The Discipline to Defuse Painful Squabbles


Nearly every Sunday my parents packed us in the Ford Country Squire and we hit I-94, on the way to our grandparents on the east side of Detroit.  We always watched for the (Uniroyal, I think) billboard with the rolling digits, an up-to-the-minute tally of US Car & Truck Production.  I can imagine a similar sign, with fast rolling odometer-like digits, but it would be titled, Painful and Unnecessary Squabbles at Work and at Home.  I figure the US daily tally would reach a million by dinner time.  Last week, I observed one.  You know the typical indicators: Two folks not talking to each other (though occasionally sending heavily coded emails), each feeling misunderstood and offended, others brought in (by at least one of the adversaries) to commiserate, and folks walking on eggshells.  Oh, and work halted by one, the other, or both.

I confess that I have personally walked into LOTS of these – one at the airport a couple days ago.  And I have read about them in big circles: in the Bush and Clinton White Houses, for instance.  And call me naïve, but I’d guess the odometer-like tally of Painful Squabbles could slow to a crawl if people did two things.  Test out these two prescriptions by thinking about somebody you’re at odds with…

First, admit that your ego is in play (you already knew your adversary’s ego was in play!).  Ego involvement creates astounding asymmetry.  The issue can be tiny, such that an objective stranger would say, “let it go, man!  It’s nothing.”  But, when the ego feels threatened, the issue seems huge.  Someone was not consulted.  Or somebody went around somebody.  Or somebody thinks they’re being embarrassed.  The coach pinch hit your kid.  Or somebody forgot (if you’re the one grievously offended, you say “somebody ‘forgot’ in quotes) to invite you to the meeting.  Or somebody talked to one of your staff people without talking to you first.  Or gave a report to the boss, without letting you know.  Or (especially if you don’t just have an ego, but a male ego) somebody jumped to the front when the clerk said “next in line, please,” even though they knew you were there first. Recognize it: the issue is tiny, but for the ego that’s acting big (or small depending on your perspective), it’s huge.

Second, choose to shift from the small perspective of ego, to the larger issue of understanding what the other person is thinking and feeling.  Their “attack” can be seen – with great discipline, mind you, as full of opportunity:  opportunity to enlarge your understanding, to broaden your view, to learn to work with someone who sees things quite differently.  A tiny example.  I let Jack raise the issue – he’s almost 12 now – about whether he had to go to church last night.  He was frustrated.  (He’s a wonderfully calm arguer, so if I did some things right, I’m sure it’s in large part because he’s not super-aggressive and voluble).  Yet, as he pushed back, the dirty parent secret is this:  I could easily have been threatened by his rebellion, worried that he wasn’t respecting what I cared about, or mad that he was defying my authority.  My ego was more than ready to fuel those fears and to trigger a powerful reaction to crush the attacker.  But I kept ratcheting it down – alternately asking him what he meant and why, and then asking him what he heard me saying.  In the end, I made him go to church, and invited him to go freely in spite of my admitted coercion.  He wasn’t happy.  But he was heard.  There was understanding if not glee.  I remembered and respected what it’s like to be him – twelve, questioning, easily bored, etc.  And I hope he found me somewhat reasonable.  We slowed the revolving Painful Squabble tally just a little.


So, monitor the ego and listen to the other to


Lead with your best self,