Monday, 29 December 2008

Now there’s passive aggressive for you.

Had a priceless example yesterday of dysfunctional intrafamily communication.

You know how it is. The family are around, doing that “Family time together” thing. Everyone is being ever so ever so. No-one wants to be criticised. Everyone wants to be loved.

So Gramps asks “Can I have the news on at ten past six, please?”

“Of course,” I say, “What time is it now?”

“Ten past six”

Arrrgh! Just ask me to turn the TV on!

What would he have done if I hadn’t asked the time?

In asking the time, was I playing into his game? Was I being played?

Resentment follows.

What passive aggressive exchanges have you been tickled by this Christmas?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Deliverance and the Duelling Banjoes

The famous duelling banjos scene in Deliverance can be seen as a metaphor for conflict communications.

In John Boorman’s 1972 film, Deliverance, one of the central characters, Drew, plays music with a complete stranger, a seemingly mute boy. The city professional and the rural adolescent are able to create a whole improvised song between them.

The music develops by a process of answer and call. One of them plays a riff, or a short section of music, which is then followed by the other. They react to one another responding to and developing upon the riff they have just heard. By doing so they produce this amazing music in a memorable scene that is part of cinema folklore.

It represents a rare moment of optimism in what is an otherwise unbearably dark, oppressive film.

In the process of exchanging these riffs the protagonists are effectively collaborating. They are communicating. We can see their riffs as an analogy for talking. The riffs work where the spoken word does not. Drew and the Banjo boy clearly develop and enjoy a relationship while they are playing.

All of this is despite an atmosphere of intense mistrust and power imbalances. The scene starts as one of conflict. The city professionals have got lost on their way to the river where they are hoping to enjoy a canoeing expedition. They come across a local community who are referred to as “rednecks”. The locals suspect the visitors of being businessmen intent on damning the river, flooding the valley and evicting them from their homes.

The scene bristles as Burt Reynolds and his colleagues swagger about making demands for assistance ("I don't think you understand...). The presumed economic, cultural and intellectual dominance is all theirs. This is demonstrated when Bobby, another of the touring slickers, is heard to mutter “Talk about genetic deficiencies.” with regard to the banjo playing adolescent. Another example, this time of economic dominance is seen when, a couple of minutes later, Bobby suggests the relationship between the two musicians can be reduced to Drew giving the banjo player “a couple of bucks”.

There is no respect or trust between the two camps.

It is no surprise therefore that communication is not working. The visitors’ requests for help sound like peremptory demands and only seem to aggravate and alienate. When Bobby’s offensive comment about “genetic deficiencies” is overheard by one of the locals it is met with the response “Who’s picking the banjo here?”.

In the immediate context of the scene this is an observation that the local boy is holding his own in the transactions with the guitar playing Drew. Over the rest of the film though it becomes a potent foretelling as the local community wrestles back control and power in quite awful ways.

Throughout all of this however a unique rapport and relationship is building.

Slowly at first, Drew and the boy playing the banjo create a platform of mutual understanding and respect. The exchanges are brief, tentative, guarded.

The momentum builds. Both players start to give a little more and relax. There is then an explicit recognition that they are safe to continue; Drew exclaims “Come on, I’m with you!”, and the piece and scene takes off. There is a meeting of minds and cultures which is suddenly optimistic, and shown to be highly contagious.

Towards the end, Drew stalls in his guitar playing dazzled by the banjo player’s virtuosity and the giddy euphoria they have created between them. He gasps out “I’m lost!” He is safe to show this failing, this lack of understanding, or guitar playing ability on his part because they have established a framework within which to communicate and build a relationship. It is a relationship where each of the players are recognised as contributing to the dialogue.

The music ends with drew catching up and co-performing once again to bring the tune to a natural and satisfying conclusion.

UPDATE 3rd June 2014
Wow.  I had not realised that this article I wrote back in 2008 was still getting attention.  It is and lots of it. If you are reading this and want to catch up then please pop along to where you can find me and more of my conflict resolution work and writing.  Go well and do good work.

Friday, 1 August 2008

What Happens When We Argue TOO Well?

I am fascinated by how conflict plays out. It is full of curious ironies, dynamics and tricks.

Consider this excerpt from the BBC's Evan Davis's blog

"But it was one of those interesting arguments where - despite the other person winning - you remain somewhat unconvinced of their case. He argued it just too well.. I rather came to think he could win any argument he made. "

What a predicament to face. If we argue "Too well" we end up self defeating.

There is a recent family law case where this has been highlighted. In it a wife was arguing that her husband had hidden assets.

She argued that very well. She argued it too well.

She argued it so well that the judge, in the first instance, believed her unproven allegations and made an order against her husband accordingly.

The problem was that the argument was unsustainable on appeal, which she lost.

The awful irony is that she will have perceived she had succeeded in her case, but then faced another 2 years of litigation while the aftermath, of her own very successful efforts, were unravelled.

So, what are we to do?

We need to be on our guard and need to check our arguments. Are we creating a version of events simply to fit our perception? Stephen Covey would call this a paradigm view, no doubt. Are we being seduced by conflict, anger or indignation into seeing a quite artificial view.

There is another example of this very issue breaking as I write, with another BBC story. The former accused killer of Jillian Dando - Barry George - has been found innocent upon appeal. The prosecution case was criticised as follows;

""The only reason that the prosecution say that this is the work of the local loner, the local nutter, the man with these serious psychological problems, is because that is the man they arrested.

"But if you look at the facts of the case they will give you a very different story."

Facts, dear boy, facts.

