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  • rickenpatel

The Nut: How Emotions Undermine the Communication Needed to Resolve Conflict


It might seem enormously cliche and common knowledge, but I’m shocked at how little this simple insight is clearly taught in our schools, to our parents, and in our workplaces:


Emotions can cause us to form unfair and inaccurate beliefs about each other that can lead to conflict, and the only way to avoid or resolve that conflict is to communicate, but emotions can prevent us from communicating, or communicating healthily. When we get caught in the spiral of unfair perceptions and lack of communication, we tend to destroy our relationships, communities and societies.


As a manager in nonprofit organizations, I found that one of my simplest management tools was also one of our most powerful. A basic set of communication principles we all followed. There were 7, but a summary might be roughly:


  1. Raise things early, with the person concerned, ideally before you get frustrated.

  2. Suspend judgment, ask questions. 50% of the time you’re just mistaken.

  3. Choose to trust. Trust is a choice - choose to trust the motivations and answers someone gives you, especially about what’s going on in their own heads.

  4. Cherish communication, and offer it responsibly. Someone’s perspective or constructive criticism is a gift, as is yours to them, as long as it’s offered out of genuine desire to help and not hurt.


I also advise two “don’ts” which are “don’t gossip” and “don’t vent”. Each of these things can be highly toxic both to your own accuracy of perception and emotions about someone, and to others’ views of that person and the social dynamics that your problems generate. I've found for example that we can seek out "dark cheerleaders" to vent and gossip with - people that comfort us in our triggered perceptions and delusions and even hold us accountable to our worst selves.


I've seen the principles above be a game changer for individuals, and groups. Instead of constantly guessing what others are thinking in an anxious game of reading signals, or stewing in frustration and resentment at issues that are unaddressed, or tearing one another down in angry rants or poisonous gossip, you get healthy, constructive communication that leaves everyone stronger.


Of course, our emotions can get in the way of this kind of communication, and they can do so in a kind of spiral. The more our emotions prevent communication, the more that false perceptions and negative emotions can build to further prevent communication and increase the possibility of conflict.


One common objection to this perspective is that one must wait until one is ready to have a difficult conversation. You want to spend some time figuring out what you actually think, and processing it so that you can bring your best to the conversation, making it more likely to go well and not poorly. Cherishing someone’s perspective, and offering your own out of a desire to help and not hurt, can be a pretty tall order when you are struggling with feelings of hurt, frustration, or resentment.


My answer to this objection is that this is why it’s so important to communicate early and often about things that might turn into bigger issues down the line. Preventing a problem can be a lot easier than resolving one. Every time you delay communication you risk allowing space and time for more difficulty to occur, piling up until your arguments for delay become arguments for avoidance, or the initial problem is compounded by further problems.


Another related objection is that sometimes the conversation and process itself is simply too difficult, too painful. Sometimes there are truths we are not ready to face, or hurts that we just don’t want to revisit. We feel that space and distance are the wisest options for us.


This may be accurate, but often it too is an excuse, to avoid something that may not be pleasant, and may turn out badly, but also offers the chance to go well, and is in principle or on balance the right thing to do. It’s a bit like the way we avoid doing anything that is hard or scary in the moment, but nonetheless good for us in the long run. Like (very relatedly) admitting that we’re wrong, or apologizing, or changing our minds, or taking a risk to try something we care about succeeding at, or avoiding that extra piece of chocolate cake, or going to the gym.


A more thorny problem and an extremely common one, is that our emotions tend to fabricate the reality that justifies them. “Emotional reasoning” is a process by which we see feelings that we have as evidence for facts in the world. We are terrified of something therefore it *must* be or *is* highly dangerous. Emotions like fear and anger dramatically distort perception, governing what we see and don’t see, hear and don’t hear, remember and don’t remember, and often they render us quite delusional about ourselves, others, and the situations we find ourselves in. One extremely common delusion that is at the core of why we don’t communicate with each other, is that such communication will have no effect. We distort or demonize the other person, or even ourselves, into someone who isn’t capable of healthy communication. This is a highly convenient delusion for someone who is emotionally motivated to avoid healthy communication. Of course, it might be true that one or both parties are going to have a lot of trouble talking. But our fearful and angry and lazy emotions are going to err in that direction of perception every single time. We might for example forget or ignore how we had failed to communicate healthily on previous occasions, thus denying the other person the chance to do so with someone coming from the same intention.


