Should our conflict partners have to earn or deserve our good graces for us to show them generosity of spirit when they’re acting badly? Here’s a way to disagree better even when we think we’re handling the encounter well and they’re not.
Decades of conflict resolution work convince me that, when we mediate (formally or informally), it’s best to address difficult behavior not by trying first to “manage” someone into different behavior but by fostering conditions that help them act in ways they can feel good about later. I’ve told countless mediation students that no one gets out of bed in the morning hoping to be a jerk in front of the mediator (or the boss, the committee, the class, etc.). We’re all just trying to get through the day with a bit of grace. When things get difficult, help people find their path again.
The same idea applies when we want to disagree better. Instead of expecting them to act better or trying to make them act better, we can orient ourselves to them as equal humans, equally perfect, equally flawed, and wishing for a bit of grace, just like us. We can choose not to make our generosity of spirit toward them contingent upon their behavior.
If we have had a difficult dynamic with someone for a while, a few attempts at generosity of spirit will not be enough to create enduring change. It will take commitment over a longer time. We can’t be grudging with our grace, doling it out only a few times to see if it “works.”
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and the more recent Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, has offered some slightly different language for this idea, and I’m very drawn to it. She wrote,
“Grace” is a term that’s often used in an explicitly religious context. I’m going to use it a little more loosely: to mean a state of mind where you do your best to show people (including yourself!) love, kindness, and mercy, without asking questions of relative status (theirs vs. yours) or whether they, or you, “deserve” it. It’s a state of mind in which you see yourself, and others, in absolute, rather than relative, terms. They are who they are: period. You are who you are: period. How you compare to each other is beside the point.SUSAN CAIN, THE KINDRED LETTERS, 1 FEBRUARY 2023
Cain went on to suggest that when we have an awkward encounter, rather than thinking about how the other person needs to change, how they feel about us, or whether they deserve our kindness, we might consider how we could make them more comfortable.
I’m compelled by Cain’s “make them more comfortable” because it operationalizes my long-used “look for the equal human in front of you.” It translates the idea into something we can do.
Over to you
Think of someone with whom you have a difficult dynamic. Then:
- What kinds of things do you usually say or do when the conversation becomes difficult?
- What would you say or do differently in response to their less-than-ideal behavior toward you if you were motivated first to make them more comfortable?
- In what low-stakes situations could you try out this approach, either with the person you identified or with someone else?