HERO TO ZERO: A Different Sort of Conflict

People enjoying a concert with their hero with one person making a heart with her hands.

HERO TO ZERO: A Different Sort of Conflict

The betrayal we feel when one of our heroes disappoints us is actually a sort of conflict. Our newsfeeds are chock full of headlines that either wholly praise or completely condemn the most famous, most revered entertainers, sports figures, and politicians (and others). When we find out new, disappointing information, they suddenly go from hero to zero. This causes a sort of conflict inside of us. How do we make sense of this new, dastardly information?

Our obsessions with our heroes are fun, a kind of entertainment, like binge-watching The Walking Dead or Friends. Our fascinations with stars’ lives of glamour and wealth are exciting, like following a royal wedding. But when a headline appears of a hero’s wrongdoing, have you noticed how betrayed you feel?

When you find out that your favorite senator who has voted no on women’s rights to abortion has also paid for his mistress’ abortion: He is a hypocrite and a liar. He is a zero. When you find out that your favorite athlete used performance-enhancing drugs: This is illegal and unsportsmanlike. S/he is a zero. When your trusted newscaster is outed for sexual harassment: He has misrepresented himself. He is a zero.

Let’s be honest here: It feels personal. We feel personally betrayed that we voted for or followed or cheered on someone who is so deeply flawed. We got hoodwinked. And let’s be clear, I am not espousing that you should ignore the new, horrific news. I am saying, I believe we can appreciate AND vehemently dislike different behaviors of the same person. 

Through the transformative theory of mediation, we know that when someone is upset, when they are in conflict, they tend to be weaker and more self-absorbed than their normal self. This is the universal experience of conflict. When we are surprised and disappointed by someone’s bad behavior, we are similarly in conflict with our own notion of who they are. He lied, she cheated, he didn’t follow through, she was late – there are so many opportunities to feel bad about someone’s behavior. We now react in a way that turns the person’s bad behavior into their whole being, which is all-or-nothing thinking.


You can change your thought process  to help you out of the hero-to-zero, all-or-nothing mindset that feels so upsetting. Following are four steps that will guide you through the process:

Step #1: Realize that it’s not personal. No matter what they did, how long they hid it, how much of hypocrite they are, you should understand that they didn’t really do anything to you. To illustrate this point, following is an excerpt from The Tell Me Gesture: How & Why to Welcome Conflict (Rowles, June 2018), which begins with a Buddhist parable:

A farmer was covered with sweat as he paddled his boat up the river. He was going upstream to deliver his produce to the village, trying to make the round trip before dark. As he looked ahead he spied another vessel, heading rapidly downstream toward his boat. He rowed frantically to get out of the way but it didn’t seem to help. He shouted, “Change direction! You are going to hit me!” but to no avail. The vessel hit his boat with a violent thud. He cried out, “You idiot! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river?” As he glared into the boat, seeking out the individual responsible for the accident, he realized no one was there. He had been screaming at an empty boat that had broken free of its moorings and was floating downstream with the current.

The moral of this story is: It is always an empty boat. The parent who never acknowledged you, the driver who suddenly cut you off, the boss who berated you – they are all empty boats. They were acting based on their own unexamined or unresolved psychological suffering, their triggers. It had nothing to do with you.

The same is true for our hero crushes. It is their damage, their addiction, or their personality disorder that allowed them to behave badly and disappoint you. They did not set out to harm you, and it has nothing to do with you.

Step #2: Make a list of the reasons you admired this person. Before you found out about your hero’s bad behavior, what did you appreciate about them? What good had they done in their field or in charitable ways? What amazing talents do they possess?

For example, consider Charlie Rose, famed television journalist and (former) talk show host, who was a favorite to many, receiving great accolades and honors for his interviews with the world’s political leaders and celebrities. When he was accused of sexual harassment in 2017 by eight women, he went from hero to zero. He was fired immediately, issued an apology (of sorts), and went away. Now it has become taboo to like him or appreciate him. While, personally, I never much liked his work, I think that if you did, you could certainly still like it! Make a list of all the interviews you loved, of how it felt to experience his style of interviewing, of his apparent intellect, etc. Truthfully, he is still all those things, and we can still appreciate him for those things.  [For more info:]

People are whole people and we can welcome them as complex individuals. While first we attribute only the good behaviors to these celebrity heroes, when we find out about a horrible characteristic, suddenly we attribute only dislikable behaviors. This is all-or-nothing thinking, where people are either good or bad, instead of good and bad.

Step #3: Think to yourself, Now I know more. Now that you have a list in hand of the reasons to appreciate someone, and can add the bad behavior to your list of admirable behaviors, and you can think to yourself, Now I know more. In my mind, this is one list, not a two-column comparison.

