The Discipline to Defuse Painful Squabbles


Nearly every Sunday my parents packed us in the Ford Country Squire and we hit I-94, on the way to our grandparents on the east side of Detroit.  We always watched for the (Uniroyal, I think) billboard with the rolling digits, an up-to-the-minute tally of US Car & Truck Production.  I can imagine a similar sign, with fast rolling odometer-like digits, but it would be titled, Painful and Unnecessary Squabbles at Work and at Home.  I figure the US daily tally would reach a million by dinner time.  Last week, I observed one.  You know the typical indicators: Two folks not talking to each other (though occasionally sending heavily coded emails), each feeling misunderstood and offended, others brought in (by at least one of the adversaries) to commiserate, and folks walking on eggshells.  Oh, and work halted by one, the other, or both.

I confess that I have personally walked into LOTS of these – one at the airport a couple days ago.  And I have read about them in big circles: in the Bush and Clinton White Houses, for instance.  And call me naïve, but I’d guess the odometer-like tally of Painful Squabbles could slow to a crawl if people did two things.  Test out these two prescriptions by thinking about somebody you’re at odds with…

First, admit that your ego is in play (you already knew your adversary’s ego was in play!).  Ego involvement creates astounding asymmetry.  The issue can be tiny, such that an objective stranger would say, “let it go, man!  It’s nothing.”  But, when the ego feels threatened, the issue seems huge.  Someone was not consulted.  Or somebody went around somebody.  Or somebody thinks they’re being embarrassed.  The coach pinch hit your kid.  Or somebody forgot (if you’re the one grievously offended, you say “somebody ‘forgot’ in quotes) to invite you to the meeting.  Or somebody talked to one of your staff people without talking to you first.  Or gave a report to the boss, without letting you know.  Or (especially if you don’t just have an ego, but a male ego) somebody jumped to the front when the clerk said “next in line, please,” even though they knew you were there first. Recognize it: the issue is tiny, but for the ego that’s acting big (or small depending on your perspective), it’s huge.

Second, choose to shift from the small perspective of ego, to the larger issue of understanding what the other person is thinking and feeling.  Their “attack” can be seen – with great discipline, mind you, as full of opportunity:  opportunity to enlarge your understanding, to broaden your view, to learn to work with someone who sees things quite differently.  A tiny example.  I let Jack raise the issue – he’s almost 12 now – about whether he had to go to church last night.  He was frustrated.  (He’s a wonderfully calm arguer, so if I did some things right, I’m sure it’s in large part because he’s not super-aggressive and voluble).  Yet, as he pushed back, the dirty parent secret is this:  I could easily have been threatened by his rebellion, worried that he wasn’t respecting what I cared about, or mad that he was defying my authority.  My ego was more than ready to fuel those fears and to trigger a powerful reaction to crush the attacker.  But I kept ratcheting it down – alternately asking him what he meant and why, and then asking him what he heard me saying.  In the end, I made him go to church, and invited him to go freely in spite of my admitted coercion.  He wasn’t happy.  But he was heard.  There was understanding if not glee.  I remembered and respected what it’s like to be him – twelve, questioning, easily bored, etc.  And I hope he found me somewhat reasonable.  We slowed the revolving Painful Squabble tally just a little.


So, monitor the ego and listen to the other to


Lead with your best self,




  • Dan –

    This couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I need to have such a discussion with my team on one such issue (and one of my kids on another). Thanks for your wisdom (and the courage to share your own trials).


  • Dan,

    Bravo! You listened to what Jack had to say. Listening is such an important part of getting things accomplished. I have been teaching a workshop on Listening for the Detroit Public Schools Office of Guidance and Counseling this summer. The key to listening is HEARING what the other person has to say. Giving value to their voice.

    Imagine me being brought down by my son who said to me, “Mom, you sure do a good job teaching your class on listening. I read your handouts and really liked them. Do you think you could listen and hear me sometimes.” Perspective is everything. Knowing what to do and always doing it is a challenge. We are all a work in progress and we need to practice what we teach. The TIP Lady

  • Great words of wisdom! I remember hearing a while back that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. If we give others a ‘space for grace’ we can begin to heal relationships as well as ourselves.

  • After reading your article this morning my mind is spinning with so many ideas I don’t know where to begin. First, let me comment on the wonderful job you did reminding us that leadership is not just for the workplace, but everywhere in our everyday lives. Too often I “use up” all my patience at work then bring home a tired irritable mother, grandmother, and wife to the people who matter most in my life. Second, whether your kids are 2, 12, 22, 32 they need to “push back.” I would like to think that at least most of the time I modeled for them how to do that in a calm, respectful way. I know I fell short of that goal this week and many other times, too. Thirdly, when you do squabble or actually verbally “fight” you lose ground as a leader not only with whom you are “disagreeing” but also with the ones who witness your behavior. It takes a while to build that trust and respect back. And last, but probably the most important is your advice to make amends, let it go, or how about to go out on a limb and actually ask for forgiveness. It puts our ego in check and provides others a model of how to fix a disagreement “gone bad.” And Kudos To You for allowing your child to speak his mind, but insisting he go to church (or do his homework, brush his teeth, pick-up after himself, etc. etc. etc.) His adult days will come soon enough! How wonderful he gets to be the child while you embrace parental responsibility.

