Conflict Archives

The perils of “active listening”

Are you familiar with the “active listening” concept?

It’s where you listen to what your spouse says, repeat back what your spouse said in your own words, and then try to show you understand why your spouse feels angry at you or whatever.


In the book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, which is a “myth-busting response to the self-help movement, with tips and tricks to improve your life that come straight from the scientific community,” author Richard Wiseman pretty much dismisses active listening as hooey.

In the 1990s John Gottman (a world renowned expert on marital stability) did an elaborate study on active listening at the University of Washington.

He took 100 newlywed couples and videotaped them as they chatted for 15 minutes about a topic of ongoing disagreement. He followed these couples for six years.

It turns out hardly anyone engaged in active listening and it’s too difficult for most people to perform the “emotional gynmastics” required for active listening. They were shocked to discover that active listening was unrelated to marital bliss.

They went on to study tapes from another study that tracked married couples for 13 years and reached the same conclusions about active listening.

So if active listening doesn’t work, what does?

The Gottman study reveals that people in long term, happy heterosexual relationships exhibit a very particular pattern in times of conflict:

The female usually raises a difficult issue, presents an analysis of the problem, and suggests some possible solutions.

Males who are able to accept some of these ideas, and therefore show a sense of power sharing with their partner, are far more likely to maintain a successful relationship.

In contrast, couples in which the males react by stonewalling, or even showing contempt, are especially likely to break up.

So the Vicki the Biker approach to conflict really is the right one! Woo hoo! :)


Even toons need conflict

Voice actors and writers have a lot of common.

This is because writing in a voice that’s not your own is similar to speaking in a voice not your own.

Fiction writers, speechwriters and writers like me who write copy for clients have to hear voices in their head every day.

In my case, on any given day those voices can range from an African American preacher type voice to an effervescent female fitness model voice, to a staid attorney’s voice. Most people have a hard enough time writing in their own voice so people like me swoop in and write in their own voice better than they could.

So when I found out the other day that voice actor Billy West is considered the “new Mel Blanc,” I made a point to read more about him.

West did the voices of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Space Jam and says he’s not happy with how Warner Brothers has changed the Looney Tunes characters in recent years.

When you start stripping away those things that made it a full dimension character, you’re going to have Xeroxes of it in every way including creativity.

The worst mistake Warner Brothers ever did was make all these characters friends, because then you took away the dynamic. Elmer wanted to kill Bugs Bunny. There was no question in anybody’s mind. Sylvester wanted to kill Tweetie.

There was danger involved, and some life truths involved. When you’re telling the truth, you’re really dealing with comedy. If you don’t have the truth on your side, then comedy can’t spring from it.

It reminds me of what I said in a previous post about how screenwriter Robert Mckee said that conflict is what changes you, not joy –  joy is only possible after the conflict is over. And in cartoons, no conflict means no comedy.

I’ve always loved the classic Looney Tunes cartoons, so I’ll close with my favorite, the conflict-laden Rabbit of Seville:


Have I ever mentioned how I hate conflict?

Because of that I’ve dragged my feet on writing this post. But no primer on marriage – and no discussion of U2’s music – can avoid that dreaded topic for very long.

I think most married people probably go through a divorce valley at some point in their marriage.

The valley being where the shadow of divorce looms and you dare to let yourself wonder if you made a fatal mistake in getting married to your spouse.

Maybe that valley only lasts for an afternoon or a week. For others it might last for several months or even years.

It’s a wonder anyone emerges from a divorce valley with an intact marriage.

Bono says:

People are desperately trying to hold onto each other in a time when that’s very difficult. Looking around, you see how unprepared for it all people are, and the deals they make. I think there’s very few people writing about this, really.

There are a number of U2 songs about conflict (With Or Without You, Love Is Blindness, Until the End of the World), but if I had to chose one, it would be So Cruel from the Achtung Baby album. It’s written from the perspective of a man who has been rejected by his lover but remains in love with, and tormented by, her.

The song is very dark and bitter and is about infidelity. U2’s guitarist The Edge was going through a divorce during this making of this album and some of that is in this song.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from divorce valleys, it’s that you have to, at some point, show your raw pain. This song does just that and makes for a perfect soundtrack for a divorce valley. Here are the lyrics:

We crossed the line
Who pushed who over?
It doesn’t matter to you
It matters to me
We’re cut adrift
We’re still floating
I’m only hanging on
To watch you go down
My love

I disappeared in you
You disappeared from me
I gave you everything you ever wanted
It wasn’t what you wanted

The men who love you, you hate the most
They pass right through you like a ghost
They look for you, but your spirit is in the air
Baby, you’re nowhere

You say in love there are no rules
You’re so cruel

Desperation is a tender trap
It gets you every time
You put your lips to her lips
To stop the lie

Her skin is pale like God’s only dove
Screams like an angel for your love
Then she makes you watch her from above
And you need her like a drug

You say in love there are no rules
You’re so cruel

She wears my love like a see-through dress
Her lips say one thing
Her movements something else
Oh love, like a screaming flower
Love…dying every hour…love

You don’t know if it’s fear or desire
Danger the drug that takes you higher
Head in heaven, fingers in the mire

Her heart is racing, you can’t keep up
The night is bleeding like a cut
Between the horses of love and lust
We are trampled underfoot

Oh…love… You say in love there are no rules
You’re so cruel

To stay with you I’d be a fool
You’re so cruel

To hear what this pain sounds like in the form of a guitar solo, go to the 3:15 mark in the song Love Is Blindness and listen until the end of the song. It’s as if The Edge is pouring out all his sadness about his divorce into that solo. Bono describes it as “a more eloquent prayer than anything I could say.”

