“Yes, I’m coming,” said the text from Kimberly, my new friend. I’d asked her to confirm that she was coming to Southern California the weekend after the next, before I put down the money for 3 nights at the beachside Airbnb. My residence in L.A. is a room at my cousin’s house – it wouldn’t work to host my new friend there. We texted a few times over the next few days right up until the Sunday before the Thursday when our weekend was supposed to start. But from that point on, there were no responses to my texts or phone calls. On Thursday, when we were scheduled to check in at our Airbnb, still nothing. Should I cancel the reservation with the hope of getting some of my money back? Or might she still show up? I had mixed feelings about the apparent change of plans. The cancellation would allow me to nurse my cold more completely and would also allow me to get some work done. But what blew my mind was that Kimberly hadn’t even communicated with me about the change of plans.
I was stumped. Either something incredibly devastating had happened to her, or she was behaving in a way toward me that I just couldn’t understand. Why not a simple text letting me know her plans had changed? This situation was challenging for me on two levels. At one level, there was the frustration around my own helplessness. I didn’t know whether our plans were canceled. My attempts to find out by calling and texting had failed. Did that mean I should cancel our reservation? Or might she still show up at the last minute, leaving us with no place to stay? There didn’t seem like any good option. That experience of uncertainty about what to do, and the feeling of helplessness are what we’d call a sense of “weakness” in transformative conflict theory.
At the same time, as I thought about Kimberly, I was distressed as I tried to imagined what had happened to her. It seemed unlikely that something had incapacitated her to the point where it was impossible to text or call me – yet that was a possibility. More likely she, for some reason, had simply decided not to go forward with our plans and had also decided not to tell me so. But why? I could understand her changing her mind, but her choice not to tell me was incomprehensible. Utter disregard for me had to be in there somewhere, in order for her not to tell me. But why? Was I too slow to text her back some time in the previous week? Had she decided there was something about me that made me unworthy of basic decency? If so, I didn’t think I deserved that, so this had to be about some character flaw on her part – pathological anger at men? narcissism? anti-social personality disorder? My inability to imagine what was happening with her is the second level of distress according to transformative conflict theory. We call it “self-absorption”. And I’m talking about my self-absorption.
Notice that, under the circumstances, my doubts and questions about Kimberly are entirely understandable. My reaction was normal. Falling into what we call the “destructive conflict cycle” under these circumstances may not be inevitable, but it is certainly common. As I became preoccupied with my dilemma about whether to cancel our reservation, I didn’t have the capacity to maintain the nonjudgmental, supportive, accepting, compassionate attitude I like to maintain toward my friends. I began to assume Kimberly was behaving in an extremely uncool way. When we say that people like me experience “self-absorption” in conflict, we mean no disrespect, it’s part of the human experience of conflict.
So I canceled the reservation, and asked the owner of the rental to do his best to refund me as much as possible (his cancelation policy granted a full refund if the cancelation happened within 30 days, but was silent about cancelation on shorter notice). Meanwhile I continued to wonder about Kimberly. I felt like I’d been victimized by her, and I wondered exactly what her problem was. I gathered from the lack of responses to my texts and phone calls that, at this point, she had decided to actively avoid me. I was so curious about what had happened, that I resorted to doing something I’m still embarrassed about when I think about it. I pushed *67 on my phone, which hides my number when I dial out. I knew she took business calls on her phone and that she probably wouldn’t want to miss a potential client. Sure enough, not knowing it was me, she answered. “Nevada Marketing Solutions, this is Kimberly,” “Hi Kimberly, it’s Dan, I just want to know what happened.” She said “Oh hi Dan, let me just get Nicki off the other line, I’ll be right back.” I waited 2 full minutes until I decided she wasn’t coming back. At this point, a saner person might have just let it go. There was absolutely no doubt she was avoiding me, which she is entitled to do.
But I am not that sane. I texted her again, Now that I knew her phone was functioning (one of my many theories about what was happening on her end was phone malfunction), I told myself I’d make one last request for information. If I heard nothing, which seemed most likely, the best choice for me would be finally to let it go. It was time to accept that, as is often the case, we just can’t know what someone else is thinking. So I texted: “Why no explanation even? Changing your mind is fine but the no communication blows my mind.”
And surprisingly, she responded: “I’m on a conference call, give me a minute.” This was the first message initiated by her since 5 days earlier. Should I have hope that a satisfying interaction would follow? Or should I assume this was only part of a continued strategy of avoidance? It turned out that a series of texts followed. They included an “I’m sorry” from her, and an explanation that her past week had been so stressful, that she simply shut down and decided to focus exclusively on what she needed to do to get her life under control. I expressed sympathy that her week had been so rough, but told her I still couldn’t understand how a quick text to me became impossible.
Sometimes, when one person has what we call a “recognition shift” it helps inspire the other person to have both “empowerment shifts” and “recognition shifts”. I suspect that simply hearing my voice for that moment reminded Kimberly that I was a real person. I suspect she went from totally disregarding me to deciding that it felt right to act with some consideration for me. The fact that my tone was inquisitive and not angry may have helped her feel less defensive. When she reached out, simply by being willing to communicate, I thought, “ok, she’s not continuing to avoid me – she’s not quite as bad as I thought.”
What we call the “virtuous cycle”, that is, the “constructive conflict cycle,” proceeded to unfold:
She told me some of the details of her horrible week (an empowerment shift for her and a recognition shift for me).
I acknowledged that it sounded horrible, but that I still couldn’t understand the non-communication.(recognition and empowerment shifts for me)
She said she understood that and was sorry. (recognition shift for her)
I said I’m actually the kind of friend who is great to communicate with in hard times. (empowerment shift for me)
She said she knew that – that’s what she loved about me (recognition shift for her).
We concluded that it was possible we could still be friends (empowerment and recognition shifts for both of us).
So that’s where we stand. We had a little trip down the path of weakness and self-absorption, and we found our way back to strength and responsiveness. Whether and how our friendship continues remains to be seen. But the transformative theory of conflict provides me with a way to evaluate how well I’m doing in my efforts to live with strength and compassion.
posted by Dan Simon