Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

Will you be my Conflictine?

Here’s a short, imperfect guide for dealing with interpersonal conflict. It’s based on my own experience, so it may look like it doesn’t apply to you. Still, for conflicts with people you care about or at least people you want to keep a good relationship with, it’s usually a good approach. Admittedly, it does require some inner strength and focus on cooperative problem solving – hey, I said “good”, not “easy”!

1. Understand

The first step in managing the conflict is understanding what is really going on. Maybe this seems oh-so-clear from the first impulse, but if you pay more attention and give it more thought, you may find that it’s actually just a small misunderstanding. Or maybe the other is just projecting on you some problems that have nothing to do with you, so the attack is not actually meant for you. Many other answers you might find, if you just look for them.

2. Validate

Part of the understanding – a very important part! – refers to the subjective experience of the other person involved in the conflict. How do they interpret what’s happening? What are they feeling? Leave your own judging apart for a while and just use your curiosity to see through the other’s eyes. As you get more and more information, convey your interpretation of it, to check if it matches their own interpretation, and also to show your interest and care for them. You might not agree with their view, but validation is not about agreeing. It’s about accepting that two different people may see the same situation differently and willing to step into the other’s shoes for a while.

3. Take responsibility

Admit to yourself your own contribution to the turn of the situation. Maybe you had no mean intentions, maybe your actions are perfectly justifiable in the given circumstances. Anyway, it takes two to tango and at least two to have an interpersonal conflict, and entering conflicts is usually not a reason for shame; it’s getting stuck in them that’s truly damaging. Telling yourself “this is what I’ve done to get here” is the first step for accepting responsibility for your actions.

After this, go ahead and express to the other that you’re aware of your contribution to the situation. Apologize if you find it’s the case, maybe even ask what you can do to make up for it. Sometimes just saying “I understand how my words triggered you to get angry” will be enough.

If all you did to get into the conflict was just be there, then… think again! :) Even if you didn’t start it, it doesn’t mean it’s all the deed of the other person. If you haven’t given a response to a provocation from the other, then how is there a conflict between the both of you?

And what if you really haven’t fostered the conflict, but the other person keeps inviting you into it? Well, you’re still responsible for what you do from now on.

4. Self disclose

Voice your own emotions and thoughts that resulted from the actions of the other. If you want anything from them in order to be able to leave the conflict behind, ask for it. Maybe you want an apology, an explanation, commitment for certain future action, or a hug – whatever it is, it’s your job to ask, not their job to read your mind.

And this is it! The four steps are not necessarily so separated or in this specific order. You may give some validation, ask for some, then validate some more, take responsibility for a small thing, then ask for the other’s admission of their own contribution and so on. However, if you can genuinely give (understanding, validation, compensation) before asking, I’d say your chances of really solving the conflict are the highest you can get; just don’t neglect to take care of your own needs, too!

If you tend to avoid conflicts, here’s a little motivation for you to change: all the small conflicts you keep shoving under the carpet will pile on each other, until one day they will explode into a big conflict. And without the practice of solving the small ones, dealing with this big one will be even more difficult. Ready to start practicing now? :)


The metaphor of the lemon tree

The lemon tree in our backyard here in Porto is probably the most famous of its kind, worldwide (well, maybe the second most famous after the one of Fool’s Garden). That’s because I’ve been mentioning it in the e-mails to my friends, uploaded photos of it in my online albums and showed it to all those who’ve visited me here. At first I liked it just because it was exotic and right under the windows of our living room. Then I discovered it’s much more interesting than I had expected.

Unlike the trees I’d been used to, the lemon tree has ripe fruits, green fruits and flowers at the same time. Then again, don’t we all?

Unlike the typical linear models we’ve been preached again and again, real people are usually a mix of ripe, green and blooming. This person is a successful professional who is still far from starting a family. This other one has spent a lot of time learning but hasn’t yet found the environment or the ways to make the best use of his or her learning. That one has outstanding emotional maturity, but not much knowledge about history, or the arts, or economics. And that one there is a great dancer but a bad driver, while this one here has fabulous jokes to share but little knowledge about his or her own self.

