Acorns to Oaks #7: Choose Your Battles

Last week I wrote about my journey to self care and in the coming weeks I will be posting Part 2 of that for you to read. This week however, I wanted to share with you two situations that I heard about during some group work I was undertaking this week. The accounts reminded me of the many times in my coaching and social work where people are stressed and burnt out partly due to how they respond/react to, and interact with, other people in their relationships. Sometimes our need to be right overrides the need to do a good job, or to work in partnership, or to listen to our partner, or children. Sometimes the need to be right causes stress that could be wholly avoided if we stepped back and picked our battles more wisely. Stress uses energy and in turn drains us until everything just becomes too hard.

What follows is not to say that there are times where we absolutely should stand our ground, stand by our truth and stick to our guns. I know that it is incredibly important in many situations where we do that, personally and professionally. Indeed, I have had experiences and interactions this year where it has absolutely necessary, for my own mental and emotional health, to stand up for myself and the truth, as well as actively walk away from those not willing and able to see the truth. But I also know that that is very different from what I used to feel the need to do; to be right all the time at the cost of other people’s right to be heard, and causing myself, and others, the utmost of stress and anger in the process! It is the latter that this blog is referring to.

There are a number of programs of direct work and coaching tools (Brief Solution, Motivational Interviewing, Attachment Minded approaches, Transactional Analysis, Protective Behaviours, Signs of Safety for example) that I LOVE for many reasons. As well as being able to be used with clients and service users, and even with our children and loved ones, in many different scenarios, one of the things I particularly like about many of these approaches is they ask us as workers, parents, partners and helpers to be reflective in our interactions, after and in the moment. Generally, through these approaches, I have learned to ask myself, ‘what am I doing or not doing that is helping or hindering this situation?’. Doing this forces us to take a step back, review our actions and attitudes, and respond rather than react; all things that are pivotal in helping us choose the right course of action in our relationships and interactions. The capacity to choose our battles if you will.

The two situations that I heard about this week started out very similarly but ended very differently. On created stress for everyone involved, whilst one resulted in a calm and a safe emotional space for people.

So, scenario 1….it was clear from the off that the service user involved, let’s call him James, was angry, frustrated, confused and hurt by the information he was being given. Very much like the service user, let’s call her Sarah, in scenario 2 in fact. James gave an account of a situation that to all present was clearly a situation that did not happen! His facts were inconsistent, his ‘story’ got more convoluted as it went on and even the people in the story changed. The point of his telling he story however was that he felt people did not listen to him and that he had been wronged in many ways. James’ story was about a situation that had happened some months before and decisions, the right ones, had already been made on the back of what had actually happened.

For James however, the pain and loss involved in the situation was still raw, and he was frightened at the loss of control he felt, and he was angry and in pain at what he felt others had done to him. It was clear that he was not yet in a position to look at his role in the situation, and that it would take some intensive work with him for him to reach that point. Sarah, in scenario 2, for very similar reasons was also displaying anger, confusion, pain and frustration. She was also struggling to acknowledge and accept her role in what had happened in her life, and she is also going to need a lot of support to do this. So, how did one situation end in raw anger and arguments, creating stress, and the other end calmly and peacefully? What made the difference?

Well, the only real difference I could see whilst listening to the observations of those there was that the worker with Sarah chose their battle, in that they didn’t enter in to the battle. They chose to listen with empathy, which in turn made Sarah feel listened to. They connected before they corrected. As a result, Sarah calmed down, she engaged in conversation and, far from the worker condoning or colluding, they were able to gently challenge through calm exchange of information. They agreed to disagree on points of contention, and where there were differences of opinion, the worker acknowledged both sides and expressed their opinion rather than trying to score points.

James and his worker however entered in to a tug of war, a battle, about the accuracy of his story. The worker was intent on highlighting the inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and in doing so completely overlooked his pain, and disregarded his views. He felt unheard, the worker felt got at and they butted heads so to speak. In the situation they were in, the details of the story at the time were not as important as his need to be heard, those could follow later, but the worker failed to see that. They put correction over connection.

In my opinion, drawing on years of Attachment work and knowledge, most anger is fuelled by fear. Therefore when we have an angry person in front of us, we have a scared and frightened person in front of us. When my children or my partner or myself are arguing with each other, it tends to go one of two ways. I sometimes shout and scream back, which just raises the temperature, and we’re all left with a bad taste in our mouths. Or, as is the case most of the time, I take a step back, listen to what’s behind the anger and usually find it’s fear. Sometimes it is fear that a favourite toy will be lost to them if the other one takes it. Sometimes it’s fear that control will be lost if they don’t get their own way. Sometimes it’s fear that what they want will disappear if they don’t get it NOW!

Therefore, if we meet anger with anger, or meet dissonance with the need to be right, we are just fuelling anger, and the other person’s need to be right, and therefore the temperature just keeps rising, along with everyone’s stress levels. Or, we add to their confusion and frustration if they are not in a place to hear what we have to say.

Sometimes, people will never be in the place to hear the facts of a matter. And that is when we choose our battles. We choose to stay and be drawn in to the row; we choose to stay and be calm; or we choose to walk away, cam down and try another day. Even if we don’t get what is causing the anger, if we go with the ethos that behind most anger is fear, we will respond with empathy rather than react with anger. This stops us entering in to a row and feeling the need to be right. It helps us choose our battles wisely, which in turn means that when we do have to stand our ground, we are more likely to be listened to and agreed with.

In order to remain energised, we must reduce our stress, and assessing our MO in relationships is one way of doing this.

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