  • Here is a great article from Nolan Findley on how ego’s play out on the State level. Michigan does not have time to waste when it comes to fixing our state. We need good solutions to our budget crisis like the one proposed by Andy Dillon for our health care crisis in Michigan.


  • Nicely stated, as usual, Dan. I can’t help but wonder if you are really talking about you & Jack or about a certain professor and police officer? Seems to me that the logic applies in that situation, too. Rachet back, calm down, listen to and respect the other person.

  • MarrilynnB:

    Actually most if not all of the ratcheting came from the President and oddly enough he then turned around to tell everyone to calm down. Was he only talking to himself?

  • Dan,
    This article is so on the money. I have cautioned my staff to listen to the suggestions of other office we work with and not to be so defensive. Oftentimes there are excellect suggestions that are dismissed because “they” can’t make us do that! If it’s a good idea we should thank them and happily “do that”. The ego is a stumbling block that can hinder success.
    I fight with mine to keep me from being blinded.

  • I don’t usually take the time to comment on your articles. However, I always find them thought provoking.

    As I read today’s article, I thought of my work and home situations and how hard it is to “let it go”. Even when I acknowledge rationally that is “no big thing”, I am still emotionally upset and that is the hardest part to get around.

    I appreciated your perspective and suggestions.

  • So if you read this last section again ” But I kept ratcheting it down – alternately asking him what he meant and why, and then asking him what he heard me saying. In the end, I made him go to church, and invited him to go freely in spite of my admitted coercion. He wasn’t happy. But he was heard. There was understanding if not glee. I remembered and respected what it’s like to be him – twelve, questioning, easily bored, etc. And I hope he found me somewhat reasonable.”

    It sounds to me like your ego got in the way. Did you really ratchet down your ego? By your own admission you made him go to church…
    I thought that you were going to say that your argument was so well founded that he decided to go. You heard him – yes, but then you exercised your authority/ego! Claiming to hear someone and then exercising a position based on authority is rather shallow in my opinion.

  • I know you receivedt a lot of thank yous and I want to add one more. Your RFL was so very timely as I begin to struggle with my 6 year olds independence. And when I put my ego aside for even a moment when we disagreee (and that seems to be a lot these days), true understanding begins to unfold. Thank you, thank you, thank you again for your candid comments! Dont’ stop writing…..

  • To Terry: Interesting perspective on leadership in that article you suggested (although the link does not work).

    Also… interested that again the male is criticized and put down in this RFL, continuing the streak of other RFL’s. The “male” ego is noted. What would happen if we changed that word to “female” or an specific ethnic group? There is an anti-male bias in these columns.

  • While I’m glad y’all agree with Dan, let me give the yin to that yang because I work with a lot of women in dysfunctional relationships who continually swallow their ego, give the guy (usually) or the boss a break, shut up, and take all these little disaffirmations until the straw breaks the camel’s back and they’re ready to go postal or get some serious psychotropic meds to prevent suicide.

    These women in dysfunctional relationships give people permission to walk all over their sensitivities to the point where they don’t even recognize that they get to have an opinion! It’s like they’re some kind of extension of the male (usually) in their lives, to the point that, when he says “Jump!”, her habitual response is not “Why the heck should I?” but “How high?” All this does is give someone else, whom I’ll call the dominator, permission to be an insensitive jerk. I’ll admit that the problem is on both sides: an insensitive dominator and a nonassertive victim. Recognize how many people are so eager to shirk responsibility so they can blame it on some so-called leader without speaking up or helping the other person see how their behavior was offensive, noninclusive, and therefore, not informed by another’s viewpoint–someone who’s affected by the decision. Informed decisions are better than one made from the view at the top without considering others affected by the decision.

    If we don’t stand up for ourselves when one petty disaffirmation piles on top of a slew of others, we begin to feel that we DO deserve to be treated like a rug. Not good! Not good to teach others that it’s okay to walk all over us, because we’ll never complain.

    Anyone who deserves the title “leader” needs to try to paint a vision so compelling that others WANT to sign onto it.

    Okay, now let’s talk about parenting. It’s a kid’s job to question. It’s well to listen to those questions. When the kid raises an objection, it’s good to listen to those objections to see if they’re valid, and to address them. To pretend that the kid has the authority to comply or not, and then pull rank on him with an “I’m the parent, and you’ll go because I said so!” is misleading and bound to cause resentment. Oh, there are times when a parent needs to set limits and children benefit from limits like, “No, you will not go over to that home where they keep loaded guns laying around,” and “No, you will not stay out all night with your 16-year-old girlfriend with no adult supervision,” and “No, I’m not comfortable with you hanging out at so-and-so’s house because there’s evidence that the family is using drugs and it’s not healthy and could be dangerous for you to be breathing second-hand marijuana smoke.”