This “reality loop” where our perceptions and beliefs engender conflict and block the communication needed to resolve that conflict, is the real tough nut I wanted to write this post about. Because I think we have an epidemic of this kind of delusion in our society, and it’s wreaking enormous havoc on our lives. We can do so much better.


Because I feel this is such an important lesson that is applicable across our lives and societies, from a single marriage or friendship to the kind of democratic conversation that exists between left and right in our countries, I want to try to suggest a meme or two that might help make it a more widely appreciated wisdom in our culture. I really like the communication principles listed above as guidance, including the awareness that gossip and venting can be toxic and poisonous to yourself and others. But I think we need a bit more to encourage our culture to head in this direction. So here goes:


Connection or Conflict - this is the choice whenever difficulty arises in human relationships. You can either connect to the person concerned, listen, understand, convey your perspective, or you can head down a path that leads to conflict of some type with them, even if it’s a silent Cold War. Basically, it’s talk it out or fight it out.


Conversational Courage - I find our culture lauds the courage it takes for someone to ‘speak their truth’ or ‘speak truth to power’ but often those things can take little bravery at all - they can be angry and destructive and be highly rewarded by those who agree with us. What takes more courage is to speak one’s truth as well as genuinely listen to that of another, and travel together. To grant valid points, and change your mind. I call this conversational courage and integrity.


Delusional Trust-Killers - these are delusional beliefs we hold about why conversation is useless or counterproductive, regarding the intentions or agendas or capacities of others or ourselves. These are central, for example, to disinformation campaigns that seek to weaken an adversary by breaking down the trust required for communication, thus ensuring that conflict will ensue.


Self Mastery - this term describes the capacity to control how your emotions affect your behaviour - not just the self control needed to keep you from losing your cool, but the self mastery needed for you to, while engaging in a difficult or painful conversation, stay in an open minded, listening, honest, and courageous state of mind. None of us are Yodas at this, but every one of us can seek to be Jedis of it.


I think deep down all of us know that all of these things are the healthiest ways to act and behave. For example, the next time you watch a movie or read a book with a classic hero or heroine character, watch how they engage with those they have trouble with. Even the villain, who often has wrought enormous suffering or damage on the hero/heroine as well as others, is not savaged by angry vicious words and threats by our main character. Often they are engaged with an appeal to turn away from their path, an opportunity to avoid conflict even after it has progressed to such a painful stage. Our heroes don’t succumb to fear, anger or hatred, even under the most extreme circumstances. That’s what makes them heroes. And heroes are just symbols of what we all strive to be.


I think if as a culture we more widely understood “connect or conflict” and lauded “conversational courage”, questioned “delusional trust-killer” beliefs, consciously cultivated and respected “self mastery”, and advised ourselves and each other, when facing problems, to “raise things early”, “suspend judgment and ask questions”, “choose to trust” and “Cherish communication and offer it responsibly”; and if we also truly understood the toxic and poisonous nature of venting and gossip and "dark cheerleaders" and sought to avoid them, then our marriages, families, friendships, teams, communities, and societies would be enormously healthier and stronger.

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7 Comments


Dawn Adlam
Dawn Adlam
Apr 03

Well said Ricken, this should be more important than reading or math in schools for sure. I've read some schools are using meditation in detention, another great start for our children.


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rickenpatel
Apr 04
Replying to

Yeah it’s crazy how our school curricula are often still designed for an 18th century economy - lots to improve, though I’m also worried about how wrong we’ll do social and emotional learning before we do it right - and all the backlash the silly approaches will generate :(.

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Margit Griffiths Slind
Margit Griffiths Slind
Apr 03

Great read 🙏

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Anita Patel
Anita Patel
Apr 02

Something I've always needed a roadmap for. Thanks.

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wfw
Apr 02

Thx, what you write about restraint and good will including forgiveness, has a lot in common with perennial conflict resolution strategies used in indigenous societies for millennia, now under the name "truth and reconciliation." It was used in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa and elsewhere to some good effect.

Zen Buddhism, the non-theistic philosophy, values Peacemaking greatly and attaches importance to an impersonal orientation:

“If you wait until the time of crisis, it will be too late... Even if you know that nonviolence is better than violence, if your understanding is only intellectual and not in your whole being, you will not act nonviolently. The fear and anger will prevent you...”  Thich Nhat Hanh.

Further to that, H. P. Blavatsky…

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wfw
Apr 07
Replying to

Indeed, these social skills are very valuable, the glue that keeps communities together as friendly and vibrant places. For a description of the wisdom of the old peacemaking councils, you may like page 3

https://theosophy-ult.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Peacemaking-seminar-handout-June-22.pdf

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