What’s It All About, Alfie?

As far back as I can remember, my father has sung the same line in the same way — and stopped. Whether we were in the car, in an elevator, or at the dinner table, it was always the same thing. “What’s is all about, Alfie” . . . then nothing.

No second line. Nothing.

As a kid, it made me laugh even though I knew the “joke.” It took until I was about 13, and I was playing my way through a book of popular songs on the piano, when lo and behold, there was the theme song from the movie, “Alfie.”

Well, gosh darn it. I didn’t know there was a movie called “Alfie.” And even more surprising, I didn’t know that there were more lyrics. Even a second verse!

One day, after my dad sung his one line, I asked him, “Do you know the next line in the song?” He just looked at me, and said, “No.”

Funny thing is that the joke got even funnier (to me, at least) once I learned that he didn’t know the next line, let alone the rest of the song. The joke wasn’t the song. The joke was the fact that he sang it for no reason, at no particular time, whenever the urge came over him.

I do the same thing–one lyric, no more, without warning. But I do have a reason.

The old adage says that humor soothes the savage beast–basically, it helps to reduce tension and relieve pressure when tempers rise.

Nonsensical actions like singing one line of a song and stopping can serve the same purpose. They can change the trajectory of a discussion in moments, turning a debate into a conversation, or a heated controversy into a creative opportunity.

When dealing with group dynamics, especially conflict, look for the nonsensical action or element. It has the potential and power to lead you forward when the path you are taking may seem to have narrowed or been foreshortened.


Use Specific Examples (Rule #5)

A photo by Alex wong. unsplash.com/photos/l5Tzv1alcpsThe conversation usually goes something like this.

“You didn’t consult me about (pick a subject).”

“I thought you didn’t care.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“That’s what you said.”

“When did I say that?”

And it goes on and on from there.

Want to put an end to this familiar script? Try a specific example.

“I thought I was consulting you when I asked if it was alright to buy steak instead of ground beef. Do you remember that?” Or, “Did you experience that as ‘consulting’ you?”

We can’t correct what we can’t identify. By using examples, we reduce the emotional energy in the conversation. When we use examples, we can test to see if we share common ground, and if not, find it by further refining the examples.

Most importantly, we give ourselves the perspective to step back and look at the situation together rather than as opponents.

So, next time you are tempted to use a generalization, don’t. Be specific.

How Firmly Rooted Are Your Feet? (Rule #8)

yogaIf you have trouble with resolving conflict, this is the rule for you.

One of the things that I love about practicing yoga is what the focus is–practice.

I find balancing poses–tree pose, dancer’s pose, Warrior III–to be very challenging. When I first started yoga, I thought the focus was supposed to be on doing the position perfectly, and it started with the feet. I learned–after many unattractive, acrobatic flourishes–that it has nothing to do with the position, and everything to do with core.

Rule #8, focus on interests, not positions. In yoga, the focus is on the core, those all-important muscles that keep everything else in alignment, not the position. I’ve found this to be true in groups, relationships, and pretty much every other aspect of work and life.

When we focus on the position, we become adversarial. In tree pose, I used to get mad at my arms because they were fighting what my legs and the rest of me wanted to do. In relationships, we get rooted to a spot, and often there is no bridge to a place where we can join minds, hearts, and heads.

When we focus on interests, the starting point is very different. I read many years ago that the best negotiators started conversations with the simplest of decisions–where and when to meet, how many people would be invited, what language would be used. The best of the best knew that each of these little decisions created a base upon which more challenging interests could be addressed, and ultimately the questions that were at the core of the positions the parties held could be answered.

I think about really big international conflicts that have been addressed in my lifetime–the peace settlement in the Mid-East (not permanent, but it was a step), detente and ultimately the breaking down of the walls between East and West, the opening of dialogue with China. Each of these negotiations started with questions like, “Where do we meet? Who should we invite? What are the rules for dialogue?” And which smaller partners were these negotiations tested with, practiced on?

When faced with conflict, how tightly do you hold onto your position? Think of the most recent experience you had, at the heart of it, what were you interested in accomplishing? What was the other person interested in accomplishing? Where did your interests potentially overlap? And how could you go from there?