Author: Rebecca Armacost, Executive Director, Mediation Training Institute
My four-year-old son Jackson started school this month. Up until now, he has been at home with either me or his nanny. So this transition is a big one for both of us! As I complete the never-ending To Do list of documents, signatures, supplies, and uniforms needed for the school, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned about conflict from this four-year-old.
While sometimes we want to cry and act out, conflict is resolved sooner when we talk through our perspectives.
Jackson is not one to hide his emotions. He smiles or laughs most of the time, but when he is frustrated or angry, he shows it with tears or the occasional (shrill) scream. Sometimes, his frustration is at me for something that I did that he wished I hadn’t done – like cleaning up the never ending ‘train track’ of Legos all over the playroom floor. It is easy to get defensive when you are nursing the sore foot that stepped on the Lego piece for the eighth time. Instead, I’ve learned to sit down and talk with him about our very different perspectives:
- My perspective: I don’t want to have permanent Lego marks in my feet.
- His perspective: He felt that the latest version of his train track was the most perfect one yet.
When we talk through our different opinions, we usually can come up with a solution together that works for both of us. In the case of the Legos, he agreed to build his Lego roads and tracks in sections of the playroom that don’t interfere with walking traffic, and to clean up after he is finished. I’ve agreed not to clean up the Legos without warning, and if he hasn’t cleaned them up, to put them away after he has gone to bed.
Lack of sleep can seriously impact our ability to handle conflict appropriately.
Jackson’s hot buttons are pushed more easily when he is tired. Let’s face it, this is true for most adults, too. I know that when I am tired, I can get more emotional. There have been a lot of studies about the impact of sleep deprivation on conflict and stress. When we are sleep deprived, our body begins a chain reaction that can lead to conflict. Sleep deprivation (and stress) triggers our bodies to produce various hormones that eventually lead to the release of higher levels of cortisol into our system. Cortisol shuts down our thinking centers, causes us to perceive more negativity and judgment than actually exists, and activates our conflict avoidance and reactive behaviors. Sadly, the effects of cortisol can last for up to 26 hours. While there are a lot of studies that suggest a certain number of hours as the ‘optimal’ amount of sleep, I’d say that getting your optimal amount of sleep will help you control the production of cortisol and reduce your negative reactions.
Know when to engage and when to let it go.
I don’t advocate avoiding conflict all the time. But I do think that sometimes we can react when really we should let it go. While this lesson is certainly true with a preschooler, it is true with adults as well. Is the issue really one that needs your attention, or is it a blip that is best handled by letting it go? If you have to address it, practice constructive behaviors like Reflective Thinking and Delayed Response to help you communicate the issue in the most productive way. More than once these responses have saved me from reacting quickly to a very cute preschooler who triggered my hot buttons.
Don’t underestimate the power of expressing emotions.
Preschoolers express emotions all the time, and in rapid succession… and then they let it go. In contrast, many adults think that expressing emotions is a sign of weakness or inappropriate in the workplace. If we adopted a (more mature) preschool model, we could express emotions appropriately, and therefore communicate honestly and calmly to move the conflict to resolution. Instead, if we hide emotions our health can be impacted (think migraines, ulcers, etc.), and the conflict festers. So never underestimate the power of expressing emotions and then letting it go!
We all want some amount of control.
One of the biggest conflict lessons that I’ve learned from Jackson is that everyone wants some amount of control. When I started to give him choices that ultimately led to the desired behavior needed from him (do you want to clean up the Legos now or after nap, do you want to take a bath before or after you brush your teeth, etc.), we avoided a lot of conflicts. He just wanted to feel as if he had some control over the situation. I get that, and I feel that we adults want the same thing. When we are involved in a conflict, we want to have some control over how it is resolved, what the solution is, and what part we play in finding that solution. If a solution is forced on us, we harbor resentment and don’t truly resolve the conflict. On the other hand, if we work in partnership with the other person to seek a mutually agreeable solution, we can control the conflict and the resolution.
Conflict with anyone is not easy. But when we take the time to practice simple constructive behaviors, we can minimize the damage and resolve conflict sooner. Now if you will excuse me, I’ve got some Legos to pick up.