I come by conflict avoidance honestly. By that I mean it’s deeply steeped in my family history. I never heard my parents argue when I was growing up. Assuming that they did instead of just avoid all conflict, they must have done it entirely behind closed doors. As a Presbyterian pastor, my dear dad was so good being with people suffering crisis and loss but when it came to conflict, he also had a gift for just not responding.
I remember when I was in college, I took the car I had to him because it was overheating. He was refilling the radiator from the garden hose as I trailed around behind him. At one point I said, “Dad, I think there is a better way to do that.” He didn’t respond. He didn’t argue that he had been around cars a lot longer than I had or point out that I brought the car to him, he just simply didn’t say anything until it was refilled. Then he looked up with a big, bright smile and said, “There, it’s done!”
So I learned pretty organically to ignore other people’s body language when I don’t feel like taking it on. But I recently heard a great story about Dr. John Gottman, the psychologist and researcher behind The Gottman Institute about trust that is challenging me to think about it a little differently. Here’s the story:
It was nearing bedtime and John had reached the last chapter in his mystery novel. With just a couple of pages to go, he decided to go into the bathroom and finish getting ready for bed so he could savor the last pages and go to sleep. As he walked through the bathroom, he saw his wife brushing her hair and looking very sad. The inner voice in his head said, “Just keep going, you’ve got a plan.” But he knew from his research that trust is built in everyday moments so he stopped, took the hair brush from his wife, started brushing her hair and asked her what was going on.
Wow, I would have been hard pressed in that situation. I love mystery novels.
When my 6-year-old daughter pouts, I tend to ignore her. My thinking is that she needs to learn how to put her own emotions into words. And I have this sense of, “I didn’t [insert accomplishment here] by sitting around pouting.” Plus sometimes I just don’t feel like taking it on.
On the other hand, she is only six years old and she doesn’t do it very often. More than that, I want my kids to have a more emotionally intelligent childhood than I did. That means having to face the paradox that I had a pretty good childhood that made me who I am AND that families can be healthier and more supportive than mine was.
So I’ve tried just stopping, touching my daughter’s hand and asking “What’s going on?” Not only does it make the pout end faster, it’s brought another level of ease to our relationship. It brings to mind an article I read about surgery that can be done on babies in utero that doesn’t even leave a scar. Changing patterns to create this extra foundational layer of trust seems better done at 6-years-old than when she’s 16-years-old.
Yes, it’s easier to change a relationship with a child than a partnership that has developed hard patterns on both parts over a lot of years. But the good news, based both on Dr. Gottman’s research and my experience, is that sometimes it is surprisingly little things that we can do to build and rebuild trust. And that can change just about anything.
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(featured image from Pexels)