“I’d rather struggle and complain!”

View across Broadford Bay, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Have you ever found yourself dealing with someone who refuses to see a solution you find blindingly obvious, but refuses to take it? You’re not alone!

I remember several years ago having Sunday dinner with my family. My father was struggling to cut his roast beef, cursing loudly about how the stupid knife wouldn’t cut the damn food – I’ve left out a few expletives, but you get the idea!

My brother, having noticed our dad increasingly having this problem as he got older, had bought him an ultra-sharp steak knife, one that would slice through the toughest beef as if it wasn’t there. So, he pitched in amongst the cursing with “Why don’t you use the steak knife I bought you?”

The terse, heartfelt answer issued instantaneously and impatiently from my dad: “Because I’d rather struggle and complain!”

He had the presence to catch what he’d said and laughed heartily at how daft it sounded. But was it daft?

I’ve reflected on that story many times over the years, and it comes to mind frequently, whether I’m mediating or involved in a negotiation. The number of people who, when presented with a simple solution to their problem, would rather struggle and complain is enormous!

There’s a wonderful Scots word for this – thrawn.

We’re all thrawn at heart!

Thrawn takes stubbornness to the point of cutting off your nose to spite your face. I’ve seen people staunchly refusing to do something simply because it’s been suggested by someone else. Indeed, I suspect most of us will have witnessed that. I suspect large proportion of us will have DONE that!

This has a big impact in relation to dispute resolution. How often is the dispute based on one or both parties being thrawn? In my experience, even when it’s not the root cause of the dispute, it can be a significant factor in them having reached, and remained in, deadlock.

So, how do you get past someone being thrawn?

It’s worth reflecting that “I’d rather struggle and complain” is usually the ‘do nothing’ option. There’s no need for creativity or compromise, so it often appears the simplest approach.

Listening with kindness is a good start. It’s a difficult skill to develop, but it’s fascinating how much can be drawn from trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint. Rather than pressing suggestions on them, ask them to confirm the problem then suggest their own solutions. Indeed, in the example given, everyone knew the solution to the problem they could see. So the more interesting questions move towards understanding the problem you can’t see: what is making this person choose not to take the obvious step? But, remembering that we’re all thrawn at heart, the last thing you want to do is ask them directly! Of course, the result is a long conversation, with many questions, seeking clarification and further thought, but that’s more likely to stimulate constructive problem solving. The key to getting past this sort of deadlock is often to work out what triggered the behaviour.

What’s in a word?

It’s also worth remembering the importance of the non-verbal and non-vocal elements of communication. Said with curiosity, “Why don’t you use the steak knife ?” is just a question. Said tersely, it could be taken as patronising, or insulting. With sarcasm? Well, it could be a trigger. And that’s before you add in any eye-rolling or tutting!

Human interactions like this are all too common in the workplace. If they start to cause a problem, a good place to start is to remind yourself that we are all thrawn, think beyond the behaviour and start to listen with kindness.

Finally, what’s the relevance of the picture attached to this post? Almost none, but I took it last week within 100m of where the said incident took place, and it’s another reminder that spring is on its way…!

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