The smell of garlic filled the air, tinged with broccoli and melted butter. The floor was slick. Blue, white, and green ceramic shards were everywhere. The silence lasted at least half a minute before my oldest daughter said, “Whoa, that scared me!” She stood next to the open dishwasher. My younger daughter stood next to me, with a stricken look on her face, knowing it was her hand that had knocked the bowl of leftover dinner vegetables from my hand, onto the floor.
My younger daughter had washed her hands and decided to “air dry” them. She had just begun to swing her arms wildly (ah, kids) as I walked into the kitchen carrying multiple dishes with food on them; one of them was the leftover vegetables. My younger daughter’s arm collided with the large serving bowl in my hand, and bam! The bowl hit the floor, along with the broccoli, string beans, garlic, and melted butter.
Here’s how I handled it after the initial moment of silence:
“Ok girls, step carefully away, and take the dog with you. I’ll clean up.”
Did I want to clean up? Nope. I’d have loved to leave the mess for someone else, or to have my daughters clean it up themselves. Yet in the moment, I decided the safest thing was to have them step away and protect themselves (and the dog) from the potential of cuts or bruises.
I already had the future state in mind.
No yelling. No blame. I quickly accepted that this particular accident had happened.
What needed to happen next was simply to get the floor back to a safe space: clean up all the shards of what had been the ceramic bowl, and clean away all the food scraps and oily residue lest someone slip and fall on the slick surface.
Sometimes in conflict we want to hang on to blaming someone. Something seems truly unfair and so the logical thing seems to be some kind of punishment, or insisting on an apology from the person we think perpetrated the unfair action. Or, because we’re so focused on what happened in the past, we keep thinking about what they should have done - or what we should have done - and we don’t focus on what needs to happen now so we can get to the best possible future state.
Emotions & the end goal
Had this been a favorite ceramic bowl, or had I been counting on the leftover veggies for tomorrow’s lunch or a second dinner later in the week, I might have reacted differently. I certainly would have felt anger, or perhaps sadness or disappointment, and that would have tinged my reaction, whether verbal or nonverbal. There possibly would have been yelling (on my part) and maybe some stomping and slammed doors or tears (on my daughter’s part).
In the end, no matter what words were said, the same steps had to be taken to restore the kitchen: cleaning up the broken bowl and food that had fallen on the floor.
To handle negative emotions in the moment, a common tactic is to count to ten, or to take ten deep breaths. It’s important to take time to reflect on whatever tactic most helps you counter strong emotions and get to a calm state, so when a conflict comes up you don’t find yourself either losing it or trying out something that won’t work. (I once knew someone whose go-to tactic at work was to put his head in his hands and count to ten rapidly out loud, usually more than once, before looking at you again - Given how angry he always sounded after this, I think he needed a different tactic!)
There are always alternative resolutions possible. That’s one of the reasons that, as a facilitative mediator, I always look to the parties in a conflict to brainstorm solutions rather than suggesting any.
In this case, I may have chosen to ask my girls to just give me a minute before we all worked together to clean it up, or assigned the older one to entertain the dog somewhere away from the potentially dangerous food while the younger daughter and I cleaned up the mess together. Maybe I could have called my husband in to take care of the mess (if he has superior cleaning skills) while my girls got homework done and I walked the dog (balancing different priorities). If I’d really wanted to, and had the money to, I could have called a cleaning service. I might have decided to just clean up the broken bowl, and let my dog eat the rest (not that I recommend this, given the garlic, but it would have been one possible solution).
A productive approach to conflict
To have a productive approach to any conflict, consider where you’d like to be in the future and do what it takes to get there. While it’s often easier said than done, accepting what happened in the past - even if “the past” was just 30 seconds ago - helps you focus on the future.
In this case, I wanted my kitchen floor to be clean and safe – there was no getting back the food or the bowl. Focusing on how the accident happened (hanging onto blame) would not change the necessary action of cleaning the floor.
There are many different ways to approach conflict, and every approach can be productive at different times. One conflict approach assessment (Thomas-Kilman Instrument), around since the 1970s, posits five approaches:
Each of these approaches is constructive in different situations. In my family’s post-dinner disaster, I’d say I accommodated the conflict - an accident happened, I cleaned it all up. (Or maybe that could be better characterized as avoiding the conflict!)
In other situations, it might be appropriate to:
Compete - This is appropriate when you’re standing up for your rights, or the rights of others who are being treated unfairly or in a discriminatory way.
Collaborate - If you choose to confront a person with whom you’re having difficulty communicating, but with a true desire to learn their point of view and not with a predetermined “winning state” in mind, then that’s collaborating.
Compromise - If you’ve ever decided or offered to “split the difference” with someone, then you’re using compromise as your approach. You’re comfortable giving up some things, but not everything, and you don’t feel a need to win.
Avoid - Perhaps you’re experiencing a threatening situation; the safest thing to do is often to simply withdraw.
Accommodate - When you decide the best thing is to give in to what someone else wants, you’re accommodating them. This is appropriate in cases where the outcome is less important to you than it is to them.
What’s your learning moment?
Consider a recent “disaster” along the lines of my broken bowl o’ veggies - something that wasn’t really a big deal, but had the potential for conflict. How did you react? How could you have reacted differently? Did you do anything that you’d like to be able to repeat doing in the future, perhaps with bigger conflicts you care more deeply about?