This one is a story about a single mom I coached through a conflict with her son. We will call the mom Joan and the teenager Jeff.
Joan bought herself and 17-year-old Jeff both golf club memberships last autumn during the early bird sale. This is something Joan has been doing for years, and it’s usually part of Jeff’s Christmas present. Joan told me that Jeff fell in love with golf when he was 13 and it’s a fun activity for him and his friends in the summer. Jeff’s student membership cost her $655 with a driving range pass.
Then, at the beginning of January, Brian the golf pro offered Jeff a job at the club when they ran into each other at the movies one night. After an informal interview a week later, Jeff’s spring and summer job was confirmed and it came along with a free golf club membership. Jeff came home from this meeting and excitedly announced to Joan he was getting $655 to spend. “I’m going to buy some custom fit Titleist clubs with that money! Brian said he could get me a half-price deal!”
Joan was not impressed.
“But that’s my money,” she told him.
“No it’s not,” Jeff replied, “you gave it to me when you bought my membership.”
“No I didn’t,” she countered, “I never ‘gave’ it to you; I gave you a golf club membership.”
“Same thing,” he insisted. “Why don’t you just give it to me as my birthday present instead?” Jeff’s birthday was at the end of February.
“But I have never spent $655 on a birthday gift for you! And I’m not about to start with college to pay for next year!” she told him.
“Well you should get me something! Why not new clubs? I’m totally outgrowing the set I’ve got.”
“I don’t think it’s fair that I haven’t been given an opportunity to decide how much money I’m going to be spending on you for your birthday,” Joan said.
“Well I don’t think it’s fair that after I’m super stoked on half-price custom fit golf clubs you’re taking them away,” he explained.
They had a conflict on their hands.
Two days later Jeff went to the golf club and completed some paperwork, and then reported to Joan that he would be receiving a cheque for the $655 in two months. Joan was angry and she wanted her money back!
The role of emotions in conflict
Emotions are information. Feeling your feelings is the first step to figuring out their message(s). Feel your feelings in your body and let their sensations rush through you in all their fiery fury and deep-sea grief and every other element in between. Just feel – don’t judge.
Next, think about your feelings with curiosity (again, without judgement). Ask yourself things like:
- What am I feeling? Am I feeling more than one feeling? Can I name them all?
- What do these feelings remind me of?
- What action did I take other times when I had feelings like these ones?
- What do I wish I had done differently those other times?
Feeling our feelings lets us fully take in the information they are providing. Reflecting on that information offers a deeper analysis that can help us when we decide to take action.
In the conflict with her son about the golf membership money, Joan’s emotions signalled something unfair was happening. She talked to me about feeling angry and violated, worthless and powerless. But feelings are for feeling, so that’s what I coached her to do. She noticed her feelings. She felt them. She thought about them.
It can be uncomfortable to sit with feelings and do nothing but accept them. Sometimes it’s so difficult to feel certain feelings that we seek relief from the experience through comfort routines (coping mechanisms) like drinking or eating or smoking or exercise or sex or mental distractions like shopping or TV. Sometimes we seek relief from feeling our feelings by attempting to dump them on someone else.
But Joan understood her feelings were 100% her deal and nobody else’s. She did not throw around any blame or send demanding texts to Jeff or insist that the golf club return her money. In fact, she was pleased to tell me after the negotiations were done that she only brought up the topic in conversation with Jeff 4 times in 8 weeks.
Anger = a sense of injustice + a feeling of powerlessness
Joan felt angry. The story her feelings were telling was that other people were taking control over hundreds of her dollars. If this were true, then of course it would be unjust! And of course she would have the terrible feeling of being powerless!
I told Joan her anger had a strong message, which was: ‘you’re right Joan, it IS your money. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You don’t have to panic and scream about it. Stand firm in what you know is true.’
What I kept reminding Joan:
- It would be weeks before they saw any money, so there was lots of time for conversation and negotiation.
- There was no urgency. She could relax and think about the situation.
- Jeff and her were on the same team and both want the same things – fun outdoor sports, physical activity, money for college, birthday celebrations, and more. Jeff was not the problem.
- Jeff and Joan were in no danger and their relationship was not in jeopardy.
- Joan’s relationship with Jeff was vastly more important than any sum of money.
Over the next two months they had a few brief conversations about the golf club membership money that were almost exactly like their first one. Joan would ask Jeff, “can we talk a bit about the golf membership money right now?” and only continue if he agreed. She started with, “could you explain to me again the importance of the custom Titleist clubs and why it seems fair for you to get that for your birthday?” They took turns sharing their perspective, what was important to each of them, and what did or didn’t seem fair.
The thoughts Joan shared with Jeff:
- I want to get you a birthday gift
- I want that gift and the amount I spend to be my decision
- I want that decision informed by discussions we have together about what you want AND what you need (like money for college)
There was nothing here for Jeff to argue, and Joan couldn’t argue his points either. They both had the feeling that something was unfair, and they listened respectfully to each other’s view even when it seemed they couldn’t agree.
Importantly, Joan didn’t enter any of these conversations with the intention to ‘solve’ the issue. Pushing for YOUR solution in any conflict almost always makes people dig themselves deeper into their position.
It reminds me of the hours The Boy and me spent wrestling on the bed when he was smaller – we would start in our separate corners and when he said, ‘go!’ we rushed onto the mattress and began to roughhouse. The point of it was play, connection, and physical activity.
With Joan and Jeff, they were in separate corners, but would come to dialogue in the space between them to connect and wrestle with their thoughts and feelings. After a few minutes the wrestling was over, and they went back to their corners where they sat in the ambiguity and discomfort for a period of days. Importantly, they were free to go back to their corners and come out again another time because neither of them had the other in a headlock.
What finally allowed the conflict to shift was that Jeff conducted a thoughtful research mission to attain some gently used, bigger clubs that were affordable. And because Joan had done her emotional work, her relaxed attitude held a space for ongoing conversation and information sharing. In the end they threw around ideas about how much they would each be willing to pay for the items Jeff found, and Joan was pleased he took responsible action to figure out how he might be able to get what he wanted.
The hardest thing to do, and the thing that makes the most difference in a conflict situation, is being able to listen to the other person talk about their feelings without letting that trigger your feelings.
The second most important skill is being able to talk about your feelings in an honest and informed way without being engulfed or controlled by them.
It’s an ongoing practice. Just like parenting.