You may have come across this story before:
Two drivers are careening down a country lane from opposite directions. The winding road is narrow and bounded on each side by hedgerows, affording little space for manoeuvre. One of the drivers, a gentleman, was focused on the road and thinking about his destination. Suddenly, from the opposite direction, a car appears, driving at speed. The two cars just manage to scrape pass each other without damaging the cars. The woman driving the other car shouts ‘Pig!’ as she passes by. The man quickly lowers his own window screen and yells back, ‘Cow!.
As he rounds the next bend he ploughs into a pig standing in the middle of the road.
There often lay behind conflict various assumptions we make about one another. I have often found this to be the case in work based conflicts and neighbourhood disputes. Individuals assume what the other one intends or thinks. ‘‘He is deliberately winding me up with his radio playing.” “She is trying to undermine my work.” “He is a racist!” “They are anti-social and do not care one bit for the wellbeing of others’. ‘He knows how I feel about that!” Etc. The problems then escalate in proportion to the lack of communication between individuals. Sometimes people are just too worked up to attempt direct communication, imagine that they can’t speak to the other person for whatever reasons or simply because the default position of talking about the other person rather than to them is so deeply rooted.
In the absence of direct communication between individuals, caricatures develop and issues multiply and become inflated. The enemy image that is nurtured regarding the other tends to lend weight to one’s own sense of righteousness and being hard-done by. It colours our perception of their every word and action. Where there is a power differential between individuals (e.g. one person has line management responsibilities in relation to the other) the prospects for distortion are immense.
I have often had the experience as a third party mediator of a palpable release of tension as individuals communicate with each other clearly and honestly, very often discovering facts about each other that were, up till then, unknown. Previous perceptions are put into a very different context of understanding we light is shed on them through actually listening to one another. On one memorable occasion, two neighbours who had loathed each other because of an on-going conflict over noise issues not only came to view each other in a manner stripped of previous assumptions but came to an amicable agreement and then shared the cost of a taxi home. I discovered sometime later that when one of the women was widowed shortly thereafter, the neighbour with whom she had been in conflict became a major source of support for her.
But conflicts do not necessarily have to be resolved by third party mediation. We CAN talk to each other. Sometimes, because of habit, we may need someone to coach us along the way. In workplace situations management can help by helping to create an atmosphere of wholesome communication and providing support, from outside if needs be, when communication breaks down. Conflict resolution, empathetic listening and communication training are an investment in people and workforce well worth making.
Where there is a habit and culture of open and honest communication assumptions can be tested before they become hardened into ‘truths’ about one another and conflict processed in a way that is healthy and promotes wellbeing.
So the next time someone shouts ‘Pig!’ in your direction you may wish to consider your assumptions about what they mean. And do drive carefully.