Most people in conflict strike a variety of poses or “acts.” These melodramatic affectations are highly effective in capturing other people’s attention. None, however, describe who they really are, or allow others to see them as multi-faceted, complex individuals. In this way, each pose keeps them locked in conflict. Mediating dangerously means helping them drop the pose and cut out the act.
The ultimate problem with any pose is that it takes on a life of its own, and prevents parties from resolving their disputes. Oscar Wilde wrote:
A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a Member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it.
Wearing a mask or striking a pose transforms the person assuming it, and calls forth a sympathetic response from others that reinforces and locks it in place. The dramatic intensity of listening sparked by the pose provides the actor with attention, a rush of adrenaline, and a clear identity that may otherwise be absent from his life. The audience is mesmerized, welcomes the show, and wants it to be true.
In conflict, the poses dance and play off one another. For each pose, there is an equal, opposite one that is called into existence as a partner. Together, they form a system, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In addition, within each conflict pose or story, we can identify an accusation, a confession, and a request.
For example, a common pose in conflict is that of the victim, or “Innocent Sufferer.” This affectation, designed to elicit sympathy from an audience, allows the player to wallow in self-pity, and be released from responsibility for solving the problems that produced their pain. Yet it is possible to interpret their pose either as accusations of cruelty, confessions of vulnerability and poor self-esteem, or requests for respect, acknowledgement and empathy. While the first results in defensiveness, the second triggers empathy, and the third transforms the relationship by eliminating the need for the pose or story.
For every pose there is a counter-pose that binds them in conflict. The counter-pose to the victim is the aggressor, or “Righteous Enforcer.” These poses mutually reinforce each other, spiraling into a kind of sado-masochistic dance. Some common conflict poses include the “Poor Innocent Victim Who Did Nothing Wrong,” “Indignant Avenger of Wrongs,” “Screw-up Who Can’t Do Anything Right,” and “Perfect Person Who Never Does Anything Wrong.”
Each pose is less a statement than a concealment, keeping the actors’ authenticity, vulnerability, desire and pain well hidden. People strike conflict poses to achieve three primary purposes. The first is external, to gain attention, sympathy and support by asking the listener to interpret it as though it were a fairy tale, a dramatic conflict between Good and Evil, and to reward the hero and punish the villain.
The second is internal, to disguise the opposite of the pose, which is what the actor really feels. Poses are masks that cloak and camouflage what the actor perceives as ugly. For this reason, the details of their design reveal what they are meant to cover up, allowing mediators to move from the mask to the confession, request, need, interest or desire. For example, anyone who poses as self-confident only does so because they do not feel it internally. Knowing this, we can probe deeper to discover the sources of self-doubt within.
The third purpose, hidden even from the actor, is to lead a caring listener to search for the authentic self, to ask questions that allow the actor to strip off the mask, drop the pose, cut out the act, and reveal who they really are. The hidden request behind every mask, the secret pleasure they stimulate in audience and actor, their tease and sport, is the desire to disrobe, and see what lies beneath.
Yet probing beneath conflict masks is dangerous, because those who put them fear taking them off. Poses are struck and masks are donned because people find it difficult to be authentic. For most people in conflict, their mask reflects a fear that they will be judged and found wanting. Their true desire is for others to see what lies beneath, and find it beautiful.
Often beneath one mask or pose lies another, entreating us to probe even deeper. Under the pose of the victim, for example, one finds uncommunicated or unacknowledged pain. Beneath that lies another, less identifiable guise, which is that of the speaker’s unrecognized best intentions. These subtler masks and poses are designed to conceal a deep sense of shame, guilt or fragile self-esteem, reflecting actions that lack integrity.
In other words, the more righteous the pose and more angry the mask, the more likely it is that the actor feels bad about himself and what he did. His masks simply express his desire to conform to an ideal of who he should or ought to be, together with a sense of shame about not being it, and about having to use masks to hide who he naturally is.
From Intention to Effect
In this way, people’s poses can be read as requests to communicate, and be perceived as having honorable intentions. Yet the noble intentions of people in conflict are usually contradicted, undermined and distorted by what they actually do and say to their opponents, who see their poses as indications of insincerity, insensitivity, defensiveness or lying, yet respond with equally inaccurate poses. The more adversarial the conflict, the more people adopt contradictory poses that, when added up, equal zero.
The intentions people have are usually quite different from the effects their behaviors have on their opponents. For example, we often hear people say: “That’s not what I meant,” or “I didn’t intend….” Their opponents meanwhile disregard intent and focus on the effect the other person’s statements or behavior had on them.
While everyone in conflict wants others to acknowledge their virtuous, blameless intentions, their opponents experience only insensitivity, disrespect, pain, and untrustworthiness. Each pose they adopt represents a new failure to recognize the truth of what they have done, an unwillingness or inability to acknowledge the negative effects their behaviors had on others, regardless of their good intentions.
As long as parties hold on to their poses, whether of injured virtue, anger or self-righteousness, honest communication will be blocked, and conflicts left unresolved. The mediators’ role is to assist parties in dropping their poses, communicating honestly and empathetically, and taking responsibility – not only for their intentions, but words, actions and the effects they had on others, regardless of intention.
