When I was still married, my then-husband used to tell me that I was a delicate ecosystem. He had a point. I get migraines if I don’t drink enough water. I need yoga or the outdoors or meditation to ground me.
And if I stuff too many of my feelings down inside, they tend to ooze out unpredictably and sometimes in unfriendly ways. And once those unfriendly, oozy emotions come out … there is really no way to resolve the real conflict that got me there. Once the nastiness escapes—it’s too late. No one is interested in compromise at that point, certainly not me. And certainly not my ex-husband dealing with his oozy wife.
It took me a while to figure out my balance, but now I usually know what I need and I try to make sure I get it. So, jump ahead to the nice “grounding” walk in the woods that I was taking last week, with my little 25-pound dog, Fran. All was going well until a pack of nine dogs come barreling around the bend. Now I don’t think these are bad dogs, but with so many of them together it’s a whole lot like the dog version of Lord Of The Flies. I pick Fran up by his armpits and swing him around to shake off the other dogs, and I was sort of screeching in the way you might if you thought that something you loved was about to be torn to bits. Around the bend comes the woman in charge. First she mimicks my screech (yes mimicks!!) and then said that I was upsetting HER dogs by swinging my dog like that. I looked down and realized that I was clutching poor Fran so hard that his arms stuck straight out and he looked like he was wearing a turtle neck. So I did stop what I was doing, but the moment between us had already taken on a life of its own, and on my end I can say I was not proud of my language. The two of us finally stomped off in our separate directions. And I couldn’t really hear, but I’m pretty sure she called me a bitch. Which is actually sort of ironic given the company of all those dogs, some of which must have been female.
I can’t help but think, my ex would have had a smug moment had he witnessed that whole poor performance of mine. And he wouldn’t be off base, because the one thing that was missing from that entire interaction was what was needed the most. Conflict resolution. All twelve of us in those woods (man and beast) resolved absolutely nothing. In fact, we set the stage for an even worse conflict down the road when it most certainly will happen again. Because once things get to that crazy, screeching, mimicking, heightened space, a whole different biological response takes over, and conflict resolution is just not part of that picture.
I’d like to think I do a much better job with conflict than my current tale may lead you to believe. I do give it my best shot, and between four kids, flipping houses, a failed marriage and a multitude of interior design projects—I’ve encountered it quite a bit.
A contractor friend of mine recently called, upset about the way something had flushed out between him and another professional. I said, “Hey, you will lose sleep tonight, and he will lose sleep tonight, and then tomorrow you will both meet in the middle.” It’s a simple formula, but getting there can feel so complex. You have to wade through lots of stuff like, “but they did,” and, “I’m so angry because,” and, “but they really crossed a line.”
It’s a little like getting a divorce. As one of my wise friends told me, if at the end of the day both you and your ex feel like you got a little bit screwed, then you probably did it right. And I think that’s probably right where we landed. But if we had filled our negotiations with bluster and bravado we never would have gotten there. Because as soon as those negotiations ratchet up to that level, you have both already lost.
I have a subcontractor I’m working with now who is creating three custom vanities for one of my clients.
I really like this guy and my gut said he was the right man for the job. These vanities weren’t going to be painted and I wanted them to feel like fine furniture. I wanted an artist that used wood as his palette. He’d been enthusiastic about the project and had invested quite a bit of time in walking my client and me through the details, from different wood types, to finishing options, and down to how coarse the saw would be that cut the wood. (We were looking for a sophisticated, reclaimed wood type of look.)
But my industry is small, and I heard rumblings about a conflict he had in a prior project. I don’t ask a lot of questions about this stuff; I don’t want to get involved with someone else’s business in this way. But I also have to protect myself and my client’s interests so I needed to talk about it. I told him I wasn’t interested in that original conflict, but that I wanted to know how we would get through it if something like this happened to us. Because one thing I am certain of is that conflicts happen. It’s inevitable. It’s how you handle them that really counts.
My woodworker? He did a good job of reassuring me without getting into the details of his past situation. And he also put into place a whole series of checks and balances so that there will be no surprises with my project. I’ll be approving the actual pieces of wood we use, and the design details that literally come down to a fraction of an inch, and a new round of stains and finishing options. Does it create more legwork for us both to keep me so intimately in the loop? Yes, but given the big picture, I think it’s worth it. And I honestly think the whole project benefits from that sort of attention to detail. He started the project this week, and so far, it looks amazing.
My dog, by the way, is doing just fine. His brain is small, and as soon as those other dogs careened down their path out of sight, his tail was high and he was back to his routine of smells and chipmunks and his obstacle courses of fallen logs and tree roots.
Me? I didn’t fare as well. I churned on it for the rest of the walk, and so much so that I even wrote about it here. And honestly, that’s a really high price to pay. Too high a price. Next time (and I’m sure there will be one with the dog walkers) I’ve got to do it differently. I mean who wants to be that screechy, oozy person? And ok, maybe less swearing would help too, but so would some leashes, right?
Well, in fact, later I actually saw that dog walker again in the woods and I called her over and we had the nicest moment, with both of us apologizing.
I feel like a weight has lifted from me.
See? It’s not easy! But I figure it out, because conflicts are inevitable. It’s how I handle them that really counts.
Jen Coles is a professional home designer and mother of four who lives in Manchester. Colescoloranddesign.com