Katie, a coworker on the field, sold me a car two weeks ago for $8000. The transmission has just fallen out, costing me another $2000, and a friend tells me Katie may have known it was a problem. What am I to do about it?
This is the role-play. Infinitely complicating the confrontation are our conflict-management styles. Katie is a turtle: if it smells like tension, she runs. I am a shark: conflict brings a rush of energy and an enthusiasm to confront things directly and take care of them.
Obviously, these differences cause problems.
In this situation, I am charged with becoming as “turtle-like” as possible. So I approach Katie, who is sitting on a couch, and sit on the floor beside her. I strike up casual conversation, asking her questions about her life and work. (By this point, unbeknownst to me, I have already made at least two mistakes.) After a minute or two, I bring up the subject of the car. I suggest we can talk about it tomorrow, after she has had time to think. She is visibly shrinking away from me now, which causes me instinctively to lean in and talk more and louder. More shrinking from her. More words from me. The conversation is obviously going nowhere. We call a halt, then look to the twenty observers, sharks and turtles, for their input.
“First off,” says a Turtle, “We would never initiate something like that face to face. Send an email. Or a text. Mention the car, but don’t bring up the problem right away.”
Half a dozen Sharks starting talking at the same time. “Well when are we supposed to bring up the car? Do we just ignore it? Kori was trying to be slow and gentle!”
A couch full of Turtles look at me dubiously. “Yeah, you were trying to be gentle, but we could feel the strength of your personality from here.”
More loud commentary and questions from the Sharks. “What are we supposed to do if our personalities are too much?! Are you kidding?? So are we supposed to just ignore the conflict and hope you bring it up eventually??”
Our discussion of the role-play now bears a striking resemblance to the role-play itself: Turtles are shrinking back and shutting up. Lions are leaning in and getting louder. Time is called and we move one to our next activity. Both groups are flushed and shaking. Fifteen minutes later, in a debrief with our teacher, this role-play is at the center of our conversation. We are entirely unable to grasp the others’ points of view. Mostly, it’s the verbal Sharks slinging their questions and frustrations across the room:
“Turtles won’t tell us what they want!! We had to wait for the Teddy Bears to tell us how to talk with them!”
“Talking to them is like trying to run in water. You can’t get any traction; there’s just NOTHING. There’s no way to move through conflict if all they do is run away!”
Occasionally, the Turtles would snap back, but they are barely heard in the tumult of talkative Sharks. As one Turtle told me later, “It’s not like I felt I would lose. I felt like I couldn’t even participate. The Sharks were so overwhelming! I felt so un-valued, because they kept interrupting and wouldn’t let us talk. When we’d say something, they would jump on it and attack us.”
So we have the Sharks, fighting for understanding, processing out loud and loudly, unable to contain our thoughts and emotions and wanting to tear into this and figure it out. We are fired up and frustrated.
And we have the Turtles, stunned nearly silent, unable to interrupt and unwilling to engage the Sharks’ tirade, wishing for peace and a calm conversation. They are overwhelmed.
Our teacher facilitates what he can, then finally dismisses the Foxes (compromisers) and Teddy Bears (appeasers) for lunch. Sharks and Turtles circle up. We still don’t understand each other, but at least we can say good things about each other and apologize for our part in de-valuing each other. When we finally leave the room, we are emotionally wrung out and exhausted.
Later, Katie and I talked about our disastrous role-play.
“I was surprised at how I reacted,” Katie said. “I mean, we’re friends and I like you, so I thought we’d do better than that.”
“You know,” I said, “it’s really good we practiced that. We are friends, but we still had so many problems communicating. Imagine if it were real and we were on the field in that situation! We are going to run into these problems, so I’m super glad for the chance to learn it out now.”
What have I learned? That Turtles don’t always avoid conflict, they just avoid the intensity that so often accompanies conflict. I’ve learned that Turtles don’t run away indefinitely, they just need space and time to think. I’ve learned that I should have started that role play with an email to Katie, at once removing the emotion as well as giving her time to think.
I’ve learned that Sharks can unnecessarily escalate conflict, and that a Turtle can calm the situation by disengaging until we step back, take a breath, and let some time pass. And I’ve learned that I can be so blinded by my own pride and way of seeing things that I am unable to comprehend another perspective.
Another case of what I see has natural, normal, right, and good causing me to turn and call someone else unnatural, abnormal, wrong, and bad. Another chance to practice suspending judgment and embracing another viewpoint.
Another day in the life at Mission Training International.