Tag Archives: conflict

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. http://www.transformativemediation.org 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.         https://mediationunlimited.net/editorial-summary/

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: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/what-happened-charlie-rose-we-asked-his-friends-associates-1101333]

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.

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.”

A Buddhist Parable

2008 July Fishing-078

I have been writing and working on my book on how (and why) to welcome conflict, and I have been negligent about making blog posts! And I have much to say!  Today I am noting in particular that, as I am writing the book, I find interesting tidbits to add in for illustration or inspiration. Here is a Buddhist parable that I am finding particularly inspiring. This version is adapted from the book, Triggers, by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter.

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 furiously to get out of the way but it didn’t seem to help.

     He shouted, “Change direction! You are going to hit me! 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 the story is: it’s always an empty boat. The parent who never acknowledged you, the driver who suddenly cut you off, the boss who promoted the slacker – they are all empty boats. They were acting based on their own unexamined or unresolved psychological suffering. It had nothing to do with you.

STOP labeling people DIFFICULT PEOPLE or HCPs

Nowadays it is chic to label people. If we then turn that label into an acronym we sound even smarter, it appears.  At the top of the list of most-used labels is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). While people used to be merely “selfish”, a term that might lend itself to being at least somewhat transitory, we now label people narcissistic which guarantees that from then on every move they make will be proof of the label – a self-fulfilling prophecy, for sure.

In the world of alternative dispute resolution (ADR, as long as we are slinging around acronyms) mediators, evaluators, attorneys and judges love to hate-on difficult people or high-conflict people (HCPs).

According to Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., “High-conflict people (HCPs) have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing it or resolving it. This pattern usually happens over and over again in many different situations with many different people. The issue that seems in conflict at the time is not what is increasing the conflict. The “issue” is not the issue. With HCPs the high-conflict pattern of behavior is the issue, including a lot of: A. All-or-nothing thinking, B. Unmanaged emotions, C. Extreme behaviors, D. Blaming others.” (http://www.highconflictinstitute.com/who-are-high-conflict-people)

Let’s look at this. If you understand conflict, you know that when people are in conflict that they generally are not at their best. They are sadder, angrier, more sensitive, more volatile, more stubborn, and/or more confused compared to their normal selves.

The “All-or-nothing thinking” is an attribute of most mediation participants when they first meet at the table. “Unmanaged emotions” as well. Sometimes people arrive to the mediation table quite calm and then, as the conversation progresses, they might get more upset! Progress in a mediation is not a straight path to an agreement. It is often convoluted and unexpected. It usually gets worse before it gets better. Think of cleaning out a room. You pull out all the stuff to go through it and suddenly the room is messier instead of cleaner. Same in a mediation: often the process is a bit messy.

Getting back to the attributes of so-called HCPs, “Extreme behaviors” is next on the list. Yes, extreme behaviors may be a sign of dysfunction, but at the mediation table, more importantly, it is definitely a sign of feelings of powerlessness. Judging people for these behaviors only adds to the difficulty.

The fourth and final attribute is ironic, at best. “Blaming others”. Everyone, and I mean everyone, blames the other participant in the mediation. If they aren’t blaming each other, they likely don’t need mediation. Like the other attributes, blaming is a symptom of powerlessness. People are more self-absorbed than they would normally be when they are in conflict so it makes perfect sense that they would not yet be able to accept responsibility for their part.

It appears that labeling people HCPs is a way of blaming them for mediators’ inability to deal with very difficult cases. We need to stop blaming the participants and start figuring out ways of improving our own skills to accommodate very difficult situations. These are the cases that are most in need of mediation.

All four of these attributes of so-called HCPs are consistently a part of high-conflict mediation. But labeling a person in the mediation as high-conflict, is a vote of discouragement and judgment. It devalues their opinions and struggles. It affects our neutrality, which is essential to a high-quality process.

These are not HCPs. These are people who are in conflict. Perhaps they have been in conflict for a long time and are steeped in their upsetness. Regardless, we must stop labeling people HCP’s because it changes the course of the discussion. It changes the interventions we choose as mediators. It closes down the discussion instead of opening it up. We should be welcoming people who are angry or upset and telling them explicitly and through our actions that we understand why they might be acting that way.

The best mediators know that it is important to understand that when people are upset, they act upset. We welcome high-conflict cases because that is exactly what we are supposed to be experts in: conflict. We don’t judge people because they are stubborn or sad or angry, even those who appear unmovable. We actually expect this and know how damaging it is to the process to judge them for their behavior.

