How can words or minor interpersonal tensions lead to major trauma and in some cases national trauma? As a conflict professional, I am constantly intrigued by the power of words, actions and inaction. An act or expression may or may not be intended to cause harm. Even in a close-knit family, we sometimes do not realize the harm. Once an initial event happens, how do we avoid escalating the harm?
I saw a brilliant film this week, entitled The Insult. This film rolled out a series of insults stemming from one relatively small incident that took place on the streets of Lebanon involving the flow of water from a water pipe. (Water from a drainage pipe hit an engineer working in the area. When he arrived at the apartment owner’s residence, the owner told him off. The engineer then redirected the pipe. Nasty words and actions ensued.) There was no original intention to cause harm. There was also no apology on either side. The parties were triggered by their initial words and the reaction caused by the words. Each party felt disrespected. The parties were unable to control their emotions. There were several attempts to intervene to no avail and both parties lost control of what happened next. Rather than taking a step back, the parties went full stem ahead and the conflict escalated allowing deep-seated personal feelings that had been buried for a long time to control their behavior. In this case, the initial actions led to an arrest, a court case and even national unrest.
What does this all mean on a more local level? It is always important to take a step back when conflict arises. Take a pause and examine where harmful words and acts can lead. In the film, one of the main characters wanted an apology that the other character was unable to give. Each character was unable to clearly see what was triggering the problem. In this film, the courtroom drama was interesting because the original event was seemingly forgotten and wrapped into larger controversies and underlying political and social agendas. On a more local level, we can sometimes get swept away by household friction and lose sight of how best to stop it.
Poor communication can lead to a lack of trust. Someone says or does something that causes unintended harm. Before allowing an escalation, think about the following strategies:
- Ask Questions: Think about responding with an honest question to clarify the initial statement. This can help change the dynamic of the interaction.
- Recognize and Respect Different Perspectives: You may see things differently. Take a step back and acknowledge the difference rather than pushing your own point of view.
- Identify Mistakes: Was there an unintended miscommunication or bad act? Stopping the action to acknowledge a mistake is a sign of respect that is usually appreciated by the other party. Sometimes more than an apology is needed – depending on the situation. Action can be just as important as words. The type of action has to authentically address the issue.
- Language: Be aware of the language and actions being used and notice the effect it has on solving the problem. Inaction can also trigger strong emotions.
- Make a plan. There are many ways to productively solve a family conflict. It may mean that the people involved cannot effectively deal with each other at the moment of the conflict. That may mean setting a time to talk when emotions have cooled down. It could also mean involving an appropriate professional.
In any conflict, there is great power in acting with respect and decency. Everyday we can find instances about the effect of words, actions and inaction and make decisions about where we stand in the mix.