Defusing a Relationship Bomb

Relationship Bombs. We hit them all of the time – or rather they hit us. They are tensions ready to snap, anger ready to boil over or cold, calculated vengeance waiting for opportunity. A relationship bomb is on the brink of exploding in most confrontations because people simply don’t understand each other.

This is our first mistake. We look at a conflict and all we can see is an incident or a situation that can be solved. We are in an angry altercation with someone and we try to fix it straight away by doing something. Practical measures might have stopped the problem before it happened, but now it is too late. Really, the only way to make peace is to defuse the bomb first, and here is how it is done.

Try this example. You sit down at your colleague’s work station to quickly check something while the service guy works on your computer. You close a window and temporarily lose a file for your colleague and she is furious. Of course you can offer to search around and retrieve it but she won’t listen. Her blood is boiling, her pulse is rising and it looks like any minute you might see Mt. Vesuvius erupting through her eyes. Practical solutions are not going to help because you simply don’t understand how she feels. It is not about the lost file anymore. There is something going on in her personal world that is making the bomb tick.

The only solution is to deal with the understanding issue before it gets out of hand. The best way to do this, and walk away with a productive relationship, takes time. If you don’t have the time, then try some other way to make peace but you are going to lose in the long run. Until we try to understand the other person, an issue will never be fully solved, and may well come back to bite us later.

Here is one way to make sure you understand the other person. I call it Tedious Reflection, simply because it is tedious and it involves reflecting what you hear from the other person. This is not the same as the manipulative reflection that is supposed to build rapport with others. All we are doing here is asking if we understand the other person. If we don’t then we ask again and again and again slowly getting closer and closer to full understanding.

So you lose your colleague’s file and you carefully ask her:

You: “Can I solve this by finding your file for you? Will that make everything OK ?”

Sue: “Of course it won’t, you lazy………”

You: “So is the problem that I am a lazy….”

Sue: “No, that just makes you lose files. The problem is that this is the fourth time that…”

You: “So is the problem that people keep abusing your generosity?”

Sue: “No I haven’t been generous, it is just that they assume that I will be.”

You: “So people have just been walking in here and using your desktop like I did.”

Sue: “Yes, and they wouldn’t have done that if I was a jerk like Steven”

and so it goes on, and after a tedious process of dragging the understanding out of your colleague, her tempo gradually reduces, her colour changes back to normal and she visibly relaxes a little. At the end, you understand that the actual incident was just the flash-point. Really she cared very little about the file and so finding it again was not a big issue. It all came down to a bunch of other things happening in her world that now you have a better understanding of.

This sort of confrontation is not for the weak-hearted because you may cop a lot of anger along the way. In effect, what you are asking is “What is making you angry?”. The problem with this is that only part of any situation is actually directly related to you. Usually there will be contributing factors from all over the place that you will be hit with, in the flurry of communication.

You will never reach 100% understanding with another human unless you are physically joined by the brain. The best that you can hope for is maybe 90%. But this is a lot better than most people ever experience in their haste. You will know you are there, when you carefully ask your colleague. “Have I got this right? Do I understand correctly? You feel…..” and then they agree. That is close enough for what we want. If the other person is ready to agree that you have heard and understood them, then solving the practical things will be easy.

The whole process may have been tedious and time consuming. You may have felt awkward and embarrassed. No matter what, you will walk away with a defused Relationship Bomb, a way towards a workable solution to the underlying problem, and probably a strengthened and trusting relationship. If nothing else, this exercise will show that you have integrity in your relationships and that you are trying to set up a way that you can both walk away with dignity.

Try it today.

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