It would be too depressing if this was always the final word, however. Sometimes love does leave “a window in the skies.” My next post will be about that.


Fun Friday: The Vicki the Biker Approach to Conflict

Vicki the Biker’s approach to conflict resolution and creating inciting incidents works for me. ;)

Rose Is Rose


How to get pushed into your story

A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. And your life is a story.

I don’t know about you, but I sure hate the conflict part. Some people seem to thrive on conflict and the stimulation of heated back and forth exchanges, but it makes me want to hide under the covers.

Donald Miller, author of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, attended one of screenwriter Robert McKee’s infamous weekend workshops and quotes what McKee said about conflict and character development:

‘You have to go there. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.’  He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before.

‘You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this.’

He got louder. ‘Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.’

His voice was like thunder now. ‘You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.’

Sigh. I wish it didn’t have to be that hard.

That’s why screenwriters have to introduce “inciting incidents” into a screenplay, because characters have to be forced; they don’t choose to move or take action. Humans naturally seek stability and comfort so they need an inciting incident or they won’t enter into a story.

The inciting incident is how you get a character to do something; it’s the doorway through which they can’t return.

Unlike with creating scenes, it’s harder to create our own inciting incidents. They are usually forced upon us. I hate that part too.

When daughter #2 was diagnosed with type 1/juvenile diabetes at age 4 that was an inciting incident… it wasn’t any easier when daughter #1 was diagnosed with it seven years later…each job loss and financial difficulty was an inciting incident I could have lived without… marital strain and other relationship conflicts were inciting incidents I gladly would’ve taken a pass on too.

Like anyone else, I’ve spent my share of time on the “I can’t take it anymore” ledge.

Yet without inciting incidents there isn’t a story. Dang.

But, ultimately, the view is a lot better from the ledge than it is from under the covers, I guess.


Saying it all while doing no harm

Is it possible to both keep the peace and communicate your hurt feelings?

There have been painful times in my life where I would do almost anything to avoid conflict or communicate my true feelings, for the sake of keeping the peace.

Communicating painful feelings and setting boundaries can be very stressful and is difficult to do well.

After all, it’s not like most of us were taught how to do this while we were growing up.

There are times when you must speak up, however.

And, according to Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, it’s possible to do so in a way that communicates your thoughts without disrespecting the other person.

I’ve written before about his method of teaching listening skills to doctors and how you can use the same listening techniques in your personal life.

He has a similar system he developed for doctors to help them handle conflict and speak their minds while dealing with contentious patients. Those of us who aren’t doctors can use this six point STABEN method too:

S for SOURCE: Make sure you speak to the person who is actually the source of the problem. The only way to influence the behavior of someone is to speak directly to that person instead of to their spouse, boss, colleague, etc.

T for TIME and PLACE: Make sure the discussion takes place at a favorable time and in a private place.

A for AMICABLE APPROACH: Make sure the other person is at ease from the get-go. Begin by using the person’s name because we are more receptive to our name than to any other word.

Then say something positive. For example, if you want to complain to your boss because she criticized you in public, you could begin by saying, “Kristin, I appreciate your feedback because it helps me improve my work.”  This opens the door to communication.

B for OBJECTIVE BEHAVIOR: Explain the behavior that bothered you without making moral judgments. For example, say: “When you pointed out my shortcomings in front of my colleagues…” Don’t say, “When you acted like a jerk…”

E for EMOTION: Describe your emotion but don’t mention anger. It’s more powerful to say “I felt hurt” or “I felt humiliated by the experience.”

N for NEED: It’s effective to mention your need that you feel wasn’t recognized: “I need security at work and to know that I won’t be humiliated in public by critical remarks, especially from someone as important as you.”

Dr. Servan-Schreiber admits that this approach may seem stilted at first because it’s not second nature for most of us. Doctors usually carry around an index card with the STABEN outline until they get the hang of it.

He says there are only three ways to react in a situation of conflict: passivity/passive-aggression, aggression or nonviolent assertiveness.

Difficult relationships with loved ones lead to stress, anxiety and depression. STABEN, combined with the BATHE technique I wrote about in my other post,  are excellent first steps in changing those relationships.

By the way, Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s book The Instinct to Heal describes many other methods of alleviating stress and anxiety without meds or psychotherpay and I highly recommend it. It’s from his book that I first found out about Dr. Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom book, for which I’m grateful.