So next time you start panicking that it’s harvest season and not all your fruits are ripe, remember that the only shoes you must fill are your own. Or, as one of my favourite songs says, “the race is long, and in the end it’s only with yourself”.

PS: When I give this advice to “you”, I’m also including myself among those who still need to learn this lesson. So if you ever want to return this advice to me, feel free ;)


The long distance running companion to your growth

Warm thanks to my friend Alex, for the conversation in which I reached a clearer view on this subject.

I recently got to understand one reason why it is important for a psychotherapist to have a high level of tolerance to frustration. And not just for psychotherapists, but also for parents, teachers, leaders and all those who want to support other human beings in their personal growth (I’m including leaders here because I agree with the vision that the best leaders are the ones that create leaders, not followers).

Let’s look at it starting from the saying that if you give a man a fish, he will have food for a day, and if you teach him how to fish, he will have food for the rest of his life. Put into other terms: if you give him a fish, you temporarily rescue him; if you teach him how to fish, you support him in developing his autonomy. And this second option is the one I see as the mission of a “companion to someone’s growth”.

Although the mentioned saying might suggest otherwise, in real life teaching the man how to fish is not always the best option. If you’re starving, you’re most likely unable to concentrate on learning anything, maybe not even able to hold a fishing rod. So in crisis situations the first thing I need to do if I want to support you is help you survive. Dead people can’t fish.

On the other extreme there’s the case when you want to learn how to fish and I’m offering fishing lessons. Though the process we’ll go through together is not necessarily an easy one, chances are we’re in for a happy ending.

Between these two clear-cut extremes, there’s a wide variety of situations in which the answer is not so simple. Sticking only to the psychotherapy situations, many clients start the therapy with some dysfunctional view of themselves or the world. Maybe they don’t tolerate hunger well and they fear that if they don’t eat a fish every hour they will die. Maybe they don’t consider themselves able to ever learn how to fish. Or maybe they think that there’s no fish available out there, or that it’s only available for others.

Let’s say you’re one of these persons and for any of the reasons above (or of many others possible) you’re convinced deep down that what you need is a fish. Yet I look at you being in no danger to actually starve and tell myself that if I give you the fish today, I’m just inviting you into a relationship of dependency and you’ll come back for another fish tomorrow, and the next day, and so on. On the other hand, if I completely deny your subjective reality and just put the fishing rod in your hand, chances are high that you’ll reject me as being an insensitive bitch who can’t understand your hunger, your vulnerability, your need for support. And you’d be right: unless I give my best to understand your reality, how could I compare it to mine and decide that mine is more functional or closer to the objective truth?

So if I want to encourage your growth while also accepting you as you are right now, what can I do? The answer I see is briefly this: I give you some food, until you feel safe enough to take a step on the learning path. And all through the process of your learning, whenever your hunger interferes with your ability to learn, we first take care of it until you feel safe enough and then move to the next step on the path. And so on until you reach the capacity to feed yourself.

Why does this scenario require that I can tolerate frustration well? Consider this. If you come to me hungry and I give you the food you’re asking for, you’ll be so grateful to me! I’ve just Rescued you, and rescuers tend to have a pretty good image, if not a pretty high pedestal. On the other hand, there’s nothing spectacular about someone who addresses the Adult you have inside, inviting him or her, from an equally Adult stance, to take charge of your life – no drama here, no heroic story to tell by the fire place, no impulse from you to kiss my hands in gratitude. The life position I’m inviting you in is not even one that would allow such a “one-up” – “one-down” relationship between us.

So in order to avoid the temptation of becoming your Rescuer instead of the companion to your growth, I need to make sure my batteries are charged and I’m not relying on you to fill them with your helpless-Child-to-powerful-Parent admiration. I also need to be prepared for an unpredictable process in which you might not go in the rhythm I would like you to go; if my need to control your progress is too high, I’ll end up either Rescuing or Persecuting you.

And in the end, is it all worth it? My answer is a definite yes. For even if in the beginning the strokes I get from our interaction may be less than I would get from a gamey Rescue, if your learning is successful I get the sweetest reward: the opportunity to interact with you Adult-to-Adult, in what is called psychological intimacy. And no gamey strokes can beat the quality of the intimate ones!