Now I know more is the essence of restraining yourself from all-or-nothing thinking and welcoming the whole person. You can practice it in your daily life, when you find out something new and disappointing about anyone or anything. It is a way of practicing nonjudgment and will help you feel less upset and less stressed when you are confronted with disappointment.

Going back to the transformative mediation theory, when you think to yourself, Now I know more, you are helping yourself out of your conflict. You were feeling relatively weak and relatively self-absorbed, and now, as you change your thinking, you are becoming stronger and are able to do this perspective-taking. Someone moves from hero (all good) to zero (all bad) to human being (complex individual).

Step #4: Own your own part. (Seriously? Yep.) You do have a part in it. Ask yourself, What assumptions did I make that allowed me to think that [enter your favorite celebrity here] didn’t have a dark side. What need do I have to see someone as a role model, an angel, or a hero? Acknowledging that you have a part in the disappointment is a good practice, whether someone is a celebrity or an everyday person in your life.

“Admitting your own contribution sounds painful, but is surprisingly liberating. When we feel victimized by others, we overlook the control we do have. When we are in the middle of conflict, we often feel victimized by the other person, which gives way to our own triggered behaviors.” (The Tell Me More Gesture: How & Why to Welcome Conflict, Rowles, June 2018)


Valuing a person as a whole, complex person may be difficult work, but it helps to reduce the feelings of betrayal that can be triggering. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care or that the negative behaviors shouldn’t bother us. It means that this is just part of the picture and that we can make decisions on how we feel and what to do based on a balanced view. Perhaps we can still enjoy aspects of a person even though they do things that we disapprove of.

Everyone has a dark side and when we welcome people, even famous people, to be their true selves, we achieve deeper, more meaningful relationships. Our heroes are human and while we can detest some of their behaviors, we can still appreciate the things we loved about them previous to this knowledge – perhaps we can appreciate them even more, once we understand them more. Do you think this sounds feasible?


I’m pleased to share the cover design and editorial summary for my upcoming publication. Please feel free to let me know what you think!

The Tell Me More Gesture: How & Why to Welcome Conflict
Editorial Summary 

Author Janet Rowles begins her work with a surprising yet profound perspective on interpersonal conflict: “Conflict is an essential and unavoidable part of experiencing life to its fullest.” With this sentiment, she has created an indispensable guide to navigating conflict in a new way, one that does not urge readers to suppress or minimize their emotions—or the emotions of others in conflict with them— even when those emotions are perceived to be negative or messy.

Rowles taps into her own experiences of both conflict mediator (professionally) and instigator (personally) to take an empathetic approach toward helping others self-manage—and even welcome— their own conflicts. She encourages the reader to lean into conflict by saying three simple words: “Tell me more.” Throughout every chapter, Rowles’ belief that embracing conflict rather than stifling it is essential for fulfilling the fundamental desires for deeper and more meaningful relationships.

Throughout the book, Rowles utilizes a rich assortment of tools, tips, quotes, examples, and outside resources to aid the reader. Many of the pages contain pertinent quotations in the sidebar, drawing on the wisdom of great thinkers to speak to the conflict we all experience in life. Exercise boxes invite the reader into personal reflection throughout the chapters in addition to the journal entry spaces that appear at the end of each chapter. This helpful dual-reflection format gets readers to engage in analysis while reading as well as after they’ve finished the chapter, giving them more time for absorption of the content. Together, these complementary parts create an invaluable resource for readers of all backgrounds.

The author also injects her own personality into the work, using case studies from her professional and personal life. This gives the book a deeper level of authenticity and relatability. The integration of Rowles’ personal voice alongside research and insights from the field makes for the perfect marriage of logos and pathos. By the end of the book, I truly felt as if I had reached a new understanding of conflict engagement in a healthy way, while also feeling as if I’d had the author as my personal guide and companion through this journey. Readers are sure to feel the same.

Brenda Ueland and The Tell Me More Gesture

I am a latecomer to the party of appreciating Brenda Ueland. I came upon her writings a few years ago while researching and designing a workshop about conflict communication. Her essay, Tell Me More: On The Fine Art Of Listening, astounded and inspired me. Here in literary form was the mantra of good conflict communication that I espouse: Tell me more.

I remember reading the essay for the very first time, rushed and panicked, as if I had suspected I had found my soul mate and I needed to know right away if my hopes were going to be dashed. And then, pushing down my excitement, I tried to read it straight through, but overwhelmed, I would halt when I came to the next gem to ponder in amazement. Then I would start over again, determined to read it straight through. To this day, years later, I’m not sure that I have ever successfully read this short essay straight through from beginning to end. How can you keep reading when the words are hopping off the page into your heart? It’s impossible!

