I emailed my sister in the middle of the night. What had she meant by “that story you like to tell”? In a phone conversation with her earlier that day, I had alluded to a painful story from my childhood. The story involved me having been terrified that I’d been abandoned when I was 6. She had said “oh yes, I remember that story you like to tell”. Really, I LIKE to tell it? It’s actually very unpleasant to remember. Or did she mean that I tell it A LOT? I believe she may have heard it twice before in the 44 years since the event, three times at most – was she suggesting that I tell it TOO OFTEN? And she called it a story – was she doubting that it was a TRUE story? Or was she just annoyed that I told the story at all, because she found it offensive? Did it somehow insult her? Or did it insult her recollection of our childhood?
More importantly, why was I losing sleep over it?
I’ll tell you why. Conflict is like that. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because it affects our two most basic values – strength of self and care of other. I like to think of myself as someone with a certain amount of strength, stability, and competence. My sister’s comment and my reaction to it had me feeling threatened. Her comment suggested, I thought, that there was something wrong with me: Either I had false memories, or I was dishonest, or I’m one of those boring people who repeats stories too much. Those are not the sorts of things that competent, wise, self-aware Dan is supposed to do. My very identity as a strong, clear-thinking person was being questioned.
At the same time, my compassion for others was coming into question. Why am I so touchy when my sister makes an offhand comment? Can’t I cut her some slack? And does my telling this story communicate lack of appreciation for my devoted parents, who maybe are somehow to blame for what happened when I was 6? Aren’t I the accepting, nonjudmental loving person I thought I was? Maybe not, given how I feel toward my sister right now.
Bush and Folger identified these two facets of human identity, which go by a variety of names (care of self and care of other, strength and responsiveness, stable sense of self and stable sense of other), as central to our experience of conflict. According to transformative theory, empowerment and recognition are the two sorts of shifts that move us toward acting more consistently with our values. While conflict challenges us in those two ways, empowerment and recognition shifts are the path toward constructive interaction. From a stronger and more responsive place we make better choices about how to deal with our differences. And we are motivated to act with strength and responsiveness because those characteristics are the ones we all aspire to.
So I sent my sister the email asking her to tell me more about her reaction to my story. She suggested we talk on the phone. I told her that I don’t think I “like” to tell that story. She acknowledged that she misspoke. And she told me that she didn’t think I’d made it up. She in fact said that she could understand how I would’ve felt they way I did back then. I calmed down and we talked a little more about the conditions of our childhood. We cleared the air. I wound up feeling like I’d spoken up for myself effectively and that I understood where she was coming from. With my sense of self and my understanding of my sister intact, I was free to focus on whatever the next conflict to come along would be.