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You Started It

Which one started it? I heard someone ask. I think her dog started it, replied the other, pointing to the chagrined-looking spaniel. A third person said, Well, you never know, the other dog might have sent a signal the spaniel didn’t like.

On the discussion went as the bystanders tried to figure out which dog had started the 10-second ruckus we’d all just witnessed at dog agility practice. I was there to run my dogs, both of whom compete with me in dog agility trials.

We humans seem to care a great deal about who started it. It’s so important we want to know it for our dogs, too, even when most seasoned dog handlers will tell you that any dog can start something any time, even the best-behaved dogs, even with signals so subtle to us that we’ll never really be able to figure out who gave the evil eye first. Yet there we were, trying to figure it out anyway.

We do it in our relationship arguments too. We say, “Well, you started it.” Maybe it makes us feel better to blame the other person for what’s happening. Maybe it makes us feel stronger to put the weight of it on them. Maybe it makes us feel safer or smarter or better behaved or superior in some other way. There could be lots of reasons.

And yet every one of them wastes precious time and energy in our lives. Because it doesn’t matter.

Who started it doesn’t matter because it is unknowable. If your spouse snapped at you this morning and started an argument, how is that you can know that the genesis of his bad mood wasn’t from something that has come before in your relationship? How can you know that he was moody because he dreamed last night of the tension between you about finances, a tension which arose over many months, even years, and took two of you to build? You can’t.

Who started it doesn’t matter because what bothered you may be something that others could easily shrug off. You cannot go around making it other people’s responsibility to manage your conflict hooks for you. They’re yours and they are your job to manage.

Who started it doesn’t matter because once you’re in it, who really cares? Even if they did start it, how is knowing that going to rescue you from the argument you’re in? It’s not. It’s just a red herring that distracts you from what matters.

And what matters is this: Who is continuing it? How are you continuing it? How are you going to get it unstuck and properly resolved?


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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