“It takes two to tango. It takes only one to make things a whole lot better.”
–Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger
Managing conflict is ultimately about managing relationships. It is a two-way street. It really does take two to tango (unless we’re talking about group conflicts, in which case it takes a troupe to boogie…well, you know what I mean). There’s a give and take, an action and reaction.
We’re in a dance, moving this way and that, altering the rhythm as we twist and pirouette.
When we agree, we glide seamlessly, avoiding obstacles, never missing a beat.
Ah, but then I step on your toes.
- Do I notice? Do I apologize?
- Do you take it with good humor? Do you accept my apology?
- Does it happen again? Was it intentional, or am I just a klutz?
- Do you believe me when I say I didn’t mean it?
- Did I want to move to a different part of the ballroom, and you to another?
- If your toe is injured and you’re in pain, does it matter that I didn’t mean to hurt you?
How you respond will change the nature of our dance, can change the dance itself. It may even cause one of us to walk off the floor.
What type of relationship do we have?
- Are we new dance partners, or is toe-stepping a pattern in our long-time relationship?
- Is this dance a one-time gig, or are we likely to encounter each other again?
- Is one of us always leading, and the other following? What if both of us try to lead at the same time? Or neither wishes to lead? Or one of us wants to switch roles this once?
- How important is it to each of us, or to our work/family/community, that we find a way to dance together? Or that we don’t?
- Is our relationship important enough that we would put in the effort to learn new dance steps to resolve conflicts? Maybe even learn a whole new dance?
The goals we each have for any relationship—at work, home, church or other community—might make a difference in terms of how we choose to deal with a disagreement: how we dance and to which dance we swing.
What do you hope to gain with this dance in the first place?
This is really a question of what is most important to you when the disagreement occurs.
- Is it to prove that you’re the better dancer? To be right? To get your way?
- Maybe you just don’t want the other person to get what he or she wants?
- Do you want to avoid unpleasantness at any cost?
- Are you interested in finding common ground?
- Is solving the problem at the center of the conflict important?
- What about the relationship? Is it on-going and thus worth preserving? Do you desire a good—that is mutually satisfying and functional—relationship?
Your goals might be contrapuntal—in opposition to each other. For example, you may have an overpowering need to be right and also want to preserve the relationship. Which is most important?
How flexible a dancer are you?
If you’ve ever watched the reality TV show “Dancing With the Stars” you know that some people seem to be born with grace and rhythm and others are a bit stiff.
Where relationships are concerned, some people seem to have an innate ability for getting along with others—Howard Gardner calls this interpersonal intelligence—while others struggle.
As “Dancing With the Stars” proves, anyone can improve their dance skills. Anyone can improve their interpersonal skills too.
You don’t have to take home the disco ball trophy. You only need to be willing to learn and you’re bound to get better. Your partner can’t help but notice that you’re making a sincere effort. Often that’s enough to start moving in synch once again.
What is this dance metaphor saying about conflict?
Every relationship will at times have disagreements, opposing wants and needs, and different expectations. When one person steps on another’s toes—prevents, obstructs, or interferes with another’s goals or actions—there’s conflict. The way each person reacts can worsen or improve the situation. People on the sidelines, with a stake in the outcome, can affect the choices each person makes.
It (almost) doesn’t matter who started it. Whether it was you or the other person, what YOU do next can make a big difference. The next words out of your mouth, your bodily stance, your expression—all of these have the power to escalate or de-escalate the situation.
Often you have several chances early in a conflict to alter its course. As soon as you become aware that it’s not too late, take that chance. Take the lead and change the timbre of the sound from cold to warm. Slow the pace. Calm it down.
You might not be able to change another person but your response can change how a conflict plays out, for better or worse. You have the ability to influence the nature of the discourse and thus the outcome.
What does the phrase “relationships are a dance” mean to you?
How would you change the “dance” if you found yourself in conflict?