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Dealing with conflict: Don't let it fester! (The oatmeal analogy)

Recently, I attended my 20th high school reunion. It was fun. More fun than I thought it would be. A flood of memories, countless hugs, and a lot of reminiscing made for a great night.

There were a few awkward moments, though. People who I hadn't seen in 20 years triggered me in ways I wasn't expecting. Old feelings that had been bottled up came out, and I found myself reliving some intense feelings about things that were two decades old and not at all relevant to my life. These people were now grown up, with families of their own, doing interesting things with their lives. But those unresolved issues held me captive and closed me off to really seeing them as they are today.

Why were these old feelings still so raw? Because they were never expressed and never resolved.

As adults, we have (hopefully) a bit more awareness about our emotions. However, we often continue to avoid difficult conversations that can actually resolve these issues and allow us to move forward. At work if we feel slighted or unappreciated, instead of confronting the issue, we let it fester, affecting our self esteem, relationships, and productivity. We assume the worst about everyone else and about ourselves.

Dealing with an issue head on can seem like the scarier path. It involves a conversation (often a difficult one) in which you admit a vulnerability. Saying, "I'm feeling overlooked" can feel extremely risky. Especially if you already have assumptions about how the other person will react.

Recently, a friend was complaining to me about his job. His supervisor was constantly ignoring his requests and making him feel insignificant. Her actions were creating a story in his mind. She doesn't like me. She doesn't value my contributions. I have no power. This, in turn, was affecting his work.

I asked him if he had voiced these concerns to the supervisor. He had not. I suggested that he have a conversation. He did turned out that there was a miscommunication that had occurred a while back. This was never resolved and both the employee and the supervisor started to make assumptions about the other that were untrue. Neither one of them thought to address the matter directly. Fortunately, one delayed conversation was able to restore a good working relationship.

However, these issues are not always salvageable if you wait too long. Another friend recently shared with me a great analogy that I just love. He heard it at an embassy event, dealing with complex international relations. I think it works just as powerfully for one on one relationships.

It has to do with oatmeal.

If you've ever prepared a bowl of oatmeal at home, chances are you will understand this analogy perfectly.

When you make yourself oatmeal, you pour it into a bowl and enjoy. When you finish, you have a few options.

1. You immediately rinse out your bowl. Have you done this? Did you notice how easily the oatmeal slides out the bowl and down the drain? You don't even need a sponge. It leaves a clean bowl - no lingering residue.

2. You wait a while. You finish your coffee, chat with your family or roommates, then walk over to the sink, where you have to run the sponge over the oatmeal to get it off the bowl. Not too difficult.

3. You leave it until you come back from work. The oatmeal has crusted in the bowl and you now have to soak it in warm sudsy water for a long time, followed by some serious scrubbing. There may be a couple oats that hold on and don't come off at all.

4. You leave for the weekend and forget about the bowl. When you come back, you throw away the bowl. There is no hope. You can't save it.

Are you seeing the connection?

The chances are that if you deal with a conflict immediately through dialogue, you will diffuse the situation quickly, clear up any misunderstandings, and move forward. No residue. No lingering bad feelings. The longer you wait, letting the stories in your mind take over, the deeper the wounds become and the closer you get to a point of no return. You may as well throw the whole relationship away.

My advice is to take actions quickly when someone hurts you or negatively affects you. Notice when the self-analysis starts spinning out of control. Don't let your assumptions about the other person take over. You can put an end to it then and there by taking the time to ask a question or share a feeling.

The alternative? Well, it can be quite messy.

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