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Foot to Foot, Face to Face

By Jeremy Ireland on February 5, 2020 in Other

I always go south, making south-going tracks, by Theodor Seuss Geisel.

Recently I found myself sifting through my son’s bookshelf trying to work out which books were worth keeping. It was harder than I’d expected. Among the old favourites that I used to read to him as a toddler, and the more age-appropriate stuff he has now, I stumbled across Dr Seuss’ story of The Zax.
Even I remember this classic, but as I started to read it again as an adult it presented a different perspective. The plot is simple, there are two Zaxs, one walking north and one walking south. Eventually they bumped into each other where they stood “Foot to foot. Face to Face.” Essentially it became a stand-off, with neither of them wanting to get out of the other’s way. Each being as stubborn as the other, they just stood there, refusing to give in. There they stood for 59 years, not budging an inch to the west nor an inch to the east, not caring if the whole world stood still. Well, it didn’t stand still, and eventually the world went on right around them, leaving the stubborn Zaxs standing staunchly in their tracks.
What this story shows is how the Zaxs lacked any conflict management skills whatsoever, leaving them both worse off at the end of the day. But why were they so stubborn and unable to find some kind of resolution?
At the crux of the matter is interpersonal conflict, where an expressed struggle is brought to light by two independent people who perceive two incompatible goals. The intensity of the struggle often correlates with the participants’ perceptions of the importance of their unmet needs or goals. It’s not hard to work out whether you are experiencing conflict in a relationship but it can be quite hard to resolve it, so it’s fair to say that people in conflict want something, the trick is working out what. In the case of the Zaxs, they really wanted the same thing, even though it appears initially that one wants the opposite of the other.
It may seem confusing but when we look at conflict as a process it becomes easier to understand. All conflict has a source, a beginning, a middle and an end. The source for our Zaxs is the prior conditions that set the stage for the disagreement – one’s a north-heading Zax, the other’s a south-heading Zax. The beginning of the conflict is the awareness of frustration, when our Zaxs bump into each other and think they want different things. When their perceived differences interfere with what they want, frustration increases. The middle in this example is basically active conflict, where they air their frustration, which can often lead to shouting or emotional intensity. The final stage is the end, or resolution, where one starts to try and manage the conflict. Of course, not all conflicts can be resolved and in the case of the Zaxs they just stood there trying to outpunk one another as the world kept going by.
So, what tools could we have given the two Zaxs to reach a better outcome? My top three would have been…
1. One (or both) participants declare there is a problem and place it ‘on the table’ where it can be looked at from all angles.
2. Be aware that the individual ‘you’ is not the problem, the problem is the problem.
3. Discuss all options, cross out any that are unrealistic or unhelpful, refine the list and then discuss the pros and cons.
Since some conflicts can be difficult to resolve, the assistance of an independent third party who is not emotionally attached may be beneficial. No matter what the severity of the problem, whether it be leaving the toilet seat up or wanting custody of the kids, the longer the problem goes unattended the more severe the conflict will become and the less likely it is that each person will get what they want.
Next time you’re driving down Hewlett Street, Tamarama, or Keith Street, Clovelly, and encounter an oncoming vehicle, think of the Zaxs. With that said, if conflict is front and centre of your interpersonal relationships and seems unmanageable, please seek professional help.

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