When we agree to disagree ...
Peacemaking is wacky business in part because we make up these pointless rules about how we should handle conflict. We should be polite (always polite). We should never shout and if we're angry, we should leave and come back when we're ready to talk. Tears, Histrionics. Hysterics. Not allowed. We should use rationale and good judgment and be always undemanding. People are not comfortable with too much emotion or passion in conflict. God forbid, we should look like we're ready to tear our hair out. Or yours. You know what this reminds me of? Perfect pictures. We want the perfect look. A kind of June Cleaver in heels and pearls. My Mom didn't look like that and neither did most of my friends' mothers either. I don't know about you, but I am an emotional person and sometimes I talk a little loud. Sometimes it ain't pretty.
The truth is that conflicts can be messy. We handle conflict by talking (and sometime shouting) through it. Not always though. It actually depends on the people having the argument and their particular styles. Once I got an email from someone who said, "I'm feeling hostility from you and think we should talk about it." Now, that's crazy. Can you imagine going up to a hostile person and demanding that they somehow listen to what you have to say? Brave or insane? I'm not sure which. What that person didn't understand about me, however, was that I'm never hostile to strangers. I don't know them well enough to be. Now, my kids--they'll tell you just how hostile I can get when I'm riled by something they've done. I don't waste my hostility on people who 1) don't know better (if they knew me well, they already know what my response will be, and 2) who I don't know well. Why waste the effort?
No, I find myself in conflict with mostly those that I am close to and those that I know because the more you get to know a person the more you find out what you don't like about them. That's either when true friendship begins or when it ends. Conflicts usually start for a more basic reason. You disagree. Not a Tiger Woods type disagreement with his wife. He was wrong. She was right. Those are another type of conflict and require decisions that have to do with not agreeing to disagree, but deciding whether the relationships can withstand the problem and survive. Sometimes it is better to walk away. Sometimes it is good to stay and fight.
I have a few basic rules that I think are great rules of engagement.
Never fight with strangers. You don't know them well enough to have a disagreement. Scenario. You're waiting for a parking place. Someone comes from the other direction and takes it before you can pull in. Do you a) Fried-Green-Tomato them? or b) go find another parking place. Look, they won. You lost. But, on a more serious note, what will you accomplish by fighting with them? Nothing. Find another parking place. Do not pass go. Do not give them the finger.
Don't placate a person you're arguing with. Now you may think that you've done nothing wrong and that's okay. But, you've got to understand that the other person thinks differently. Placating a person may raise their ire about 10 degrees. And don't do the "I get it" because obviously you don't. Not really. There are only two ways that a conflict can truly play itself out. Solve it. Not solve it.
Be willing to listen (with a caveat that you may have to listen to someone who is talking loudly). Of course, the other side of that is that the other person must be willing to listen to you as well. Now, this is where the rules of engagement change a bit. In some models of engagement, especially as it relates to nonviolence, you're driving towards a sense of understanding. You have to understand what the other person wants and you want them to understand what you want. If the other person is yelling, it probably is a good idea not to try and out yell them (because then no one hears the other). But if they persist or you feel the urge do more than yell, it might be a good time to cease the discussion. This, however, is not agreeing to disagree. That agreement is moot. This is knowing that you're not going to really hear one another no matter how loud you talk.
Understand that conflicts take time and effort. I want quick and easy solutions, but conflicts are neither quick nor easy. They are generally built over time and carried in these conflicts are probably centuries of misunderstandings, abuse, oppression (on all sides) that can never be ascertained in one quick argument. Of course, I think that's where we get that "we agree to disagree" stuff from because the person who is saying that already has his plot in motion to make sure that you lose! Another conflict in the making. In these cases another conflict is always in the making.
Always be prepared for conflict. I can hear you saying that defeats the mission of friendship, but I beg to disagree. Life is as life does and we're a bottleneck society of beings--narrow in our thinking--focused on the outcome rather than the process. The process for the conflict is that usually the conflict is about the things that we don't talk about, that we're too polite and politically correct to bring up. Start talking about the things (elephants in the room, if you will) prior to when a conflict arises. If you learn in the middle of a decision that your boyfriend believes that women can't be ministers, for instance, the time to know that is not when you decide to go to seminary. You mean you didn't know I felt this way? Duh! No!
Preparing for the conflict means communicating honestly. And that means addressing issues when they happen rather than waiting until these issues have festered in your mind until you blow. If you're feeling a little neglected, it's okay to say it. My grandson wanted to spend the night at my house, but I had another engagement and explained that his Grammie would have to see him another time. I didn't ask him if he understood, simply that I had made the decision. His response was good. "Grammie, I don't like it when you say no to me." Good for him. Then we talked. He wanted me to know how he felt and he didn't suffer silently. I'm glad. I wasn't allowed to do that when I was younger. Hmmmmm. Evolution is taking place.
I read recently that one should do the following when conflicts arise:
- Freeze. Don't move. Don't speak. I'm not so sure. Pause, yes. Freeze? Remember the 'be prepared' motto?
- Think. Look at the situation. Assess. I can go with that. But, again, are you prepared?
- Examine. List all the options before you. Let's all say it together: "BE PREPARED."
- Decide. Hope you're prepared.
- Act. Prepared. Prepared. Prepared.
Look, I'm learning how to do this work everyday. I know that I don't always get it right. Again, it is not an agreement that we make to disagree, but an agreement to see it through to its rightful resolution. You may limp along the way, but in the end, you just might be able to limp out holding on to each other.
Once at women's gathering of Lutherans, an argument ensued that had to do with excluding white women from some of the breakout sessions for women of color. The white women were incensed. The women of color were resolute that this was a time that didn't include the white women. Women were running up to the microphone to express their opinions. Finally, one woman said, "Let's just stop and pray!" to which I responded immediately. "You should have come to this meeting prayed up! We're in the middle of an argument and it needs to come to its rightful conclusion." We actually accomplished more that day than ever before because we let our guards down. We said things that for years we kept silent about. It hurt. But, it was also cathartic for women of color to stand together and it was good for white women to see that. It was good to see white women understand the years of anguish that women of color suffered and it was good to know that white women wanted to be a part of a process and finding out why they couldn't at that point and how they could in the future. It wasn't an agreement to disagree, it was an agreement to understand! And accept.
Get it? Peace.