End Conflict by Using Surprise

A simple & powerful way to transform conflict into connection

Posted May 01, 2014

I assumed that my husband would care as much as I did about having a clean apartment. For several years, I complained about the piles of clothes, books, and pizza boxes taking over our home before it dawned on me that my approach wasn’t working. As much as Brian cared about me, he simply didn’t care about having an unobstructed view of our floor.

When this hit me, I realized that it was time to start thinking like a Surprisologist. I tracked his pattern of behaviors and my pattern of complaints and devised a series of pattern interrupts.

The first included our dog Scarlett, pictured above.*

Pattern = our floor wears the dirty laundry.

Pattern interrupt = Scarlett wears it.

Subsequent interventions included: checklists, a bigger laundry basket, and even chorewars.com. The result? A cleaner and, more importantly, happier home. So how can pattern interrupts work for you to resolve home and workplace conflict?

THE PREP: Use a pattern interrupt when you’ve been having repeating and predictable conflict. As couple's therapist Michelle Weiner-Davis writes in her books: if you do more of the same, you’ll get more of the same. Prepare by observing your patterns the way an anthropologist would observe a new culture.

THE TRIGGER: Step back and track down what triggers the pattern. When does the conflict start, where, and how? Does it usually play out the same way? For example, one of the most common conflict patterns looks like this: one party pushes and prods while the other retreats into sullen silence. The trigger is often just one key word or sentence that one party uses like: "Why aren't you listening?"

THE TRICK: Now it’s time to add surprise into the system and interrupt your pattern. Start small, changing up just one thing, like where you have your Danger Conversation or who’s around. For example: At home: Weiner-Davis suggests that if you usually fight in the bedroom, move to the kitchen. At work: if the conflict arises when it’s just you and a colleague, invite a neutral third party into the meeting. 

Test your intervention for a week then, if your home or workplace conflict persists, try a different pattern interrupt. Of course you can always keep doing more of the same and getting more of… you get the idea!

*No dogs were harmed in the making of this pattern interrupt.