The Monty Python comedy troupe gained fame through their gift of parody, and one of my favorite sketches was titled “Argument Clinic” in which an individual entered business stating “I’ve come for an argument.” Of course the parody is found in treating conflict like a desired commodity and in this abstract presentation gives us an opportunity to examine our own behaviors. The scene continues as the argument specialist of the office responds with irrational defiance prompting an argument over whether this truly is an argument or simple contradiction. Like all good parody, its humorous exaggeration illustrates a greater truth in life. In this case we are reminded how easily we can fall into conflict and that no one can force us into agreement.
Psychiatrist William Glasser pioneered the Choice Theory approach which focused on the thousands of little choices, often unconscious, that shape our lives. An example of this is when we choose to “have a problem” by rejecting options or refusing to accept disappointments. We do this naturally as an outworking of our emotional responses as well as the unique distress sequence within our personality and temperament. We see it every time someone expresses outrage in their distress, restating their disappointment and often requesting to speak to the manager. It’s as if they are saying “I want you to know how disappointed I am,” perhaps in the subconscious effort to punish the individual that stands between them and their expectation. The prolific blogger Seth Godin addressed these “tantrums” in 2018 in a clever piece that can be read here.
Some cases warrant appeal, such as instances of extraordinary need or the unintended consequences of policies or laws. Some of us who demonstrate high levels of agreeability work to develop our ability to advocate for ourselves, but that is an example of positive behavior and personal development. We are more likely to experience unhealthy, nonproductive conflict when disappointment becomes amplified into personal offense. In these cases we have little chance of compromise because now it feels personal and we are talking about what should (opinion) have happened. These are the cases where parents decry consequences for their child’s behavior or speeding motorists feel tricked by the speed trap. Customer service training often highlights the importance of helping people feel heard and sometimes we can develop healthy confrontation by simply asking “Are you trying to change my mind?” to highlight the choice. We can also offer kindness and develop an alliance with the person we are serving by clarifying our common goal of serving their needs but are limited by normal boundaries. Recognizing our choice to “have a problem” can serve as a helpful strategy in managing our emotions and negotiating conflict until we can accept the disappointment we are protesting.
Matthew Gallagher, LCPC