“Now before going to a party, I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk; to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing, or changing the subject. No. My attitude is: ‘Tell me more. This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically to talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive.’” (Ueland, Strength To Your Sword Arm, 1993, p. 206.)

As often happens, once you make a discovery, you hear people referring to it, as if the universe is talking directly to you. Was Brenda Ueland always in the air but I hadn’t caught whiff? I learned that she lived in Linden Hills, Minneapolis, Minnesota. That’s MY state; that’s MY city; that’s MY neighborhood. I heard people talk about how she would be seen walking around the Lake Harriet – that’s MY lake.

2720 W. 44th Street, Minneapolis, MN
Photo courtesy of Save Brenda’s House Facebook page

During the year of 2016, I sat at home, writing my book, The Tell Me More Gesture: How (and Why) to Welcome Conflict (manuscript in preparation). In February 2017, I became aware that there was a legal battle going on to save Brenda Ueland’s house at 2720 West 44th Street from demolition. I had no idea that she had lived ½ block from my home! Neighbors, admirers, and historians were trying mightily to save Ms. Ueland’s home – where she “wrote columns, sold advertising, held salons, walked and swam the lake, fought against animal cruelty, championed women’s equality, and kept robust diaries.” (Rosenblum, 2017)

I joined a Facebook group called Save Brenda’s House, and there I saw a reference to one particular essay of hers. So I ran to my copy of Strength to Your Sword Arm, and there on page four begins her wonderful essay entitled, My House On 44th Street. It’s true! We’re neighbors! Yes, well, sort of. She died in 1985 and I moved into Linden Hills in 1995, but it feels like we’re neighbors.

Although she died ten years before my moving to Linden Hills, I felt disappointed, as if I been cheated of the opportunity to think of her every day, even several times a day, as I passed her home while departing from and arriving to my own home. I began doing exactly what I, unknowingly, had been denied. I started thinking of her every single time I went by her house. I considered what her life might have been like and the positive effect she had on other people – writers, artists, and neighbors.

“When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.“ (Ueland, p. 205.)

After just a few weeks of my new awareness of the exact location of Ms. Ueland’s home, I drove down 44th toward home, as usual. There on my left was a vacant lot where Ms. Ueland’s unassuming home once stood – a sad and startling moment.

The empty lot and me. 2720 W. 44th Street, Minneapolis, MN

The lot where Ms. Ueland’s home once stood continues to have meaning for me. As I pass it, I think of how her presence infused the neighborhood with creativity and passion. I love that she normalized these traits – they are not necessarily gifts of greatness, they are a normal part of human existence. The house was physical proof of her living and walking and swimming and being part of this small community. I missed her, but nevertheless, she is a part of me, even if it’s merely my own selfish desire to find commonality and feel connected to her.

“We should all know this: that listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener is much more beloved, magnetic than the talker, and he is more effective, and learns more and does more good. And so try listening. Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don’t, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one.” (Ueland, p. 210.)

Please feel free to comment here about your own favorite Brenda Ueland stories or writings. Or other thoughts?


Rosenblum, G.,

Ueland, B., Strength To Your Sword Arm, Duluth, MN, 1993, Holy Cow Press.


The Tell Me More Gesture and Alzheimer’s Disease

Recently a friend of a friend agreed to read my manuscript of The Tell Me More Gesture. He is a retired teacher who spent his career working with marginalized students – some had a specific special education label, some were in a psychiatric setting, some in alternative settings, and some in mainstream settings. I was pleased to receive his feedback and gratified to learn of his wholehearted support for the Gesture. This is the story he shared with me.

“My best friend since the ’70s is currently my next door neighbor. We have been through thick and thin together and are like foxhole buddies. We have gotten in and out of trouble together for 40 plus years. Five years ago he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and has been struggling more and more as the disease gets worse. I try to spend a couple of hours with him most days, usually hiking. He has about 30 stories he repeats over and over. I love my buddy, but I’m sick to death of the stories that are in high rotation. I feel guilty about this, but I feel how I feel.

I have a hard time trying to figure out how to deal with this. One of the stories has to do with today’s weather. It is either perfect and has never been this nice, or it is terrible and has never been this bad. So out of the blue, I tried looking him in the eye and saying, ‘Tell me more.’ He responded with a story that was desultory and didn’t make much sense, but he seemed more engaged and really happy to talk about it. When he slowed down again, I stayed with the Gesture, made a reflection and I asked him if he could tell me more.

My buddy’s relief at being able to continue on and talk to someone who wanted to hear more was apparent. His affect and enthusiasm for telling the story had increased and he shifted to expressing more positive feelings. He was less focused on his illness and sounded less depressed. This shit really works.

In addition to changing his response (which was more palatable to me), my concentrating on staying connected to him kept me engaged and feeling like I could live to my values and be the good friend I would like to be.”