Have you ever been in the situation where you were roped into a conflict without realizing it? This used to happen to me all the time. My son would be running late for school, unable to find his sneakers, for example, and meltdown. (He’s an adolescent.) The next thing I knew, I was arguing with him about putting his things where they belong and why he didn’t set them out the night before, etc. The argument escalates and you both part angry.
You know the script. You’ve probably done this routine many times. What had started out as a perfectly serene day for you is now full of conflict and irritation. Do you wonder why this happened? If you think it’s just because the other person is irresponsible, disorganized, (fill in your own adjective here), etc. think again. The problem is that you were drawn into the situation, seemingly against your will. Why and how did that happen?
There is a wonderful concept described by Edwin Friedman called self-differentiation. In his book Generation to Generation, Dr. Friedman describes the concept as the ability to be in the situation, but to remain “above the fray.” In my experience, it almost feels like a split personality. I have to be aware, first of all. Secondly, I have to listen to what is going on around me. Thirdly, I have to participate without getting drawn into the emotion or drama of the events.
Let me illustrate what that would look like in the example above:
My son is running late for school. (I remind myself that he will suffer the consequences of his tardiness: either he will get a consequence at school or I will punish him later for making me late too) He can’t find his sneakers. (I think to myself, “Hmmm…I know we’ve talked about putting away our things so we can find them. I’ll re-visit this issue with him when we have more time and he’s calm.”) He has a meltdown. (I think to myself that adolescence won’t last forever. By the time he outgrows this, we’ll be dealing with driving, dating, etc. Maybe I’ll take a moment to enjoy this stage while it lasts even though it’s not always fun.) Usually the meltdown doesn’t last as long if I’m not throwing fuel on the fire with my angry reaction. I wait until he solves the problem or asks for help. Either way, I’m watching the scene unfold as though watching a play on Broadway. If there is audience participation requested, I’ll jump in to help, but otherwise, I’m a spectator.
With practice, self-differentiation can de-escalate any situation most people are likely to come across. I’ve used this at work, home, church, family gatherings, anywhere I am with people with whom I have a relationship. Relationships are fun, but they are also hard. If I can remain self-differentiated I can enjoy those relationships without getting bogged down in the messiness of knee-jerk impulses and arguments.
Self-differentiation requires practice, discipline, and maturity. I mess it up on a regular basis, especially when I’m not paying attention, but sometimes I get it right. It’s easier to give in and engage in the argument, the back biting, the bad behavior, but it’s so much more healthy and satisfying to remain peaceful, kind, and self-differentiated.