Shift, Pause, Pivot, Return
A process for getting unstuck
When we are confronted with a conflict—often in a heated encounter—it can be easy to get caught in a heated, unmoving dynamic. We might find ourselves recreating the same arguments over and over again. We might find ourselves constantly being misunderstood and setting accidental “fires.” We might find ourselves not speaking, letting an ugly tension sit between us as we ignore a problem. These can be times when we want to flee because we feel stuck or trapped; there’s no way forward, out, up, or over it. We feel we've said everything we could, we've tried everything we can think to try. Or we have avoided or blocked communication so long that there seems to be no good way to reconnect.
Even in the most entrenched conflicts, getting unstuck is possible. I think of this as a four-step process:
First: Shift—a shift in perspective can be initiated by introducing new information or having a new experience that allows us to observe the conflict from a new angle.
Second: Pause—a pause or break is when we take a total step away from the relationship or situation where the conflict is occurring.
Third: Pivot—a pivot is a change in the approach we’re taking to engaging in the conflict or in the situation where the conflict occurs.
Fourth: Return—a return is when we come back from a pause or break, to reinitiate conversations and attempts to create needed change.
When you’re in a conflict that feels stuck or too highly charged to engage with, try each of these steps (in order) until something works. If none of these work, that may mean that the timing or conditions to engage are not right. As people, we are all works in progress (as Buffy Summers would say, “It’s like I’m cookies… I’m not done baking”). I think most of us can think of a conflict from our past that we didn’t handle the best at the time, and later in our lives something happened to us—a crisis, a relationship, a new experience—where we suddenly gained insight into why the conflict went the way it did, or what someone was trying to tell us. Often the person we’re in conflict with isn’t the right person to help us understand the way forward, or we don’t have the distance or wellbeing necessary to process at the time.
Give these steps a try, then consider that it may be time to move on for a while if nothing seems to work.
When we have dug ourselves deeper into our initial positions (we find ourselves defending a specific point over and over), a shift can help break us loose. The important part of a shift is to introduce something new that will help you or everyone to gain insight, empathy, or creativity to see the problem anew. Ideally, shifts take emphasis off of telling or explaining and emphasize showing or experiencing. Here are a couple of ideas, but feel free to come up with your own:
When anyone in a conflict is feeling devalued, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or overburdened, switch your usual roles (jobs, chores, responsibilities, spaces you live or work in). By putting ourselves in someone else's position, we can gain insight into why the other person might feel what they feel or need what they need.
If you can't actually switch roles, you could try
shadowing someone for a day or week (maybe someone who shares the responsibilities of the person in the conflict, but not them specifically)
swapping writing or recordings of "a week in my life," detailing the struggles you each had
asking close friends or colleagues to describe the others’ experiences or struggles
Envisioning stagnation + the worst + the best
When we get stuck, especially in patterns of avoidance, that's usually because we're willing to accept the discomfort we know (our current situation) rather than risk the worse unknown. We can demystify these possibilities by letting them play out in a controlled way.
Separately or together, imagine:
the conflict stagnating like this forever, what would that be like? what is keeping you in this stuck place?
the conflict getting to the worst point it can, what would that be like? what aspects of the conflict are leading that way?
the situation improving, best case scenario. what would that be like? what needs to change to get there?
If you’re comfortable and creative—show each other drawings, body language, or music that represents how each of these states would feel.
Many people have negative experiences with pauses or breaks. Someone might have told us they just need a break or some time away, but actually we were abandoned and disregarded. Someone might have used a pause or break as a punishment—to cause use suffering, doubt, or jealousy. These types of experiences are common. But, a healthy pause is like getting a taste of fresh air—we’re able to fill our lungs with something new and refresh, which allows us to return as our best selves. A generative pause encourages both/all people to rest, rejuvenate, reflect—but with the reassurance that they are cared for or respected, and that we will return.
Initiating a pause
Affirm the other person’s worth and value as a the reason for the break. For example, “We need this break because I so respect our relationship and you as a person. I no longer want us to treat each other the way we have been, I want us to get the rest and processing time we need to treat each other well and solve this problem.”
