questions:
STEP 3) Learn how to express yourself
If you decide to go ahead then when, where and how your express yourself is key to having a constructive conversation:
1) WHEN to have a Difficult Conversation
- You don't have to react in the moment, you are allowed to take time to work out what you think and feel about this
- Timing is everything. For example, if you are annoyed your other half hasn't done any housework all week and you launch into this when they arrive home after a 12 hour day at work then you are likeky to be met with hostility
2) WHERE to have a Difficult Conversation
- Difficult conversations are best when the two parties are relaxed and in an environment where they both feel safe
3) HOW to have a Difficult Conversation: The Don'ts:
I know it's tempting to let rip on Twitter or call Mr Farage a nasty word but if your goal is to be heard, or even attempt to change minds, then its not going to happen if you do the above.
Do the Don'ts and your conversation will turn into this...
3) HOW to have a Difficult Conversation: The Dos
If you want your opinion to be heard and if you want to influence the person then think about the following:
- I feel angry that you haven't done any housework this week. I've been working too and I need some support
- I feel upset you vote for XXXXX as I don't like the way that their policies treat the vulnerable in society
- I am really scared of a no deal Brexit because I am unsure how x, y, z is going to work and I'm worried about the impact on my job. We rely on my salary for the rent and food and it's hard enough to make ends meet now
Do the Dos and your conversation will turn into this...
STEP 4) Set Boundaries - know when to walk away
Setting boundaries is key to keeping yourself emotionally safe in these conversations. It also teaches people how to treat you, let someone get away with verbally abusing you once and they will try again. So start by thinking about what behaviour is okay and not okay in a difficult conversation and how you will respond. For example it may be:
It's okay to: Be upset, angry, frustrated and express that to each other. It's okay to say you need some time to think about it
It's not okay to: Threaten me, be aggressive, passive aggressive, sarcastic, mean or deliberately hurtful. If this happens I'm going to:
- Walk away from the conversation until we can have a more constructive conversation
- Block you on Social Media
What are your 'It's okay to' and 'It's not okay to' statements?
SUMMARY: So how do you navigate conflict when your Mum loves Donald Trump?
So after my survival brains avoid and fight strategy failed miserably I had to try a different approach and the four steps above really helped (and still do)
STEP 1: I reframed conflict as a difficult conversation
Firstly reframing these conversations as difficult conversations rather than a full on war really helps to keep me calm.
STEP 2) I realised it wasn't always worth having the difficult conversation
I realised my need to have a healthy relationship with my Mum was much more important than my need for her to vote a certain way so sometimes I let it go. There have also been times when I haven't been feeling too fab or when it just wasn't the right time so again I let it go. I'm not saying this is easy but I am saying letting it go can sometimes be the smart choice.
STEP 3) I learnt how to express myself
In my twenties I didn't feel particularly proud of myself for how I expressed myself so I began to listen more and tried to understand why she has these views. Over the years I really do have a better understand why has certain views. I still don't think the same, I still believe Donald's policies and behaviours are incredibly harmful to certain people and I feel sad about this. I do respect her and those who have different views and I try and put across my views as best I can in a respectful manner. So you won't find me hurling a milkshake at Donald, or even Boris and you won't find me calling my Mum a harmful words, however you may find me at a peaceful protest.
STEP 4) I set boundaries, I know when to walk away
Setting boundaries keeps me emotionally safe and has helped me teach my Mum how to treat me. My 'It's okay to' and 'It's not okay to' statements are:
- It's okay for my Mum to have a different view. It's okay to express this.
- It's not okay to use any kind of aggressive language and it's not okay to be racist or homophobic etc. If this happens the conversation is brought to a rapid close.
The above steps help us to maintain a relationship and express our views safely. It also means I have learnt more about my Mum and why she has her views and, while it is still really uncomfortable, I can tolerate this because it means I can behave within my integrity and maintain a healthy relationship. Is it easy No, is it worth it, yes.
Well I'm writing this at a time when Donald has just been to London so I will be practicing the above steps again the next time I chat to my Mum. I hope the above has given you some guidance on how to manage conflict a little better in your life. If you need some extra help navigating difficult conversations in your life then get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading.