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Neagley: Sticks And Stones

(Host) Concerns related to conflict are widespread and very much in the news these days. Commentator Marilyn Webb Neagley is an education consultant and author with thoughts on the way words can influence conflicts.

(Neagley) Our teen-aged daughter stormed through the front door and angrily stomped up the stairs to her room. She then proceeded to beat her drums as loudly as possible. I didn't know what had caused this outburst. Perhaps she was deeply disappointed in me because of my divorce. Or maybe someone had hurt her feelings. All I knew was that this was not the first time she had, in recent days, expressed such anger. I responded with a surge of adrenaline and announced with conviction that I was going to talk to her. My body language must have shown that I felt fully prepared, justified and ready for confrontation.

As I stepped toward the stairs my husband, her step-father, gently touched my shoulder and said, Just remember to soften your heart. Well, no one had ever said that to me before, and I thought... Hmmm, I'll soften my heart all right. My mind was a scramble of thoughts and words intended to put her in her place.

But as I approached her room, I tried harder to understand what it would mean to soften my heart. I stopped and tried to focus my attention on the area of the heart. I imagined it softening or warming, and in that moment my feelings for my beloved first-born changed. I vividly remembered all that I loved and admired about her. She wasn't an ogre after all! And, as it turned out, neither was I.

It helps to have a buddy system in life. Before my husband's reminder and before I simply paused, the words I had in mind were pretty harsh: You just can't act this way. This behavior must stop now. You'll be grounded if this happens again. Had that occurred my daughter would've walked out of the room and the two of us would have fumed for hours, if not days or even years. Such cracks or fissures in a relationship can painfully widen and fester over time. Or, they may offer an opening for healing and deeper caring.

Instead, I knocked on her door. She allowed me to enter and sit on the edge of her bed. The words that came were something like this: When these things happen I feel disconnected from you. We've always been so close. I love you and want to feel that closeness again. Are you willing to talk about what's going on for you?

Needless to say the outcome was much more positive than it might have been. It's not that everything was solved during that one conversation but at least the door was opened. And I'm not always mindful enough to take a pause or soften the heart but at least that time a lesson was learned.

Many of us grew up hearing the verse, Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. No so. Words can hurt. Or, they can heal.

Marilyn Webb Neagley is director of the Talk About Wellness initiative, co-editor of Educating from the Heart, and author of both Loosie B. Goosie and Walking through the Seasons. During the formative years of Shelburne Farms as a non-profit organization, she served as its president.
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