Create clear, mutually decided boundaries for the break. For example, how long the break will last, if there will be any communication at all and in what circumstances, whether you’ll see each other’s social media, whether you will spend time with other partners or date (if relevant), what you’ll do if you accidentally end up in the same place.
Set your own individual intentions for the time apart. For example, what do you need to rest/rejuvenate/feel healthier and how will you access that. How will you know when you’re fully replenished and ready to return. What do you want to process, reflect on, pray about, or seek guidance on, in order to be ready to return. Be cautious that time apart can also deepen divides and re-entrench negative feelings; setting a focus on things that will expand opportunity and reciprocity can help with this.
If you can, set up your pivot before you pause. Setting this up allows everyone to come back knowing that things will be different.
A pause is only meaningful if something has changed as we prepare to return. A pivot is a great way to make the internal changes (our rest, reflections) externalized. For example, if we always talked about the conflict at the end of a stressful workday when we were all exhausted, then a pivot would be to set aside time on Sunday mornings to talk and work on things. Or, if we never had support before, a pivot might be to have a counselor, mediator, or other support person’s help in future conversations. Some other examples of pivot:
Having fun, social time where we can show our respect and care for each other, before engaging in difficult conversation
Creating a dedicated space or zone where we talk about the problem, with resources or activities available as guidance
Bringing in more voices who have a stake or who have relevant insights into the problem
Agreeing to reduce the number of voices, by not bringing dramatic friends or family into the mix
Having shifted the decision-making structure or process to be more open, equitable, transparent, or clear.
Only having conversations about the conflict while sober
Only having conversations about the conflict while full-bellied
Doing something nice for the other person/people before the conversation begins (a gesture).
Breaking a fast can be anxiety-ridden all on its own. There is often a lot of anticipation, hope, and also pressure to perform correctly or better than we have in the past. We are more sensitive to what others say because we may expect more than we have at other times. We should try our best to alleviate the pressure on the return to a relationship or situation that is conflicted; the pivot should help with this but there are other things we can do as well.
On an unrelated subject, over food or something else joyful. Not to avoid or suppress the conversation, but to reintroduce yourselves. Have a time set aside to address the conflict.
With recognition of the time/silence and possibility that things have changed. Rather than talking about the conflict specifically, talk about how the break was for each of you, if anything has changed.
With gratitude for the opportunity to take a break and the willingness to return (this is not a small thing!!)
With support and encouragement from others. If the conflict is happening in shared space like a workplace or organization, invite others to provide support by easing tension, facilitating a time and place, or observing the conversation.
Open to things being different, but aware that it may be a clumsy transition.
Rather than let the feeling of being stuck cause a rupture in a relationship you hold dear, try to initiate a change in perspective and look for that change to happen in you, rather than in the other person.
This is a new section of the newsletter where I will pose tough questions related to the main topic. I invite you to discuss these with a friend, to meditate on them, to draw them—whatever helps you to build self-awareness.
Have I ever used a pause, break, or departure from conflict as a punishment? If so, why?
What are the reasons I have used to justify leaving a conflict and never coming back to it (if ever)?
If I have left a conflict abruptly, how has that impacted the other person/people? How has it impacted me?
What do my reasons for leaving tell me about how I could shift my life or ask for support, so that when conflict arises I am able to engage with it directly without being overwhelmed or abandoning it?
Opportunities to Learn + Act
A cool tool for creating "personal user manuals” for folks on your team or in your household, about how they’d like to be approached with feedback, how they like to work, and what they enjoy. Thanks to Nishma Jethwa for sharing this with me!
Listen to Unsettling Settlers: Decolonizing Restorative Justice on the This Restorative Justice Life podcast.
Some insights into the State of the Union, shared by organizers around the country.
Check out this beautiful invitation from Bayo Akomolafe to think transformatively about our role in climate and the world (video below). He says, “If we win at this, we’ve failed.” If you’re unfamiliar with Bayo, check out his website and sign up for his newsletter here.