People who adopt poses need to be helped to find language to apologize for the pain they caused, without adopting an equally self-defeating pose of being a “Bad Person.” Yet, as Wittgenstein found, what can be expressed through language cannot be expressed by language. Only an honest, authentic, balanced intention together with open communication will allow them to drop these poses, see themselves clearly, and be seen for who they are.
As parties experience their opponents using empathy and honesty and taking responsibility for their actions, they drop their poses and listen to who the other person is, often for the first time. They behave virtuously without posing as the “Personification of Virtue,” and become more authentic themselves. How else can we explain the fact that when parties resolve their conflicts, the one described as “Evil Incarnate” somehow transformed into a living, breathing human being?
The Authenticity of Deeply Honest Questions
People who adopt poses and masks are lost not only to others, but to themselves as well. They can only emerge from these false identities by honestly accepting the truth of who they are, without judgments or blame, and open themselves to authentic, deeply honest levels of communication. A broad set of poses and masks are available through professional titles, organizational hierarchies, and corporate identity. It is common for people to pose as managers, or irresponsible employees, or mediators and clients. These poses distance us from honesty and authenticity.
As an illustration, I worked with a team manager who yelled frequently, issuing loud, angry commands, causing others around him to behave like harassed employees. One day, one of his subordinates yelled back in front of other team members: “Stop being such a bully.” The manager initially responded by denying he was being a bully, then counter-attacking and accusing the person who shouted at him of making irresponsible statements and being insubordinate.
If you mediated this conflict, what deeply honest, dangerous questions might you ask? An easy response would be to ask B to reframe the comment so A does not feel labeled or personally attacked, as in: “I feel intimidated when you yell at me.” This shifts the focus of the communication from being about A to being about B. It identifies specifically what B can do to solve the problem without feeling judged by A. You might also encourage A to react non-defensively to B’s response, as in: “Are you saying you feel intimidated when I yell at you?” When you ask this question, A refocuses the conversation on what B experienced, rather than judging or labeling A or A’s intentions.
It is extremely difficult, if you are A or B and just been labeled a bully or felt bullied, not to respond angrily or defensively. On the other hand, if you ask questions to discover the effect your behavior is having on others, you may be able to hear their response differently, reduce their need to use insults as a way of getting attention, and improve the effectiveness of your communications and relationships with them.
Here are some additional questions you might consider asking. They reveal progressively deeper and more honest interventions, so they need to be approached gently, with empathy, making sure each question is asked as though you were the one being asked to answer it. By modeling asking these questions, the parties are encouraged to ask them of each other.
Before asking these questions, create a safe environment that accepts all answers, including “I don’t know” or “I don’t want to say,” without judgement. You might begin by asking permission to pose some questions that might be difficult to answer. You will then have their consent to start the process, and continue moving to deeper levels of honesty until you encounter resistance.
Designing Dangerous Questions
Deeply honest and empathetic questions clarify each side’s interests and desires, challenge their poses and assumptions, and increase their capacity for listening. With deeply honest questions, you can help them reframe their communications and reveal the elements in their conflict stories that rely on demonization or victimization, or result in defensive, aggressive, or passive poses. As they reframe each other’s concerns, you can raise or lower the emotional temperature of the conflict, and open a door to deeper, more honest and empathic communication. You can ask questions that defuse demonization, for example: “What did he do that you disliked?” “What should he have done?” “What should he do now?” “How should he start?” “What should he say?” “How would you respond if he did?”
High risk questions often appear as follow-ups to ambiguous or somewhat vulnerable answers that reveal how to move the interaction to a deeper level. For example: “What price have you paid for that behavior?” “What were you afraid would happen if you did or didn’t do that?” “What would it take for you to give up that behavior?” “Why do you feel that way?” “How is this conversation working right now?” all deepen the dialogue.
As you intervene, try to sense your own biases or need to hear a particular answer. The object of each question is to lead people to their own answers, not the answers you want them to reach, or preordain. To succeed, you need to let go of your own masks and poses, expectations and ideals, the answers you would give, and the ones you know are right.
There is a danger in asking rhetorical questions that manipulate people into accepting the mediator’s point of view. Your object should simply be to encourage the parties to discover, without blame or shame, their own honest answers, to reveal their authenticity to you and each other. The best way to encourage them is to model the behavior you seek. Invite them to ask you some deeply honest questions, and answer them with as much integrity, authenticity, and commitment as you can. If you set the tone by responding at a deeply authentic level, the chances are good that they will answer in kind.
From a place of anger or blame, it is difficult to stimulate anything but counterattack or defensiveness. But from a place of openness and authenticity, vulnerability and honesty, empathy and introspection, it is possible to discover a different perception, gain a clearer sense of the other person, learn, and find common ground. I leave it to you to decide which is more dangerous: vulnerability or masks, authenticity or poses, honesty or triviality, empathy or distance. The answers depend on your willingness to explore the conflicts within yourself.
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