I grew up in an environment with lots of conflict.
Not the “call the police” kind of conflict, more the gossip-filled, backstabbing, constant-negativity kind of conflict. The kind where someone might act like your ally one day and your enemy the next, so you were never quite comfortable with where you stood.
I honestly cannot recall anyone talking about emotions—as in “I felt this when you did that.” Rather, emotions were buried beneath a thick layer of blame and judgment—as in “you made me mad” or “you ruined my day.”
So naturally, and perhaps quite unconsciously, I was drawn to a profession filled with conflict. Civil trial law, where people sue each other over money and property every day. I found that I had a natural talent for it and could dive into the most heated disputes with aplomb. I worked incredibly hard and liked nothing better than for those whom I deemed deserving to get what was coming to them. It became who I was.
Or so I thought.
You see, shortly after the premature birth of our twins, and while they remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at a hospital in Austin, the conflict reached a crescendo over who had final say over the names of our children. It was a showdown that had been a long-time coming and one that was far more about control than it was about a child’s name.
We stood firmly on the side of it being our choice, but it was one that created a great deal of suffering for those involved. The kind of suffering that comes when people say they love you but spread lies about you, refuse to speak to you, and recruit others to follow suit. I was overwhelmed, distracted, and emotionally raw at a time when my wife and children most needed me.
Time for a change.
Despite dealing in conflict for a living, I did not have the tools to cope with what was happening, so I sought out the wisdom of others. I met with multiple counselors and read anything I thought might help.
One of the first books I read was The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, which opened my eyes to my role in my suffering—more on this later.
Through lots of work, I came to understand that while I was good at conflict, I wasn’t very good at resolving conflict. I learned that this was a skill that required a different level of thinking than I had ever been exposed to.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” ~ Albert Einstein
One of the first things I learned is that some conflicts can be created, and escalated, merely by using certain words. In turn, this meant that avoiding these words can avoid some conflicts, and de-escalate others.
I learned that there are eight of these words, and they are considered by some to be black magic words because they create suffering:
>> Ought to
>> Got to
>> Have to
>> Need to
>> Supposed to
When I started paying attention to these eight words, I noticed that if anyone else used them with me, I automatically resisted whatever came next and started thinking about reasons to not do what they suggested. The really interesting thing was that my resistance was just as strong even when I agreed with what they said.
So, if my wife told me, “You should change your shirt before we go out,” even if I agreed with her, I would not do it for no other reason than she said I should. Of course, my mind came up with excuses, such as “I like this shirt—it looks fine,” but when I felt into it, I could see that what I was actually doing was pushing back against the “should.”
These are words of conflict.
Awareness of my reaction to the eight words helped me to notice when others used those words and to not react to them, which in turn led to less conflict with people I interacted with.
At the same time, I paid attention to when I used the eight words with others, and noticed that when I did, they were just like me—they automatically resisted whatever I was saying, and the chances of them actually doing anything I recommended actually went down.
This was helpful to see.
So, the lesson for me was that when I consciously avoided using the eight words with others, I had better, more effective communications with them.
No…better connection with them.
This required me to adapt to the language I used. For example, instead of telling someone what they should do, I asked them if they might consider doing it, or if they might think about doing it, or asked them what would happen if they did it. If I felt strongly about a subject, sometimes I would say, “You might consider a particular course of action.”
When I did that, I found that they actually heard me.
Although this is just one tool I learned to use to decrease conflict in my life, it is a good one, and I encourage you to check it out for yourself and see what happens.
See what I did there?