Steve at work – life lessons arise from conflict

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

I needed to work with Steve on a project. Since we had never worked together, I went to his cubicle to break the ice. As I approached his face darkened. He reached over, lifted his phone, and slammed it down, accompanied with a curse to drive home his point. “Shit!” he said to no one in particular, then looked up. “What do you want?” I don’t know when Steve decided he didn’t like me, but from that moment the deal was sealed.

For the last few years, I had been attending graduate school at night. My study of counseling psychology was teaching me how to sit quietly in an office and help clients cope with their stress. My situation with Steve was different. I was the one who was out facing the world, and I didn’t understand how to handle my hurt and frustrated feelings. I made an appointment with a therapist, and from our discussion I realized I have been avoiding conflict my whole life. But this time I couldn’t run away. I needed to deal with it, and that meant developing a new life skill.

So I did what I always do when things get tough. I bought a pile of books. At night I read about conflict resolution and the next day tried out my lessons in the “laboratory” at the office.

The most basic principle was to quit putting all the blame on the other guy. Looking at this situation as entirely his fault left me powerless to change it. Breaking out of the habit of blaming required a strange internal debate. “Of course it’s his fault,” I thought. And then I countered, “but that attitude does me no good.”

The second principle was to try to put myself in his position and imagine what the world looked like through his eyes. It was a mind expanding exercise, and while I obviously couldn’t know his view, speculating about it provided insights. After thinking about the situation with an open mind, I considered the possibility that I represented some sort of threat. I tried to look less threatening by smiling more and asking what I could do to help him.

Another technique I learned from my books was to make deposits into an “emotional bank account.” I hoped that by asking him about his family, I could establish rapport and increase the trust. Unfortunately, Steve blocked my emotional offerings right from the beginning.

For a year I tweaked my conflict resolution strategies. Nothing worked. To survive emotionally, I said supportive things to myself, like “This too will pass”, and “I can handle this.” I used deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Except for a couple of bad days, I kept my nose above water. Eventually, for issues unrelated to me, he left the company. Life returned to the ordinary pressures of the office, and I forgot about him, until I started looking for ways to write my memoir.

It’s hard to tell stories about life in an office when years keep rolling by, with nothing more to show for them than wrinkled skin and gray hair. And yet, ignoring those years doesn’t seem right either. As I ponder this storytelling conundrum, I believe the scenario with Steve provides a solution. Not only does this edgy situation provide a glimpse into how those years worked. It also provides some powerful lessons about what makes life worth living. Here are a few lessons I found by exploring this particular situation.

The characters in my life are real people
In good stories, all the characters have reasons for their actions. To discover these motivations, writing instructors suggest you develop a portrait of every character. Where did they grow up? What do they want? When I stretched beyond myself to see the world through Steve’s eyes, I was being forced to learn not only how to reduce conflict, but also to portray richer, more complex characters in my story.

Not everyone likes me
A world in which everyone liked me would seem so bland. I can add texture by learning this profoundly simple lesson in life: There are some people who think I’m stupid, nuts, edgy, a poor excuse for a human being. Accepting this fact makes me a more resilient person as well as a better storyteller.

I’ve grown
As I tried to cope with this office conflict, I had to exercise patience, and some of the other good qualities that elevate humans closer to angels. He forced me to learn and grow. All those years of plodding through life may have looked like they were going nowhere, but on some inner dimension, my character was evolving. The inner development of the character lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

I don’t see Steve’s eventual departure as a victory of good over evil. Rather I see it as a logical step in a longer story. He came, challenged me to grow, finished his work and moved on to help others find deeper meaning and greater strength. It turns out that Steve was one of my greatest teachers.

Writing Prompt
Consider an endless sequence of actions in your life, such as going to work, or school, or gardening, or getting your hair done. One way to represent repeated experiences in your memoir is to look for peak anecdotes that will represent the activity. Look for any anecdote that jumps out. See if you can tell it as a good story. If so, there’s a good chance you can use it to stand in as an example for all the repetitions.

Writing Prompt
Think of someone who really didn’t like you. If you feel safe, try writing a story from that person’s point of view. (If it doesn’t feel safe, try this exercise in fiction, changing names, hair color, or whatever is necessary to gain some distance.) What did that person see when they looked at you? Why was it okay from their point of view to see you that way? Now, still in their point of view, write a portrait of someone that person actually did like.

For one of the best observations about the working life I’ve ever read, consider this passage from Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

“It was all those people in the cars coming the other way,” she says. “The first one looked so sad. And then the next one looked exactly the same way, and then the next one and the next one, they were all the same.”

“They were just commuting to work.”

She perceives well but there was nothing unnatural about it. “Well, you know, work,” I repeat. “Monday morning. Half asleep. Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?”

“It’s just that they looked so lost,” she says. “Like they were all dead. Like a funeral procession.” Then she puts both feet down and leaves them there.

I see what she is saying, but logically it doesn’t go anywhere. You work to live and that’s what they are doing. “I was watching swamps,” I say.

Recommended Books
Resolving Conflict Sooner, The powerfully simple 4-step method for reaching better agreements more easily in your everyday life,” by Kare Anderson

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey

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7 thoughts on “Steve at work – life lessons arise from conflict

  1. Another excellent post, Jerry.

    I took a conflict resolution class several semesters ago and learned many of the lessons you share. In my case, I often carried all the blame . . . also not an effective way to deal with issues, for we then tend to withdraw and internalize everything and take things way too personally.

    I work in a large factory, and there are numerous occasions every day where I need to work out conflict. I figure I am the one with the skills to handle the situation, so I often take charge and deal with things when they occur. Not always easy, but worth it all in the end, if for no other reason than at least the other people know I won’t back down when confronted.

    Nice stuff to chew on, Jerry.

  2. Great story Jerry. I like how you analyzed the situation. I will have to try some of your writing prompts.

  3. Hey Jerry… glad you achieved a resolution and gained from that life experience. When I think of my ten-year nemesis, a micro-managing supervisor in our small community college, I realize I am no where near ready to absolve her of her viciousness and judgmental nature.

    Yet? it’s been (only) three years since my spirit left at the first golden handshake opportunity, long before I was ready in my heart to leave off working with my dear, amazing students.

    Maybe it’s the fact I know she’s still dividing and conquering in her small-minded way. Maybe it’s the feeling I get when I even see the back of her head, no doubt cooking up some way to justify her decisions and smoke-screen the real issues. Maybe it’s the wish there was some other community college even remotely close so I could continue my post-work art classes, not wondering if she’s staring at me from her nasty perch inside student services….maybe I’d better be careful before this anger burns me up, too….


  4. Hi Jerry,
    Thanks for your comments on my blog, and for your own excellent essay on self-discovery (I avoid conflict, too!) and memoirs. This particular posting was very timely for me. I will refer not only my blog readers, but also those in my Writers Guild to your site. I like your idea of writing prompts.

  5. Thanks, all you good commenters. I appreciate the feedback and sharing your own personal stories and energy. It’s such a great way to swap ideas and stay in touch. Even if we’ve never met, we’ve met. Story is magical in this way.

    In the movie Hurricane, about a guy who had been wrongfully imprisoned for many years, he said, “Anger poisons the vessel that contains it.” I guess that in addition to healing a situation, this awareness is also good for the healer.


  6. I read the book “The Dance of Anger” and saw how one cannot change others, only oneself. By changing our own attitude and reactions we have a chance of bettering the relationship. Some people are just not happy with themselves and unfortunately we have to work around them.

  7. Thanks, Linda. It’s good to hear about the insights you received from a book. The willingness to learn from others is one of the essential ingredients of wisdom.


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