Ready to Rumble? – People Aren’t the Problem

One of the first steps in the art of negotiation is to “separate the people from the problem.”  Put aside the relational issues and focus on the substance/content.

Easy, right?  Ha!

How in the WORLD do you tease out the issue at hand from the person delivering it/engaging in it with you?  This sounds like one of those infuriating moments when someone patronizingly tells you “don’t take it personally.”  I can’t STAND that phrase.  Because… most of the time it gets used, the situation is actually QUITE personal, and all they’re doing in using that phrase is exerting some kind of self-defined superiority over you.

battleMost conflict IS personal.

Someone does something or neglects to do something or says something that causes stress/pain/hurt.  Whether their intentions are harmful or not, they have caused offense to YOU.  It’s personal.  To YOU.

So, how are we supposed to separate out the people from the problem when the people ARE the problem?  Well………

I propose that the way to do this is to NOT try to convince yourself that “it’s not personal,” but to understand where it IS personal.

looking at the lensIf you’ll remember last Wednesday’s article about knowing your own filter – being able to run the self-diagnostics in a conflict means you’ll be able to see how you may be MAKING it personal… and will thus allow you to separate that out from the actual issue/behavior that began the friction.

Analyze the situation from ALL its angles – not ONLY the one where you’re feeling wounded.  If you can identify the area where you were hurt and why, you can also recognize some more objective attributes of the conflict.  Like – what really happened/occured when you remove your personal lens from things.  Or – what were the intentions of the other party?  Perhaps, even if it hurt you, they didn’t intend to.

(Note:  Just because someone doesn’t intend or MEAN to cause pain doesn’t mean they’re “off the hook” from making it right.  That’s a common misconception that’s dangerous to conflict resolution.  Even the most well-intended people can make mistakes that cause hurt.  And when that happens, it’s our responsibility to restore things.)

Once you can tease out where your perception ends and the objective content begins, you’ll be able to address each one seperately – which preserves the relationship.


My boyfriend (ha…I don’t have a boyfriend, but for the sake of this example, let’s just pretend I do… isn’t it nice?) – my boyfriend makes a snippy joke at my expense… which is actually kind of funny, but also hurts my feelings.  Separating the people from the problem looks like this:

– I know I’m sensitive about that issue because I was wounded in that area in a past relationship, so it’s a fragile place for me.
– I know my boyfriend loves me and cares about my feelings, and wouldn’t ever intentionally want to/try to hurt me.
– If I’d heard the same joke about someone else, I wouldn’ve cracked up – it was genuinely funny.

With these pieces of information, I can now go back and SAY to him, “boyfriend,” (yes…in this fake scenario I call my boyfriend boyfriend.  What OF it?)… “boyfriend, I got my feelings hurt with that joke you made.  It was funny, and I know you didn’t mean to hurt me, but remember how I told you that my ex used to be cruel about fill-in-the-blank?  Well that area is still a little raw… so do you think we could tread softly there for a while?”  At this point, “boyfriend” would be so impressed at the paragon of maturity that stood before him that he’d genuinely apologize for not being more in-tune to me and then sweep me up into a passionate embrace… but I digress.

Assigning malicious intentions gets people in a lot of trouble.  If you are arguing with someone you love, giving them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their motives, can make all the difference.  It doesn’t mean you don’t get to be hurt.  Or that they don’t owe you an apology.  But, that you can rest assured that their DESIRE is still for your good.  This is one of the reasons it’s so important to be creating emotional safety in any relationship you value.

Now, if you’re dealing with an enemy, that’s a whole other topic for another day.  And if the enemy IS your significant other, that’s also a topic for another day…

But, assuming you’re in a tussle with a friend or your boyfriend/girlfriend, taking the moment in your mind to assess what’s going on, where your fears are and seeing the situation for what it really is, objectively, will bypass hours of fruitless fighting.  It’s the difference between the up-close view and the 30,000-foot perspective.  Both are important – both lend new information to the situation – and looking at it both ways will hopefully help preserve the most important thing at stake – the relationship.

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