Class Report

Conflict Resolution With Difficult People

Teacher: Chris Geyer
Documentarian: Sonia Booth
Location: Ashoka
Date: Jan. 22, 2014

What we learned: We all have certain emotions, feelings, or behaviors we learn to suppress in childhood. Even though you might not realize it, tension builds up on a daily basis if naturally flowing feelings are pushed down. People clash most strongly with others who display the emotions, feelings, or behaviors they themselves are suppressing. To improve your interactions with difficult people, work on expressing your emotions in healthy ways.

In a way, you actually envy the person with whom you’re in conflict. That other person is expressing an emotion or behavior that you have been holding in. For example, if you are always neat, and you clash with a roommate who creates a mess, perhaps a part of you envies that person’s ability to let things go and relax.

The trick, then, is to express the emotions and behaviors you suppress in “safe spaces.” If you’re always neat and in control, experiment with letting go and relaxing in another arena. Assign yourself time to turn up the music in your room and dance around, shouting lyrics at the top of your lungs. These practices can help you maintain a clear head when interacting with others, because you have been paying attention to yourself and your own emotional needs.

We asked Chris …
How did you get interested in this subject?
I had never heard of communication as a discipline until I took a freshman survey course in college. It blew my mind to learn that people were actually studying all of these really interesting things (conflicts, emotional support, persuasion, group communication, etc.) and coming up with really useful knowledge. Communication made sense out of a lot of previously unexplainable experiences in my life: Why did I get angry at the smallest, stupidest thing? Why did my comment upset my roommate so much? Why did my romantic relationship go from amazing to annoying so fast?

What do people tend to wrongly assume about this subject before learning about it?
The first assumption is, “I communicate all the time and am doing really well. I have lots of friends and a good romantic relationship, what more is there for me to learn?” I compare it to someone who’s been eating his whole life, but isn’t interested in nutrition.

The second assumption is that human interactions, behaviors, and emotions are so complex that it’s too challenging to draw conclusions about how they work. There’s no question that complexity is a constant challenge for communication researchers, but I think people would be surprised at how far researchers have come.

What can people read/watch for more information on this topic?
There’s a lot of literature about specific types of stuff that gets suppressed, and how to work with those specific areas. For starters, I would recommend the book “Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature.”

Sonia Booth is a museum educator who grew up in the Boston area. She works as a program coordinator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Before she moved to DC she gave tours of the Boston Massacre site for the Old State House Museum in Massachusetts. As part of the Knowledge Commons DC organizing team, she helps wrangle volunteers, facilitators, and classes. Her favorite fruit is cherimoya.