Beyond the Code: Dealing with Interpersonal Conflicts | Day 13

Our regular morning schedule was put on hold today where, instead of a lecture, we had a UofT Professor come in to lead a workshop on “Communicating Nondefensively.” After weeks of intensive coding, it was nice to have a change of pace; Lil Blume filled our morning with humour and insight. The value of the workshop was in its general applicability to all domains of life, rather than entailing specific tactics for programmers in a working environment. For, in truth, once you understand the general principles, you can apply them in any context.

The axiomatic worldview underlying Blume’s approach to interpersonal communication is that everything people say are projections. This is to say that what another person communicates is an externalization of their internal state, using your phenomenological appearance as a canvas upon which to manifest and interact with their internal being. I dare say that this philosophy threatens on descending into a Husserlian-esque solipsism and, yet, it is very much an accurate depiction of life as it is experienced phenomenologically. The self is only able to determine its character, and affirm its being, through interaction with other beings in an intersubjective world. In short, we can only explore ourselves through our interactions with others. Unfortunately, the islands of selfhood are connected by bridges of communication and it is upon these bridges where misunderstandings and conflicts are most likely to occur.

The first step in becoming a more effective communicator is understanding what your default response is to perceived attacks. One can either attack the critic, distort the message, or avoid the situation altogether – Blume also reminded us that our degree of perceived power affects the behaviour that we choose to exude, where the greater the power the more direct the method. Once you have an understanding of self, it becomes easier to relate to others and to identify the underlying problems fueling any given conflict. When someone accuses you of something that clashes with your self-image – when the external validation does not align with one’s internal perception – cognitive dissonance emerges. In order to fight this dissonance and to silence it, the individual implements one of the three tactics and then a genuine conflict emerges. How can we hope to solve such predicaments?

If I could etch but a single quote from Blume’s workshop on my wall, it would be thus: “the criticism belongs to the critic until and unless you accept it.” In other words, the power is truly in your own hands, regarding whether or not you choose to accept the criticism. For, when you become defensive, you have already accepted their criticism – you have already fallen into their trap and are responding the dialectics that they are controlling. Consequently, the path to reconciliation is found in recognizing the root of the problem, which is the medium of communication itself.

Do not fight your opponent, do not flee from battle, and do not get lost in trivial equivocations on the nature of the battle; stop and recognize that the field of battle itself is the problem. Realize that the very fact that you are standing in this battleground, sword unsheathed, is the culmination of faults by both parties; realize that there is a problem and let your opponent reveal what that problem is. How? Let him strike first. The moment of attack is also the moment of greatest weakness – your opponent makes himself vulnerable by virtue of unleashing an assault. What’s the parallel here? Let your communication partner speak and listen to what he is saying. The solution to the problem can be found in the words and the tone that the individual chooses to express himself with. You must see the undercurrent of hurt and frustration that triggers the words of criticism, for therein lies the channel to reconciliation.

At the end of the day, everyone just wants to be heard – we all want to be acknowledged, to have our lives deemed worthy by another. Hear what your partner has to say, let him know that you understand what he’s getting at through one of various strategies – e.g. paraphrasing – and then you are on the right path to communicating about the issue at hand. The key point here is that all of these strategies merely help you to begin the process of reconciliation by positioning you in a state ready for nondefensive communication – the rest is up to you. Throughout, Blume encourages us to check our perceptions, to own our own feelings, and to listen actively. Only then will we be ready to engage with our partner in a constructive dialogue regarding the issues at hand and how they may be resolved.

Lil Blume’s workshop was a refreshing change of pace and added some much needed laughter to our days. The lessons were valuable not only for workplace encounters but also for those of us with romantic partners, where there will always be conflicts here and there. Understanding how to deal with these confrontations with maturity and level-headedness is an invaluable asset as we progress forward in our professional and personal lives.

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