TOUCHING WHILE TRYING TO RESOLVE CONFLICTS:IS THERE A PLACE FOR IT?
The chief executive officer (CEO) in the Dilbert comic strip is the bald-headed guy. He has been having quite a few conflicts with his workers. After trying some new approaches to resolve these conflicts, he decides to see if touching might help:
Apparently, one of the CEO’s workers likes the way it feels when he is patted on his head. I don’t think I would like my boss to pat me on my head. Nevertheless, I do think touching someone in certain ways during a conflict may be helpful at times.
When I was growing up, my mother and some of my friends would use touching during a conflict with me in the form of hitting. They did this to try to force me to do whatever they wanted me to do. But in this post, I’m not going to discuss that type of touching. Today, I have something very different in mind.
The first time I recall someone touching me during a conflict in a non-hitting way, occurred when I was sixteen years old. I was on the Lincoln High baseball team and I happened to show up a little late for practice.
Soon after I arrived, my coach took me off to the side so we could talk in semi-privacy. The other players could still see us, but they were far enough away so that what my coach had to say was just for my ears.
He first looked down at the ground for a long 30 seconds or so, and then he looked squarely into my eyes while putting his hand softly on the back of my shoulder. In a soft voice, he said, “Jeff, I see you as one of the leaders on this team. I’m hoping this is the last time you come late for practice. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Coach,” I replied. “I’m real sorry about being late.”
He then patted me on my back and said, “OK, Jeff, now go take some fielding practice, and I want to see you hustling out there.”
“You bet, Coach!”
Now, at the time, it never even crossed my mind that my coach had done anything that anyone could possible think of as wrong. When I was growing up, in sports touching occurred all the time. A coach might put his arm around you while he gave you some instructions.
My baseball coach had done something a little different when he touched me. Usually touching in sports occurred during the rough and tumble of a game or as a sign that you did something good. My baseball coach had touched me, not for any of those two reasons, but because he was trying to work out a conflict he was having with me. And it worked. I never came late again, and not only did I not think he did anything wrong, I found that I had an increased amount of respect for him because of the way he handled the situation.
Soon after, I found myself reflecting upon what he did. He spoke to me in relative privacy. When he began, he looked down in a way that I could tell that what I did led to him feeling unhappy. And then, when he looked into my eyes and said that he felt that I was viewed as one of the team leaders, there was something about what he said and how he said it that led me to feel that he genuinely liked me. At the same time, he told me what he wanted me to do in the future in very clear terms–to be on time for practice.
After that incident, I found myself often using a similar approach, and I found it very helpful. As a result, I didn’t think there could be any problem with it. But as the years went on, from time to time I have heard individuals complain about someone touching them in similar situations and not liking it. And so, I began to ask some questions to see if I could come to understand the reasons for our experiences being so very different.
One teenager whom we will call Judy told me that a guy at school made a suggestion to her that made her very angry.
“Then what happened,” I asked.
“I didn’t like the way he touched me,” Judy replied. “He squeezed my shoulder and it felt threatening.”
“Hmmm,” I replied. “Something about the way he squeezed your shoulder felt uncomfortable. I see. What if he just touched you gently in the back of your shoulder while saying what he said? Would you have felt more comfortable with that?”
Judy thought about this for a few seconds and then looked up at me and smiled. “That would have been okay,” she replied. “There was something about the way he actually touched me that felt creepy, and I didn’t like it at all.”
Although Judy said that if the boy would have touched her gently on the back, she would have felt okay about that, I have heard some other folks say that they don’t like to be touched at all.
So what do we do about this? Do we stop touching everyone in these types of situations because some people feel uncomfortable with being touched? Do we begin to think about what kinds of touching might be okay, and what types of touching is not okay?
I really can’t answer this type of question for everyone. It would be very helpful if readers over the next few weeks share with us their thoughts about this, so we have more information to judge. In the meantime, I will say this. If you do try the touching approach with someone, I think you would be wise to watch carefully how the other person is reacting. If the person begins to appear tense, with a crinkling of the forehead, a stiffening of the body or by pulling away from the touch, I encourage you to back off and offer an apology. Perhaps saying something like this might be helpful, “I sense that you don’t like me to touch you. I’ll keep that in mind in the future and respect your feelings. I’m sorry I made you feel uncomfortable.” Then, a gentle smile might ease some of the tension.
Well, I hope this post gives you some ideas to think about, and, as always, I hope to be reading your comments real soon.
Have a great week,
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.