The Best Way Out Is Through – Emotion in Conflict

By Laura Melton Tucker, May 30th, 2010

Listen to this entry.

Feeling numb is a good thing when a body part is in pain.  I know this first hand, or maybe I should say “open-jawed.”  Last week, flossing my teeth vigorously before a hygiene appointment,  I pulled extra hard and a pebble sized piece of my molar broke loose. Horrors!  Later, clutching the arms of the dental chair before getting my new crown, I looked up at my smiling dentist who said, “This shot into the roof of your mouth  [Yes! ROOF!] might sting, but you’ll be glad you’re numb when I start drilling.”  You betcha.  Numb is good.  But, when it comes to matters of the spirit, numb may not be so good.

Numb is what happens when, rather than feel our feelings, we escape them.  To escape, we may find ourselves doing even more hurtful things than what caused us to run in avoidance in the first place.   Addictions to food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, work, even busyness, are often rooted in a desire to numb ourselves from a deeper layer of pain.  When conflict stems from unresolved feelings, addressing emotions may be the best way to get to the heart of a problem.

At last month’s conference hosted by the Iowa Association of Mediators, Sue Bronson, a psychotherapist, mediator, and professor, spoke about the wisdom of feelings to bring clarity to a conflict.  Bronson advises that the first step in unlocking the wisdom in emotion is helping people find a vocabulary for their feelings.  Naming our feelings can be challenging.  Am I angry or hurt?  Sad or confused?  Identifying feelings can be especially difficult because many people in conflict put up defenses to avoid feeling their feelings.   These defenses take the form of threats, attacks, blame, projection, sarcasm, humor, and so on.  Bronson advocates discussing feelings as a way to sort, focus and sharpen the conversation about what’s going on beneath the surface of the conflict.  A mediator’s job is to help the parties express themselves, and when that expression comes across as emotion, to pinpoint the information in the emotion.  Phrases  like, “Since you brought that up, would you like to say more about that?”  or, “I see that you’re crying, can you talk about why?” may be helpful in the mediation process.

I wish I’d known this when I started my mediation practice.   The first divorce mediation I conducted knocked me off balance.  The case was an asset division for a couple who had been married forty years.  When I greeted them,  smiling warmly and eagerly shaking their hands, I realized my bonhomie would do little to offset the dour gravity of the moment.  As the divorcing couple sat down, I sensed a third person following behind.  Imaginary, but palpable, Sorrow entered the room and took a seat at the table.  I had never experienced such an energy drain in a room.  I had barely finished my introduction when the divorcing husband asked accusingly,  “Why did you change the locks on the door?  Why have you stopped answering my phone calls?  Why do we have to speak to one another through our lawyers?”  The wife responded in a barely audible voice, “I don’t trust you, that’s why.”   My discomfort and surprise at the husband’s anger and the wife’s hurt led me to  steer the conversation in a different direction.  I was a newbie.  Not until driving home  did I fully realize my mistake.  I should have steered into, not away from, the emotions in the room.

As the poet-sage Robert Frost counsels, “The best way out is always through.”  In other words, as much as we might want to go around our feelings, with diversions and distractions, or over them, by avoiding responsibility or blaming others,  or beneath them, by burying ourselves in denial, the underlying conflict will remain.  The takeaway is that we have an alternative: we can feel our feelings. As poet Mark Nepo says, “Though we fear it, feeling our feelings is the only clear and direct way to free our hearts of pain.”    Freeing our hearts of pain is one of the best ways through and eventually out of conflict.

2 Responses

  • Vicki Philipps says:

    Great article Laura! I can so relate to everything you’ve said in my own personal life. I can also relate this to my job at school. I teach my third graders to solve problems independently by starting conflict resolution with these three sentences: It bothers me when….. It makes me feel …. I need you to….. I think that middle sentence is for an eight year old what you are saying in this article. Your article applies to all of us at any age! Thank you!

    • Vicki, how lucky your students are to have a wise teacher who asks her students to identify their feelings. Our instinct is to avoid our feelings because they HURT! The message – that hurting is okay, we learn from our hurt – is key. Thank you for what YOU do – all day long – for those precious children you teach.

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