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Who Starts It? How? Why?

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped. Carl Sagan

Two of our granddaughters recently spent the night.  As I was tucking one in, she said, “I’m going to have a hard time sleeping tonight.  I am making a list.”

Turns out this list was not “Things I Want For Christmas” as I had imagined, but rather “Things You Need to Work On.” My granddaughter was constructing a list of behaviors that bugged her about a friend, things that she felt her friend needed to change about his behavior.

“I have over twenty things here. Can I confront him about his behavior tomorrow?” she asked.

Evidently, her sister had been listening from her adjoining bedroom.  “I don’t think that’s going to work out too well,” she yelled.

“Well,” I said, “it looks like quite a long list.”

“Yes, over twenty-six things, can I read them to you?”

She starts off the list, “language, demanding, spending, pushing the limits, responsibilities, manners.”

Now, I’m okay with thoughtful and kind confrontation. It can help us build more mutually rewarding relationships.  The problem is how we do it. Why we do it. Our intentions, our skill.

Let’s start with the how. My granddaughter felt a tough approach was necessary.  A long list was necessary.  The idea was to beat him over the head with how very bad he was.  That was the way to change him.

I’m more of the opinion which her sister voiced…that sledgehammer approach is probably not going to work out too well for nudging behavioral change and…most likely, it’s going to put a big, long-term dent in the relationship.

What’s another way for my granddaughter (and me...and maybe you) to go about confronting?

Yes, she needs to figure out a way to prioritize what behavior is most important to her. Twenty-six things is way too much for even a willing brain to process. 

Also, the issues are vague.  Specifically, what about his language, for example, bothers her? What behavior is she requesting?

As it turned out, only one of the twenty-six would have been clear to him.  “Don’t invite yourself over.”

She could word her request, “I would like it if you would wait for me to first invite you over rather than inviting yourself.” Then she could add her own feelings and needs. “Sometimes I feel stressed and pressured when you invite yourself before I have a chance to think about it.”

Other things she could do to make the confrontation go well is to make sure she’s calm when she approaches him; ask him if it’s a good time to chat…let him know that she has a request to make. And she can ready herself by thinking about how she might feel in this same situation if the shoe were on the other foot. Ready herself for his response. Give him space to add his thoughts.  Maybe even listen to requests he has of her. Behaviors that he’d like to see changed.

Now the why.  Why do we even care how we communicate with others? Well, we are hearing it over and over these days. Relationships are hugely important for us humans, probably the most important for our flourishing.

Throughout our lives, the number and strength of our relationships immensely affect our mental and physical wellbeing. There are proven links between good relationships and lower rates of anxiety and depression.  We have greater self-esteem, more empathy, more trust.  Strong, healthy relationships can also help to strengthen our immune system, help us recover from disease, and may even lengthen our life.

And having low quality and few relationships can disrupt our sleep, elevate our blood pressure, inflammation, and the risk for obesity, and increase the stress hormone, cortisol.  It’s a risk for antisocial behavior, violence, and suicide (and anxiety and depression).

These benefits and risks apply to all of us, but researchers report increased risks for older people and people in their teens.

Good relationships rest on being more skillful with our relationships and communications.  Seeing the importance, working with the challenges. Sometimes we need reminders and a foundation.

When I was in Rotary, I especially appreciated what they call “the Four-Way Test.” I use it a lot before I go on a confrontation mission.

Of all the things we think, say, do:

Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

And let me end with a story I’ve shared before that can help us think in more global terms about relationships and PEACE and living together.

This is a story about communications, but few words are spoken. The place is Iraq. Najaf, to be exact. 2003. The main character is U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes. (Hughes retired as a two-star general.  I’ve verified this story with him because it seemed incredible). The U.S. invasion of Iraq had begun a few months earlier.

Suddenly as Hughes and his “men” (most actually still in their teens) marched down one of the sandy streets, Iraqi civilians started pouring out of their houses. These were angry people, shouting people, waving their fists.

The young U.S. troops spoke no Arabic and were clearly bewildered by what was happening. LTC Chris Hughes calmly strode to the middle of the crowd, raised his rifle into the air and pointed it toward the ground.

Hughes gave a command the troops had never heard before. “Kneel!”

The confused, heavily armored soldiers wobbled their way to their knees and pointed their rifles into the sand. The crowd quietened in disbelief. There was almost total silence for two or three minutes. And then the crowd dispersed. There was no bloodbath, no massacre, not a shot fired.


What are the takeaways from that story?

First…respect. Researchers tell us that humiliation is the key driver of violence and respect is the strongest antidote to it. Experts in “evil” like Roy Baumeister write that feeling disrespected or disgraced, perceiving a “loss of face” is often a trigger for violent behavior. Something to remember before we confront another.

Second…presence of mind. Hughes was sufficiently trained to be fully present, calm, and aware in the moment. He could empathize with what his soldiers might be feeling, what the Iraqi civilians might be experiencing, what was going on for him.

That’s the really big picture around relationships. Peace. And it’s not just about an absence of war and violence and anger and frustration. Peace means living together well. It can be challenging and… hugely beneficial.

John and I sing several of the same songs every other day after practicing a little yoga. One of them is Let There Be Peace On Earth. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." That's the way the song begins.

When my brother and I were young, we used to get into it. My parents came in to discipline us. We both pointed to each other and said the same thing... that the other one had "started it." Often somebody does start it, violence or peace, good or bad relationships and communications. Someone is responsible. Response-able.

And that's the reminder we use as we end our weekly compassion circle with our fellow participants. After we have celebrated our successes, worked on our struggles, learned together, laughed and sometimes wept together, we remind ourselves...Let there be peace on earth and ...let it begin with me.

How might we flourish - journey together to The Good life, be respectful and skilled in our communications and intentions toward each other, remember the 4 way test and the benefits of good relationships and peace?


 (postscript: my granddaughter did not get to be the first on the draw. Immediately upon seeing her the next day, her friend began a litany of apologies. And, as an interesting side note, Rotary has been called a "sabotage group" by Hamas and other Islamic groups...claiming that they corrupt consciences and are behind the drug trade. Fortunately many Muslims have chosen to ignore these edicts. Rotary is present in many Muslim countries: Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, the new nation of South Sudan, but probably most telling, the Rotary Club of Ramallah. Ramallah is the de facto headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, located in the West Bank. That club's very existence is repudiation of the Hamas' positions on Rotary clubs. Still, there is virtually no Rotary presence in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran, Syria or Iraq. In Indonesia, clubs are under attack, where Islamists have called Rotary clubs a 'threat' to Islam and have gone so far as to offer the Rotarians an ultimatum - quit Rotary or be branded as infidels. For an example of one who "started it" see the story of my neighbor, a Rotarian.







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