Conflict Resolution, Models of Trust And The Movies
I’m learning to enjoy the movies again by changing my frame of reference.
For a long time, I’ve been reverse-engineering the plots of the shows I watch on TV and the big screen in the theater. Where there is a struggle between good and evil, I have had a tendency to break down the conflict into a power struggle of skill vs less skill. You see, I don’t see people as being evil. Where most people see good and evil, I see a continuum of people who are confused (evil) and less confused (good).
I think that everyone has a genuine desire to go to sleep at night knowing they did the right thing. I think that the confusion lies in not knowing how to get our needs met without hurting other people, or without using force to get our needs met. I think that most human suffering is caused by a lack of skills or capacity to get our needs met without imposing our will upon others. We are collaborators by design, and we get our needs met through collaboration. We tend to suffer when we fail our design through a lack of skills.
I arrived at this conclusion after spending a couple of decades in therapy, meetings, step work and reading a ton of books. That effort came to a peak a couple of years ago when I encountered the work of Dr. Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., a child psychologist who figured out that behavior modification doesn’t actually work.
Dr. Greene has spent 40 years working out a better solution for dealing with challenging behavior in kids. He tried to use reward and punishment to modify the behavior of very difficult kids and never really saw any improvement in their behavior. And over 40 years and thousands of kids later, his opinion of behavior modification is the same. He has a ton of empirical evidence to show that behavior modification doesn’t work and that there is a better way: collaborating with kids to solve the problems they encounter that, if left unsolved, give rise to challenging behavior.
Two of Dr. Greene’s books, “The Explosive Child” and “Raising Human Beings”, have completely changed my outlook on humanity. They have given me another lens through which I can better understand interpersonal conflicts and how to resolve them. They have taught me how to work through conflicts with my kids and even my wife. They have taught me to keep talking and to keep the door open. They have taught me that I can resolve challenging behavior in kids by collaborating with them to find durable and lasting solutions to the problems they are trying solve, problems that if left unsolved, tend to give rise to the challenging behavior they exhibit.
So I’d try to watch movies and drama on TV. I don’t really watch broadcast TV anymore. I’m a cord cutter, so I stream my entertainment. Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, and YouTube are the choices I have today. And for a long time, I’ve been watching their content through a lens: skills or no skills? Why can’t they just talk it out instead of hurting each other? Why does everything have to lead to war? Because war sells.
This activity in my head went on for about two years and then, a few days ago, I spent an hour reading a very long article about the colossal failure at Boeing with their 737 MAX plane, “Why Boeing May Never Recover From Its 737 Debacle”. Through a number of errors in judgment, lax oversight, mismanagement, and anxiety over failure, Boeing produced a plane that cannot be safely flown for commercial air travel without a major overhaul of the design.
What I see in that story, and in the case of Boeing, is a loss of trust. Few people involved in the story could be trusted to deliver a product that was safe for no one was willing to call out the obvious problems in the aircraft. No one was willing to spend the time, money and effort on fixing the original problems with the now grounded Boeing aircraft. There simply wasn’t enough trust all around that would allow someone to call out the mistake, fix it and do it right or, to be willing to scrap it altogether and move on.
I see my nation, The United States, now bitterly and angrily polarized. We are locked in a struggle over power and how that power should be exercised. The people at the top have made some grave mistakes and they are very much worried that elections have consequences. Their consequences. At the bottom of the conflict between us, is a lack of trust. Businesses don’t trust their employees. They don’t trust their customers. The customers wonder if they’re being charged a fair price. The employees wonder why the pay of CEOs, members of the board of directors, and high-level managers continues to rise while their pay hardly budges. Even after a massive tax cut. That is evidence of a lack of trust.
When employers outsource their work to the Philipines, that removes a certain amount of trust within the organization. When people begin to think that they can be replaced on a whim by their employer, that’s evidence of a lack of trust.
So when I watch a dramatic conflict between good and evil on a screen, I see that conflict through a new lens: the lens of trust. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a consistent pattern in the behaviors of the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys trust each other. They cover for each other. They complement each other with their skills. They don’t sweat the mistakes and they get the job done.
But the evil guys are always the same. The pawns don’t trust the leader. The pawns are usually killed off and don’t enjoy the spoils of the crimes they commit like the leader does. The leader doesn’t really care about the welfare of his subordinates in an evil organization, regardless of the size of that organization. Pick any movie, any series that you can watch on a screen, and this is what you’ll see. Good guys that trust each other will always prevail over bad guys that don’t trust anyone.
There is another parallel to draw here, too. The good guys can get their needs met without imposing force upon other people. That’s a component of trust. The bad guys in any plot will usually resort to terrifying and overwhelming force to get their needs met. And they’re usually single, no kids, no life outside of crime, and lunch at the crime family bar. The good guys have family, a wife, and kids, and friends they can trust. There is a clear contrast in lifestyle between the good guys and the bad guys, and that lifestyle is defined by the trust in the people around them.
So not only do I see conflict resolution in pop culture as one defined by groups of people with or without skills to get their needs met, I see the conflict as a continuum of trust.
To learn a new skill you must start with trust. There is no other way to learn. Small children are trusting of the people around them because they have no other choice. Their minds are open by design. And that design is to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time, the skills that are required for survival. The modern human requires the skill of trust. With trust follows learning, negotiating, and giving and receiving. All of these things are skills and capacities. If we lack the skill of trust, we find it difficult to learn all other skills. Love is a skill, too.
Many of us have been raised on fairy tales that tell us that love is automatic. Sure, if you’re a duck. But if you’re a human with a massive brain, and attachments to people and things, love is a lot more complicated. Love is a skill that must be taught. The foundation skill for love is trust. The parent must trust his mate that they will stick together long enough to launch their offspring into the world. The child must trust that his parents will not just meet the needs of the child, but that the parent will teach the skills required to get his needs met. That is an enormous amount of trust to give to someone you really don’t know. Babies don’t know their parents when they’re born. Babies, like anyone else, require time to get to know their parents.
When parents abuse their kids, they’re not teaching survival skills. Abuse doesn’t teach trust. It teaches a lack of trust. This is amply demonstrated in the movie, “The Dark Knight”, as the Joker recounts the abuse he sustained at the hands of his parents. Notice that in the plot, the Joker trusts no one, the Batman trusts his friends and Michael Caine perfectly cast as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler.
Love doesn’t hurt. Abuse hurts. Love teaches the skill of being together. Abuse teaches the skill of being apart. Love teaches independence. Abuse teaches dependence. Love teaches survival. Abuse teaches despair. Love teaches trust. Abuse teaches no trust.
The conflicts that we see in popular culture are a reflection of the people in that culture. A popular culture that teaches violence as the solution to the conflict will be doomed to repeat the violent solution until everyone is dead. A people exposed to a popular culture that teaches forgiveness, collaborative problem solving, love and trust, has a better than zero chance of surviving the problems we have created for ourselves, in our never-ending struggle to get our needs met.