Avi was in my office after having a terrible day in school. It seems that Avi is constantly getting into altercations with others. Even though he doesn’t understand why, it always seems to be his fault. After listening to Avi’s story of the latest dispute, I asked Avi if he thinks he tends to be a light switch or a dimmer.
Of course Avi had no idea what I was talking about. I explained to Avi that I was about to teach him something that most of us do not learn from our parents our teachers, or in society.
By now I had Avi’s full attention. After all, he was about to have something no one else had, some secret knowledge that only he could brag about. You see, that was part of Avi’s problem. He always tried to “one up” everyone else. He would flaunt things at other people’s expense. Avi is a bright boy who has poor social skills with his peers. It would not be atypical for Avi to brag about things to his friends, even if his accomplishment was not special. Nevertheless, Avi’s bragging would turn his friends off.
The other characteristic that Avi displayed was his need for revenge. If he felt hurt by someone or felt that they did not treat him correctly, Avi would want to get back at them. In fact, he would exert a great deal of energy in thinking of something to do to the other fellow.
So, who is the light switch and who is the dimmer personality? A light switch has two positions – off and on. A dimmer is constant, as it has a range and only at the end of each range is the light completely off or on. People can be the same. We all have the need to feel like winners. But if you don’t feel like a winner, do you automatically feel like a loser? If you’re not feeling one way, must you assume to be the other? Sometimes the answer is not so completely on or off, but sometimes in between the two extremes (light a dimmer).
There are a great many people like Avi in this world. Those with similar traits often have poor relationships and end up in trouble or with just a few friends. These people don’t know how to negotiate situations and conflict. They always need to win at someone else’s expense. In their perspective, the situation is always that they either are “up” and feel like winners or “down” and feel like losers. Likewise, their interaction with others is to try to elevate themselves at other people’s expense or try to make the other person the loser.
I know someone who is so competitive with his colleague, that if both are going to the same place in two different cars, he will have a strong urge to ensure that he “beats” the other person to their destination. If the other person arrives first, my friend feels depressed and feels victimized, often leading to short tempered and angry outburst.
How do we handle such people? How do we interact with them? What do we do if this is our spouse, our child or our friend? Back to our light switch and dimmer analogy. During negotiations between employer and employee or union and company, the best arbitrator is the one who can manage to negotiate a deal that perhaps neither side “wins”, but both sides leave the table feeling like they can live with the final decision.
Likewise, for conflict resolution and interpersonal relationships, one must learn to negotiate relationships. That is, to have an effective and meaningful relationship, one must be able to make the other person feel like a winner while feeling like a winner oneself. Let me give you the example I gave Avi.
Suppose I am wearing a tie and Avi says to me, “That is the ugliest tie I have ever seen. How can you wear that tie?” I could get very angry with Avi, as he has just insulted me. My wife who gave me that tie for a special occasion and he challenged my intellect in making the decision to wear the tie. Now I have to deal with all the feelings, these perceived put-downs stirring inside of me. I could do so by coming back to Avi with insults, anger or feelings of rejection.
Needless to say what damage this dialogue would do for our relationship. On the other hand I could say to Avi, “I understand why you feel that way about this tie. Some others might also not like this tie. I happen to like it and it has special sentimental value to me as my wife gave it to me on a special occasion. I appreciate your opinion (whether I truly do or not is irrelevant at this time) but I am happy with my tie.”
What I have just done is not dismiss Avi or his opinion but I, too, feel like a winner in expressing my viewpoint. I have just validated both Avi and myself. I don’t really have to agree with him, but I have enough confidence in myself that I don’t have to put him down to rescue my own sense of self. I merely let him know my viewpoint in a dignified way while validating him as a person.
Let me tell you about Sean. Sean was 15 years old and had been in counseling with me for about eight months. When he first came to me, he was known as a troublemaker in school and non-compliant at home. Sean was the type of client that every therapist loves to brag about as it was not long before everyone could see him trying to change his behaviors as he got a better understanding about himself and events that had led to his negative behaviors.
One afternoon when Sean arrived for therapy he was very close to tears. He explained that he was so angry with his last period teacher. Sean had had a test that period and his teacher accused him of cheating. At this point in our therapeutic relationship I had no reason not to believe Sean when he told me he was not cheating. In confidence, Sean could, and did, tell me practically everything – “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Not only did his teacher accuse him of cheating, he embarrassed Sean by confronting him in front of the class by tearing up his test paper and announcing that Sean would receive a zero on the test.
Sean was embarrassed and felt victimized. This was a perfect formula for an angry outburst. I knew that the “old Sean” would have cursed out the teacher and might have made a nasty scene in the classroom. However, the “new Sean” simply stormed out of the classroom without saying anything. When he arrived at my office he was still very upset and asked me what to do.
I first had him describe the situation in detail. Sean said he understood why the teacher thought he was cheating because when he dropped his pencil on the floor, he bent down to pick it up. It was just at that moment that the teacher saw him and accused him of looking at the paper of the student in front of him. However, Sean told me that he was not cheating and he was most angry about being embarrassed over the way the teacher handled the situation.
To make matters worse, Sean was also embarrassed that he had run out of the classroom, though proud of himself for not making a bad scene. When asked what to do, I told Sean I thought he already knew what to say and do. After reviewing the scene again, I suggested to Sean that he go to speak to the teacher privately. I thought he should tell the teacher exactly what he had told me. That is, validate the teacher by saying that he understood his decision as to why he thought he was cheating.
He could say something to the effect, “Mr. Smith, I understand you thought I was cheating when I bent down to pick up my pencil. Perhaps I would have thought the same thing in that situation. However, I want you to know that though you thought I was cheating, I actually wasn’t. Tearing my paper up and giving me the zero in front of the whole class embarrassed me. I understand that you need to do whatever you need to do and I will respect that, but you need to know the truth, which is that I was not cheating. If you could give me a chance to retake the test I would appreciate it and if not, I understand your position.”
You see, at this point Sean had nothing to lose and everything to gain. By validating his teacher and not coming across in a hostile manner, the teacher was left with little choice but to respect the way Sean handled the situation. After all, when confronted by Sean in this manner, what could he say? He wasn’t being attacked and in fact his student was saying he understood and was validating him as a person and teacher. The end result − the teacher allowed Sean to retake the test and he did very well on it.
The above is a good example of effective conflict resolution. How we validate others and their opinions often determines the outcome of potentially difficult or even dangerous positions. This skill is not taught to our children nor is it taught to adults. It’s the secret formula that I often teach to kids like Avi and Sean. This technique is a critical lesson for all of us, children, teens and adults. In these days of additional stress and the increase of conflicts and aggression in youth, one must try to treat others with dignity and validate them as people, even when you are angry and frustrated with them. To do so is to be a winner. When we develop win-win situations, everyone leaves feeling like they can live with the situation.
Mr. Schild is the Executive Director of Regesh Family and Child Services in Toronto, Ontario Canada. He is also a family therapist and certified specialist in Anger Management and conducts many therapeutic workshops in various topics. Regesh runs many programs helping families and youth dealing with personal and family issues in their lives. To arrange a therapy session or speaking engagement, contact Mr. Schild. He can be reached at 416-495-8832 extension 222 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.regesh.com.