Reacting and Responding

Whatever insight or awareness we may come to about what is bothering us, or how we would like things to be, or how we might like to act in our relationships with others; nothing will change until we change our behavior, until we change what we do. So this final step in the Framework--that of taking action--is clearly the most crucial. The urgency we feel about being able to act to create what we need is so great that we often rush to discover a strategy before we know what it is we need. This can be disastrous.

Larry had been in the program for a couple of months when, in the second week of October, he came to group angry. He had just had a birthday, but it was not a happy one.

"I am just so angry at my mom. I had a birthday this past week and she didn't even acknowledge it. It's not just that she didn't get me anything, she didn't even call me. That's the way she is. She won't be doing anything for Christmas either. I am just so fed up. I am cutting her off. I just won't have anything to do with her."

Let's look at the conflict Larry is having with his mom from the lens of the Framework for Creative Conflict Resolution.

Is this a significant relationship? Sure, this is his mom. We all have significant relationships with our mothers.

Is this a pattern of conflict? Sure. This has happened before and he fully expects it will happen again at Christmas in a couple of months.

So what was the event? Larry had a birthday and had no contact with his mother on his birthday and no acknowledgment that it was his birthday.

And how did this affect him? He felt empty, unloved, hurt, sad and angry. He believes his mom doesn't care about him. He knows she knows when his birthday is. She was there. It was a big day for her, too. She knows when his birthday is so this must be her choice to disregard and disrespect him. He would like her to be someone who cares about him and honors him on his special day.

And what does he need? He needs the qualities of care and consideration in the relationship. He would be more satisfied in the relationship if they were able to show their appreciation and love for each other, to let each other know they are important.

And what will he do? He will cut her off and have nothing to do with her.

Huh? How does that move him toward what he needs? It won't. In fact, it moves him away from what he needs.

We very often make choices which construct the opposite of what we need. We act in ways which create what we are afraid we are going to get, rather than creating what we need.

Larry is reacting to the event by making a choice that doesn't consider what he needs. Indeed, he has no idea what he needs when he makes that choice, he only knows what he expects to get and, if he chooses in a manner which assures him of that outcome, at least he doesn't feel powerless. But he doesn't get what he needs.

When instead we respond to the event by acting in a manner which moves us toward what we need we at least get some part of the qualities which support us. So what might Larry have done to respond to the event in a manner which created what he needed?

Remember that what Larry needs is a relationship with his mom which is characterized by appreciation and respect. So how might Larry create that with him mom?

As the group discussed his situation and thought and talked about what ideas for action would create what Larry needed, a plan emerged. What would it be like for Larry if he were to contact him mom, either by phone or by mail and tell her something like the following.

"Mom, it was my birthday last week and we didn't get together or speak. I have been thinking about how it felt to have a birthday without talking to you and I don't like it. I was waiting for you to contact me, but it occurs to me now that I could have called you. I am very grateful for the life you gave me by giving birth to me and I regret that I didn't call to thank you. I hope we can build a relationship in which we can remember to appreciate each other."

Larry considered what it would be like if he were to say something like that to his mom. He admitted it would be true. Still, he didn't think he could actually say that. He was too hurt and angry. He knew he couldn't get the words out.

While our feelings often help us know what we need, they can, in their expression, get in the way of our ability to act constructively. Larry's feelings are so intense that they hinder his ability to calmly follow through on a plan to rebuild his relationship with his mom. We turn in the next chapter to a consideration of what feelings are, what they are for, and how we can best use them, but first we look at a couple of other barriers to Larry becoming able to actually do what would heal his relationship with his mom. One, he would have to have a plan for giving and receiving critical feedback that would be easy and safe for both he and his mom. And two, he would have to move from a 2° to a 4° strategy for addressing this conflict. This would require that he let go of trying to change his mother.

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