My nephew is an amazing kid. At age 14, he knows more about chemistry, biology, physics and calculus than I ever will. He’s also a more accomplished actor and musician than I will ever be. He’s also created a successful business and raised thousands of dollars for charity. And he has incredible communication skills – in two languages. So why did I hate him this summer?

I hated him because that’s what happens when people are in conflict. Our conflict arose on an 8-day trip this summer, during which we visited three national parks and 5 national monuments. He’s on a mission to add to his list of accomplishments that he’s visited all of the U.S. National Parks and Monuments. And he doesn’t want just to visit them, but to hike all of their most challenging trails.

I thought I was a physically fit young man. It turns out I’m a moderately fit 45 year old man. Maybe part of what made me vulnerable to slipping into what we call the “destructive conflict cycle” in transformative theory was my realization that I’m getting older. That discovery, plus the fatigue that arose from trying to keep up with my nephew, may have helped point me down the trail toward a sense of weakness and self-absorption. But in the depths of the destructive cycle, I would have told you that my nephew was the problem: such a know-it-all and so impatient with my need to rest occasionally when hiking up long steep trails (outweighing him as much as I do—gravity helped me out a lot on the down-hills). And, while I’m complaining about him, he was so oblivious to appropriate etiquette when passing other hikers.

As I think back now, I can only come up with three things he did that bothered me. Several times when we saw storm clouds in the distance he acted as if he could tell whether we were at risk of rain or lightening coming our way. In deference to his hiking prowess and scientific knowledge, I went along with his hunches. We relied on his predictions to decide how much further to go before turning back. Despite his claimed certainty, he was wrong on both of his first two predictions. Once we got caught in the rain and lightning; and once we turned back early as the skies cleared completely.

And those etiquette problems. He wasn’t into acknowledging people as they passed; he didn’t get it that he should step aside for hikers who were coming up hill while we were going down; and he didn’t share my practice of allowing older, wobblier-looking hikers to pass on the safer side of the trail.

And the one that really stuck in my craw: at times he was not in a hurry on these hikes – but at the times when I needed to rest, on a long uphill climb, he seemed never ready to take a serious break. It seemed that if our reason for stopping was that I needed a rest, he kept his pack on, kept standing up, and exuded impatience.

As I look back at each of these complaints I had, it’s hard to understand how they could have really bothered me. But I remember that they did. And I remember that my mind went far beyond just observing these behaviors, to diagnosing him with a variety of syndromes and personality disorders, and to speculating about where his parents had gone wrong. Fortunately, I kept these thoughts to myself. I’m hopeful that all he noticed from me was a little less warmth and a little less playfulness than usual.

So how did I get to that judgmental, brooding place? Easy. I was feeling literally weaker and less competent than I’m accustomed to feeling. I sensed that he was frustrated with my relative slowness going uphill. I felt defensive about that – I was still adjusting to the reality of my age and my mediocre fitness level. When I perceived his impatience during those rest stops, I interpreted it as blatant disrespect. When I noticed that I was having intense feelings about that felt lack of respect, I also felt a sense of failure – I wasn’t living up to the image I had of myself as the magnanimous, kind uncle, who has such a healthy self-image that he’s not prone to being hurt by slights from a child. As I continued to dwell on my failures, I had less ability to understand his simple desire to hike up to his full potential – I was too self-absorbed at those moments for that. Voila, the destructive conflict cycle.

So how did I recover? It was a combination of communicating some of my preferences to him and of letting a natural recovery process happen internally. Empowerment shifts occurred as I noticed “Hey, I’m actually putting in a lot of miles here and dealing with some serious elevations.” And recognition shifts occurred as I realized “Hey, he’s just really excited about discovering his strength – he’s not really focused on disrespecting me.” These sorts of realizations created a virtuous cycle. “Hey, I’m doing fine – hey, he’s not so bad – hey I’m back to being the kind guy I thought I was – hey, I AM doing fine” and so on.

So what does all this mean for a transformative mediator? For one thing it means that, when my clients seem to be over-reacting to each other, I can remember that I recently over-reacted… to a kid – so when my clients are going to a defensive place with an adult who is suing them, maybe I can just accept that humans do that sort of thing. And second, it means that with a little patience, empowerment and recognition shifts do happen (and they don’t happen because someone tells us to get over it  but with natural time and space).

by Dan Simon

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Dan Simon teaches and practices transformative mediation in St. Paul, MN. He also writes the blog at The Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.