09/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Town Halls: 7 Tips for Handling Conflict

"These town hall tirades and guys carrying guns outside them 'because they can' are driving me crazy," Marnie told me during her consultation session. "They push my 'can't-stand-conflict' button, big-time! I want to run but can't. This is the world we live in."

A few hours later, Norm, a 61 year old leader in his field, mentioned the same theme. "These fat guys screaming at town halls are like rabid animals, tearing away any semblance of any bridge that might actually bring opposing sides together to repair what's so badly broken. They remind me of guys at work who prefer shouting matches to the harder work of listening. What can you do in situations like this?"

By the last session of the day, this theme continued, with 53 yo MaryAnn, a deacon in her parish: "These town hall gymnastics are really stirring up a hornet's nest. Not only out there, in the world, but here, (pointing) in my gut. The shouters are like some of the people on our board, and in the congregation. You can count on them to outshout a fire engine! They're more interested in hearing themselves than healing the dispute, just like my family at Thanksgiving when the subject of politics or religion pops up. I never know what to do, and get worked up inside."

How About You?

Even though you might not be in private practice, hearing people's stories, my guess is that you've overheard a lot of commentary these days about the aforementioned temper tantrums, and the related anxiety the controversy is causing. In fact, you might have overheard yourself voicing upset over these antics, and be feeling the fallout, in your body . Unresolved issues affect us all. Not only is our health care program at stake, but so is our own state of health.

Conflict, Peace keeping and You

Let's take the comments voiced by the three clients above. On the mental level, each has their own spin about the town hall buzz. On deeper levels, each is registering discomfort with conflict itself. The bad news is that if we don't get a handle on how to deal with conflict, we not only make a bigger mess in the world, but we set up conditions in our body that send toxins like cortisol racing through our bloodstream. In short, we lay the groundwork for greater acidity, inflammation, decreased immune function, and frazzled telomeres. Ask Dr. Oz. This is definitely not good.

That said, the good news is -- we do need it after all -- that we can get better at dealing with conflict. And this is saying something coming from me. My family will tell you that for much of my life, I've been a card-carrying peace-keeper. What I can tell the rest of you peace-keepers out there, is that we pay too big a price when we swallow our own truth. It has a nasty way of creating indigestion on every level of health: physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual. There aren't enough Tums to soothe the upset that's brewing in our national gut, either.

What's the Takeaway?

We don't have to feel powerless over conflict. Honestly, if I can get this, anyone can. Heaven knows I've spent years trying to do otherwise! I'm not saying that you have to run around looking for conflict, and sing 'goody goody' when you've found it. All I'm saying is that we don't have to turn over our power to conflict-evoking situations at town halls, work, board meetings or Thanksgiving dinners with adversarial relatives. All I'm saying is that our present political skirmishes might offer us a few useful tips in dealing with our own conflicts. After all, negative role models can be mighty powerful teachers to do otherwise, and behave better.

Take a gander at what the trio learned and put into place:

  • Several days after Marnie identified her real reaction to conflict, she rallied the guts to put those conflict-mongers at work on notice. "Look," she said, "by now you know that I check-out when there's conflict. From now on, when I'm running meetings, I expect that anyone who's got a 'bone to pick' with someone else will offer a solution at the same time. Otherwise, it stirs us all up in a way that diminishes our effectiveness. If you've got 'a beef,' fine. Just be prepared to present a solution, or don't raise the issue until you have one." Privately, two co-workers thanked her for "having the guts to do what I wouldn't have done."
  • Since Norm happens to be the boss, he put the 'shouters' on notice by instituting a new protocol. Here's what he invented: a 'listening step' for meetings called 'walk a mile in my shoes.' After each 'side' presents its conflicting opinion, he has the 'opposing side,' put themselves in the shoes of the 'loyal opposition.' They are then required to paraphrase what they heard in ways that seem accurate, and unbiased by the original speaker. While the exercise is taking time on the front end, Norm tells me that people are appreciating that failing to listen accurately is at the root of most of their problems. After the initial covert resistance to his strategy, humor showed up by the end of the meeting.
  • MaryAnn has put her family on notice for Thanksgiving 2009, by sending out a letter. Since she is hosting this year, she has claimed a theme for the dinner, called 'Gratitude.' Her letter lets everyone know that she welcomes anyone who will actively bring this attitude to the event, focusing on what they are thankful for with one another, appreciating what they hold in common. She's done likewise with the church Board.
7 Tips for Handling Conflict

1. Agree to disagree. Speak the truth that sets you free, right out there in 'front of God
God and everyone.

2. State your position in a way that does no harm. For example: "My point-of-view is ______. You and I have different ways of looking at the same topic. That's O.K."

3. Go for consensus. e.g. "Can we agree to disagree without name-calling or throwing stones? Are we willing in order to reach the best possible solution we can for now?"

4. If you, or anyone else is too amped up to calmly listen to one another, postpone until cooler minds prevail. Go for a 20 minute walk. Disengage until your blood pressure and pulse are in a healthy state.

5. Lasting resolution is never found when one or more parties is in a complex, which, by definition, renders one temporarily, psychologically 'blind' to any other perspective.

6. Witnessing yourself is a good plan if you want to live a more expansive, meaningful life.
Recently, Bill Mahr quipped: "Either you are a sentient being, or one of the lizard people." The fact is that if we are hell-bent in 'proving someone wrong,' we are operating from what Paul MacLean coined 'the Reptilian brain.' (Think burping, pooping, aggression, eating, sleeping, etc., lower brain stem activity.) Conflict resolution does not live in this neighborhood. It does require, however, baseline conditions of safety to be met if we are ever going to get to 'higher smarts,' i.e. neocortex, frontal lobe activity. Here's where creative resolution lives.

7. If someone is acting in a provocatively aggressive way to fan the flames of conflict, they are operating out of fear, not faith. Take Caribou Barbie, for instance, who misrepresents health care reform as something that would snuff out baby 'Twigs' and grannies with nary a care. Anyone who deliberately misrepresents the situation to terrorize the frail and disadvantaged has disconnected from the power of love which seeks to heal, not hurt. Step away -- far, far away from such a person. Save yourself on this Titanic.

Although I am on vacation, I'd love to hear from you! What are your tips for handling conflict? Send your stories, links, and lessons. I'm listening! Please forward to your circle, as I've not joined Twitterville, and appreciate all the help I can get in people reaching people who care about our world. Love and joy, Cara.