Mediators (and others) who label people as HCP’s and difficult people are preying on potential clients that figure now they are finally going to be understood because their soon-to-be-ex-spouse is certainly an HCP! Can’t you just hear someone going through a divorce reading about HCP’s in an article or on a website and exclaiming, “Have you read the definition? It fits exactly him, doesn’t it?”

It might be true that one reason to label people is to then be able to find empathy for their behaviors, for their condition, for their struggles. Regretfully, this is not what truly happens. When we label people, what we inevitably do is stop listening with an open mind, we stop taking them seriously, we start making assumptions based on their label, which ironically, we just made ourselves.

These are people who are acting angry, interrupting, won’t calm down, won’t get to the point, and/or won’t compromise. Once someone has the HCP label, it means that we walk into the room with our guard up, watching out for the others, keeping arms length physically and emotionally, and we pretty much don’t believe them with the same openness that we do if they would just behave themselves. They suddenly have fewer rights than others do because they have been labeled HCPs.

Mediators who complain about HCPs are the same mediators that accept, and likely prefer, cases that have little or no conflict. If there is little or no conflict, ideally people would try to work things out on their own. Then if they get hung up on certain aspects of their agreement, they can find a mediator who truly welcomes and has expertise in dealing with difficult situations.

Come to think of it, there ought to be a label for people who are constantly labeling other people. Just in case there isn’t, I’m going to go against my own advice and label them. Let’s call it: Excessive Labeling Disorder (ELD).




What about HIGH conflict?

Thursday, February 18, 2016 from 6:00 – 9:00 pm
Conflict Resolution Center, 2101 Hennepin Ave. #100, Minneapolis
Janet Collins, Mediation Unlimited, trainer

Go beyond basic mediation skills and learn what to do about the CONFLICT. This workshop is for mediators who want to improve their skills by learning how to deal with high conflict and emotionally-difficult situations including anger, hostility, sadness, repetitiveness, and bullying tactics.  Learn practical skills to help you become more comfortable around and more helpful to people who are really upset.

Attorneys, social workers, and other professionals will also benefit from learning how best to work with clients who are in conflict.

$55 – 3 hours of continuing education credits



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It is also like being held in your own prison. Prison or poison, how do you get rid of resentment and anger if that is what you are feeling? Easy to say – very hard to do. We know intellectually that anger adds stress to our lives and that stress is hard on us emotionally and physically. But doing something about resentment takes a lot of work.

A first step might be to notice any physical symptoms that you have. Are you suffering with stomach aches, indigestion, headaches, losing sleep, or ?? If so, the idea of living symptom-free can be a good motivator to help us accept other people’s humanness in exchange for better health and productivity. This is merely a first step, of course.

The next step might be to ask yourself why this person’s behavior affects you so greatly. How can you make the behavior matter less? How can you appreciate the person as a whole person and not just see him/her as that one behavior?

Oh! And have you ever tried talking directly to the person? It’s surprising how much relief one can feel from having a good talk and it’s shocking how many resentments go undiscussed.

Anybody have other ideas about how to get rid of resentments?

The above quote has been attributed to many people, most notably Nelson Mandela, Carrie Fisher, and Malachy McCourt.


2008 July Fishing-107

“Peace is not the absence of conflict…”  This is the beginning of many quotes by many famous people.  However, all of the quotes end differently.  People disagree about what peace is, but we generally do agree that just because we don’t see conflict, doesn’t mean that there is peace.  Who knows what lies beneath that beautiful field or that smiling facade?

Conflicts go hidden and undiscussed all the time.  Why?  Because people are uncomfortable with the visible conflict – the emotion, the upset, the anger.  We are told we must calm down and say things correctly in order to have peace.  This is a falsehood.  We must not be forced to hide emotion in order to solve conflict.  We must understand that WHEN PEOPLE ARE UPSET, THEY ACT UPSET.  If we truly understand this, we allow people to make mistakes, act with emotion, and show their true selves.  In order to do this we must listen to them, believe them, and wade through the difficult times with empathy.

The exchange of listening and being listened to is what brings peace.  Stop trying to determine right or wrong, logical or illogical, sweet or nasty.  Judging in any way does not bring peace.   Peace is the feeling of being included, of being heard, of being accepted even when we are not at our best.

Do you have anything you would like to add to this?  Any comments?

That’s it for now,



Friday, January 16, 2015    9 am to 2:30 pm
$120 includes workshop materials and lunch
Lower your stress and improve your relationships by learning to welcome difficult discussions.
Ask about CE credits.


Negotiators Article
Otherwise known as: “Taking no hostages, just turkey.”

This is a fabulous article about conflict resolution written from the views of FBI agents and hostage negotiators!  This is the best advice I’ve seen in a long time and it comes from the New York Times.  Click the link and then let me know what you think, okay?