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.

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