Thanks a lot, Britney!

Matt and I are always telling people how portable communication skills are.  We brag that we’ve used our techniques on in-laws, neighbors, and even occasionally on our own irascible toddlers (or more than just “occasionally” in my case).  So, imagine my surprise when a family vacation derailed into screaming insults, and I wasn’t able to do a thing but watch the wreckage smoke. 

After that intro, you will probably be surprised to learn that the topic of conversation was one Britney Jean Spears.  You may know her from such hits as “Baby One More Time,” “Oops! I Did it Again,” and being literally everywhere since 1998.  An older brother (disclaimer: I actually do love him… most of the time), was criticizing Ms. Spears’ appearance, which led to a discussion of the societal pressures on women. 

In pushing back against his criticisms, I did all the things we coach clients to do when they’re disagreeing. I was respectful, made my comments about me and not him, made him feel heard, tried to be an ally to everyone in the room… blah blah blah.  So, when he blew up in my face and started throwing things across the table, I was at a complete loss. 

So what went wrong here? How does the conflict resolution expert find herself knee deep in this nonsense??  You may recall us having said before that no one fights about things they don’t care about, and I stand by that, despite not caring about Britney Spears in the slightest.  Brit Brit was just a red herring.  What was actually at the heart of this conflict was my brother’s belief that I was calling him a misogynist - and my failure to convince him I was his ally. 

Turns out, I didn’t do everything “right.”  My mistake was not in the way I disagreed, but in how I said what came next.  By disagreeing with my brother AND pointing out the societal ickiness constantly being thrown on women, what he HEARD me saying was that HE was doing the throwing. For the record, I was not, nor am I now, calling my brother a misogynist.  He’s actually a pretty cool guy… most of the time.

When everyone in a conversation is committed to being an ally to everyone else, things go a lot differently.  Everyone has to believe they are, and have, an ally.  They have to believe others seek to understand rather than to persuade.  Without that, following all the other “rules” doesn’t do you much good. Trust me, I’m an expert.


Kate Negrón