Of the long-term, previously stable writing communities in which I’m involved, guess how many have suffered through some sort of meltdown in the past few months. (By “meltdown” I mean disagreements which became personal, broadly eroded trust and collegiality, and judging by early signs, from which some communities might not fully recover.)
If you went with “too many,” you’d be right, though I’m not sure that deserves a cookie so much as a barf bag. While I can navigate it when required, I don’t particularly enjoy conflict.
In such situations, as a former family doc married to an engineer, I’m pretty much doomed to conduct forensic analyses of what went wrong. (Including my own far-from-perfect behavior, because I’d like to do better.)
The good news? I think there are a few, discernible patterns.
The better news? Some relatively simply tools might have made a difference if broadly known and applied.
The best news? These tools are multi-purpose in that they’ll come in handy wherever people disagree, which is to say throughout all of life. Further, in some instances, they can work retroactively to repair damaged relationships. Stick around, and I’ll pass them on in a list of resources, including a list of what NOT to do.
If I had to guess what drove the groups to conflict, here are the culprits:
1. Me. It had to be said. I’m the one commonality to all groups. Since I’m clearly a rabble-rouser, woe unto a community which welcomes me into its bosom, whether of the supported or bra-less variety. (A distinction important to some readers here. *cough Keith cough*)
2. Free-floating anxiety in search of a goat to scape. There are a lot of people on edge right now, a lot of fear to do with the state of the economy, the budget, high-profile sexual assaults, North Korea, the environment, etc. It’s a long list, isn’t it? While we’re bombarded by news stories which emphasize the awfulness, have you noticed how few include resources, or ways you can help?
According to Dr. Srinivasan S. Pillay in his book Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, it takes 10 milliseconds of exposure to a threatening stimulus before our brains go on alert. (The stimulus can be as minor as a photo of someone with widened eyes!) It takes another 20 milliseconds of exposure before our brains consciously register fear. In other words, we can be physiologically aroused, prepared for an assault, yet be unaware that we are feeling afraid or why.
With primed neural circuitry, Pillay says we will regularly perceive threats where none exist or overreact to minor provocation. So if we read a single line of dialogue where a character shouts, “Fire,” we’ll assume the setting is a theater and the consequence a trampling. When relaxed, the same words conjure a Girl Scout jamboree, the scent of roasting marshmallows, the promise of s’mores for dessert.
3. Well-oiled indignation machines.
Once the insult occurs, have you noticed how efficient we’re getting at being annoyed with one another? Back in 2011, Nathan Bransford wrote about virtual witch hunts, calling for restraint and compassion in how we deal with our colleagues. Sadly, if anything, I think we’ve reduced our response times since that post. It’s almost like we’ve worked out the procedure manual.
- Industry Person A misbehaves or says something controversial.
- Industry People B through Z use their contact lists to fan out evidence of the “crime.”
- All gather outside the shed, which I imagine to be organized the way my father keeps his garden tools. (Pegboard walls, labeled slots, outlines done in black marker so that you could never misplace an implement except on purpose.)
- “Pitchforks on the right. Torches on the left. Don’t forget to turn out the light when you leave.”