In the aforementioned family law case, the appeal judgment explained that the problem with the original hearing and the wife's case is that it was not based on "Evidence but simply on a different belief asserted on behalf" of the wife. The extent to which the wife had proved her case was said to be "No more than `I assume that'"

My fuller article on the family law case can be found on my firm's website here.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Heather Mills and the things we say and do in conflict

On Friday 25th April 2008 I presented to a group of businessmen and women. We took a slightly different angle on the recent Mills and McCartney divorce and what we can all learn from the conflict led behaviours seen in that case.

The press coverage that Heather Mills has received following her divorce from Paul McCartney has been most unattractive.

Within our workshop we took a quick show of hands to gauge support for her.

I am pleased to say we had a couple of supporters for Ms Mills, but by far the majority were happy to denounce her. This is in keeping with the press coverage to date.

I shall be referring to the Judge's comments throughout this workshop, to see what we can learn from them.

Firstly let us look at how the Judge perceived Ms Mills and her conduct.

"She is a less than impressive witness."
"I cannot accept her case."
"Wholly exaggerated"

But for all of that, the Judge also recognised that Ms Mills is "A kindly person and is devoted to her charitable causes."

I want to explore the idea that Ms Mills is not as she has been portrayed - if she was then surely it is inconceivable that Paul McCartney would have married her - but rather that she is an individual who has fallen into quite typical conflict led patterns of behaviour.

I will look at 3 specific examples of conflict behaviours.

"To some extent she is her own worst enemy." Justice Bennett

How many of us, when reading these words, can hear the words of our parents or teachers ringing in our ears.

We are all capable of letting ourselves down and we are particularly at risk when we are in conflict situations. Kenneth Cloke wrote in his book, "Mediating Dangerously" that we get seduced by conflict.

There is a temptation to act in conflict driven ways, not least because we perceive that conflict feels so good. It is the "Yeah! That told them!" feeling.

When we are seduced by conflict we act in accordance with conflict's own agenda and not in keeping with our own values or how we would like to see ourselves acting. What was that quote about "Give a speech in anger and give the best speech you'll ever regret?"

Radiohead sang "You do it to yourself, you do, and that's what really hurts" and they were right.

Too often we think we are blaming the other person. We think we are proving that the other person is to blame to whoever might be listening. But all we are doing is letting ourselves down and shooting ourselves in the foot.

Because we lose control in the face of conflict we end up inflicting damage on ourselves. We do it to ourselves and we become our own worst enemies.

Think of a conflict situation you have had to face where you acted rashly and scored an own goal.

"She cannot have done herself any good... by her outbursts in her TV interviews." Justice Bennett

These TV interviews, see below, drew a great deal of criticism.

The public were largely unaminous in their views that these were a bad idea poorly handled.

But, again, was Ms Mills doing anything that you or I would not have done?

Think about it. Think about when you got home after an argument at the office, or having been cut up by another driver on the way home.

What do we do?

We tell our partners about it. Maybe we retell the story later on at the bar with friends, or on the phone to our parents or colleagues.

What exactly are we doing that for?

I suggest we do it to seek affirmation that we were not in the wrong.

"I mean, I was right, wasn't I?"


"Can you believe what they said today?"

When we retell these conflict stories we are looking to recruit supporters to our version of events so that we can be comforted that we did not make the mistake. It is a perfectly natural behaviour.

I think the only difference with Ms Mills is that she was given a much broader platform, namely live GMTV, from which to retell her story from her perspective.

Would we, if we were so inflamed by conflict, have been able to resist such an opportunity to set the story straight, as we saw it?

There is something else going on within these TV interviews and it is this.

Ms Mills is seen maximising her virtues and denouncing other peoples motives.

Again this is something we all do.

If I am late then I justify it my behaviour. there will be any number of explanations. If someone I am meeting is late, then I do not justify it and instead rush to condemn it.

Conflict tricks us into denigrating the other person and all that they say or do.

Many divorce clients when receiving a good, even generous settlement proposal from their estranged spouse, reject it immediately.

"Oh, there must be something in it for them."

We see a terrible conflict irony that the more generous the proposal, the greater the mistrust.

This in part can explained by Karpman's Drama Triangle which I shall now look at.

"The wife's campaign... portraying herself as the victim and he as the monster" Justice Bennett

Karpman created the concept of the Drama triangle in the 1960's. It relates to Transactional Analysis models of behaviour.

It suggests that when we are in conflict we occupy one of the three corners of the triangle. They are labelled Victim, Villain and Rescuer.

Bizarrely, although none of us would ever admit to wanting to be the victim, we often rush to claim that very role for ourselves.

"Can you believe what they told me?/did to me?"

When we recount those conflict stories discussed above, how often do we portray ourselves as the victim.

The problem is that every victim needs a villain. Even if we do not name the perpetrator as a villain, it is implied that they must be villainous. And you better believe that they will know that, or at least "Feel" it.

And so we see Ms. Mills proclaiming her victim status live on GMTV. But her motive is that of the rescuer. She is seen to intervene into her own victimhood and attempt to rescue herself. She asserts that she is speaking out on live TV to set the record straight.

Very often the victim will have had enough and take such "rescuing" actions. The problem is though that she was then roundly condemned as the villain of the piece by having been perceived as attacking her spouse.

Watch out also for the priceless assertion that she is/was trying to "Protect" Paul McCartney.

Again, she is the rescuer. Here, she portrays Paul McCartney as the victim - powerless - at the mercy of shadowy unidentified villains.

Her outburst is not an attack, she would say. It is a virtuous action.

So look out for the drama triangle at play in your life, in your debates at work and relationships at home and in the community.

Watch out for instances where you are retelling a conflict story looking for recruits to join your side of the argument.

And above all, watch out lest you get suckered into carrying out conflict led behaviours rather than adopting a smarter approach to conflict resolution.

You'll be shocked to see that Ms Mills isn't all that different to you and I after all. It is just a question of scale.