How To Deal With Conflict
Five strategies for handling difficult situations with grace
In September 1972, a young artist had a strangely fortuitous, if nearly deadly, encounter on a ferry between Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. On the trip with him that night, as the unnamed man told a Washington Post reporter 15 years later, was Mr Robert McNamara, President Richard Nixon’s defence secretary, who, as one of the primary architects of the Vietnam War, would have been a reviled figure to much of the anti-war public. The artist’s anger at seeing Mr McNamara enjoying a drink and a laugh with a friend probably shouldn’t be surprising. What he did next is.
The artist lured Mr McNamara out onto the deck and calmly and quietly attempted to toss him overboard. The ensuing commotion, as the men began to struggle, aroused others on the ship, who quickly came to Mr McNamara’s aid. The young man was arrested, although never prosecuted.
“I guess you’d have to say I’m glad he didn’t go [over],” the artist said, thinking back on the event years later. “I suppose I kind of regret what I did, but maybe in the context of the 1960s and everything else, it makes some sense.”
The story resurfaced this summer as the debate around civility and how we express frustration with elected officials rages on. While nothing even approaching consensus on the matter seems forthcoming, it’s probably safe to say that keelhauling our adversaries into the drink, while tempting in the heat of the moment, isn’t the most feasible or sensible course of action.
Every day – at work, on the subway, in our interactions online – we stub up against conflict, both passive and aggressive. It’s the way in which we navigate those conflicts, the way we conquer or evade them, confront or shrink from them that defines who we are, or who we want to be.
Here, we offer a few ideas.
Be gracious in accepting – and sharing – credit for your work
One of the most frustrating experiences, whatever you do, is seeing hard work or ideas you generated being passed off by others as their own. When that happens, it can be tempting to lash out in anger, to demand credit or compensation, and that may be the proper course of action in some cases. But a controversy around Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, itself about the complications of navigating daily systemic confrontations for African Americans, offers another possible reaction.
A number of people have suggested that the song, undoubtedly one of the biggest hit of the year, sounds similar to an earlier track, “American Pharaoh”, by the relatively unknown artist Mr Jase Harley. Childish Gambino’s team have denied any impropriety, but fans of Mr Harley have encouraged him to sue. Instead, Mr Harley demonstrated in a series of Instagram comments that he was handling the experience gracefully. “A shout out would be cool,” he wrote, but concluded, “all artist [sic] get inspired by others… artists being thirsty for bread is why ppl don’t wanna credit anyone for inspiration. It’s all love and support for me, glad if my record influenced his.”
Never punch down, only up
Mr Harley’s attitude exhibited a sense of perspective. He said he was glad people were discovering his music, an attitude that appears to have paid off. His song racked up hundreds of thousands of streams online in the few days after it happened and won him many new fans.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t stand up for yourself if you’ve been egregiously screwed over. It just doesn’t have to be like that. The response from Gambino’s team, by contrast, was condescendingly dismissive. Of course we didn’t steal from this nobody, they seemed to be saying. Not a good look, that.
First, ask someone to stop
If you ever want to see some truly intractable squabbling, engage in a conversation about aeroplane seat etiquette. Really. We all recognise the familiar sting of being wronged, slighted and made to feel powerless to change our position, on a plane or otherwise. And we’ve seen some people respond to this situation with a little public shaming, posting a picture of the offensive behaviour to their timeline for some camaraderie and a little Twitter justice.
While there’s definitely something to be said for seeking online sympathy when you’re in an awkward or frustrating situation, taking surreptitious photos of a man-spreader on the Tube, for example, as a means of releasing pressure should not be your default. Instead, you could simply ask the person in question to stop their bad behaviour.
We’ve become accustomed to thinking of everyone as an unpersuadable and intractable jerk and, while there are plenty of them out there, politely expressing your discomfort can be far more effective than vaguely complaining about it. That’s not just true of aeroplanes, but in every walk of life. By and large, people are not comic-book villains conspiring to make the life of everyone around them more difficult. Too often, they are, like us, a little oblivious to the world around them.
Recognise imbalances of power and justice
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” Mr Frederick Douglass said in 1857. He was talking about abolishing slavery and most of us do not, in day-to-day life, encounter things of such horror and magnitude. But Mr Douglass’ precepts hold good on all levels. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” he continued. “It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
When we talk about civility, we are trying to negotiate what it means to exist within a civilisation. That can be on a grand scale, in matters of serious moral import, such as Mr Douglass was talking about, or it can be on a micro-scale, the daily interactions we have with one another. Civility means taking stock of the power imbalance in any given situation. When you assert your right to a piece of physical space, you are creating a power imbalance. When you steal from others, you are doing the same. Likewise, if you deny those you’ve behaved poorly towards the right to push back, you’re abusing the power you’ve amassed, whether it was earned, stolen or otherwise.
Respect your enemies, for they respect you enough to hate you
The artist on the ferry learned a lesson about how losing control of one’s emotions can lead to consequences you might later regret, something we would all be wise to keep in mind. But Mr McNamara acted in a way that we might also find instructive. For starters, he declined to make a big thing out of the event. No charges were pressed, no defiant speech was given – a mammoth feat of restraint when you’ve just found yourself inches away from almost certain death. He generally refrained from talking about the incident at all, as Mr Paul Hendrickson, the reporter who went on to write a book about Mr McNamara’s life, has written. Clearly affected by the incident years later, he talked of it to a friend. He spoke, Mr Hendrickson wrote, “in a way as though to suggest he bears no particular grudge towards the man who did it, maybe even has the tiniest sliver of respect for him”.
Here’s a powerful man who’s been confronted angrily and violently, and he seems to have taken something from that. Here’s a man with little power who abused his chance to seize it back. Civility is negotiating the distance between those two poles. It’s being mindful of the spaces we have carved out to live with one another.