    Discerning when / how much to be the authority and when / how much to let the kid grow into responsible decision making is a tough call. From what I’ve read, telling them that they can choose between two good choices, like, “You can go to our church or you can go to that cool church across town where they have a rock band and it’s more relevant / not boring for people your age. One or the other. Staying home and neglecting your spiritual development is not an option as long as you live in our home.” That’s being responsive to the kid’s felt needs. That’s helping the kid feel that they really WERE heard. That’s being a parent who leads with your best self… or so I believe…with all due respect.

  • Dan,

    As I read you article, I heard hissing and rining… Like millions of others, I have tinnitus. I read that about 20% of those between 55 and 65 report the symptoms. At times, the noise in my head is so loud, it partially blocks or distorts sounds coming from outside — beautiful music, important news, or even the precious sounds of my grandchildren — requiring focused effort to get past the hissing and ringing.

    Yesterday, the six-month anniversary of the beginning of my journey to once again find full time employment, I was reflecting upon the strain this challenge has placed on my family and the terrible isolation I have felt as each rejection letter or e-mail darkens yet another day. When I read your article, I began to feel that my apparent “isolation” may be due to a kind of tinnitus, caused by the lamentations and whining of my own bruised ego. As a writer, I believe it takes a healthy dose of ego to support putting in public view my own thoughts and feelings, painted and sculpted with words. I risk even more by performing in job interviews, by virtually and verbally tap-dancing as fast as I can, for prospective employers. So, when I get a rejection “form letter,” or sense the moment interviewers mentally “fold their tents and steal away into the night,” my own ego starts screaming in my head: “Listen to me, pay attention to me, respect me!” My defensive barriers go up, and it takes enormous energy to push past them and re-engage.

    And, that is my point. Effective communication may not be a matter of simply “ratcheting down” my ego, but attempting to tend to its bruises while simultaneously and desperately seeking to get past the often painful internal cacophony — to re-engage with, and truly, actively listen to another. The energy cost is often so high that it is little wonder so many folks implode, collapsing inward to heal in dreadful isolation — striking out in fury when an internal threshold is breached. Like ducking and flinching, the reaction is automatic and protective in nature — requiring incredible vigilance, speed, and exposive energy to quell and quash the reaction and concentrate on really listening.

    Perhaps that is why good parents nearly always seem to need more sleep.


  • I think it isn’t always what’s said, but the context surrounding what is said. What is “intended” in the communication is at least as important as tone and inflection and, as you will hear many performers say, “delivery.” If what is “said” is presented as an accusation rather than a question, than the question becomes corrupt with the emotion of the “asker,” influencing the response of the “answerer.” Good business communications or family communications are very often less about what is said and more about what is meant…what’s the hidden agenda? Does this person have my best interest at heart? Does this person like/respect what I’m saying? Do they understand the motivations behind my words? Is he/she trying to manipulate me toward a conclusion that works for their plan. We “say” countless things by facial expression, body language, etc. and the interpretation changes with our mood, health or level of anxiety. It is quite often the expressions that are NOT verbalized, that tell us the greatest amount. A tool I’ve found helpful in communicating is the book The Four Agreements which are:
    1. Be Impeccable With Your Word
    2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
    3. Don’t Make Assumptions
    4. Always Do Your Best
    (see a snipet here
    I believe that in all things, there must be (when dealing with humans) a margin for error. Human beings are perfect in their imperfection, and if we do not provide each other with license to be the people we are, we may be hindering the very level of creativity, honesty, sensitivty and trust that we are trying to cultivate. If we start with the end in mind, we all come from the same dust (or atomic composition if one is more comfortable with that) no differences in substance, but certainly a variety of differences in experience and expression. While none of us share completely identical experiences, culture or interaction with others, we certainly share elements of our interaction with the world that can provide for a bit of common ground and common interest. You have to WANT to come back to the middle though; be willing to risk (and allow room for) someone else to be right; walk through the world, not so much seeking power, as to EMpower. It’s a difficult walk, but what higher compliment can you deliver to any person, but to say, “I see you. I hear you. Your words are important, though I may not agree. Above all, I value and accept you, just as you are.”

  • I am grateful for and encouraged by your words of wisdom. As a person who has spent their career working to education people from cradle to grave on conflict resolution, I appreciate you giving examples from home and work. Everyone, youth and adults, can benefit from learning ways to actively and nonviolently solve their own disputes. Even more there are Community Dispute Resolution Programs in every county of Michigan designed to both educate people and to provide the mediation process when people haven’t been able to resolve it on their own. I encourage people to find their own local resource at

  • Dan,

    You always have the black and white information to pass on to others when things aren’t going right. Keep up the good work. More people need to hear this. I will be passing it on th many.

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