Close

TOUCHING WHILE TRYING TO RESOLVE CONFLICTS:IS THERE A PLACE FOR IT?

DILBERT ceo1The chief executive officer (CEO) in the Dilbert comic strip is the bald-headed guy.  He has been having quite a few conflicts with his workers.   After trying some new approaches to resolve these conflicts, he decides to see if touching might help:

dilbert touchingApparently, one of the CEO’s workers likes the way it feels when he is patted on his head.  I don’t think I would like my boss to pat me on my head.  Nevertheless, I do think touching someone in certain ways during a conflict may be helpful at times.

When I was growing up, my mother and some of my friends would use touching during a conflict with me in the form of hitting.  They did this to try to force me to do whatever they wanted me to do.  But in this post, I’m not going to discuss that type of touching.  Today, I have something very different in mind.

The first time I recall someone touching me during a conflict in a non-hitting way, occurred when I was sixteen years old. I was on the Lincoln High baseball team and I happened to show up a little late for practice.

Soon after I arrived, my coach took me off to the side so we could talk in semi-privacy.  The other players could still see us, but they were far enough away so that what my coach had to say was just for my ears.

He first looked down at the ground for a long 30 seconds or so, and then he looked squarely into my eyes while putting his hand softly on the back of my shoulder.  In a soft voice, he said, “Jeff, I see you as one of the leaders on this team.  I’m hoping this is the last time you come late for practice.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Coach,” I replied.  “I’m real sorry about being late.”

He then patted me on my back and said, “OK, Jeff, now go take some fielding practice, and I want to see you hustling out there.”

“You bet, Coach!”

Now, at the time, it never even crossed my mind that my coach had done anything that anyone could possibly think of as wrong.  When I was growing up, in sports touching occurred all the time.  A coach might put his arm around you while he gave you some instructions.

coach arm around playerIf you made a nice play, the coach and your team mates might pat you on the arm or back, or even on your rear end.

pat on buttAnd both male and female athletes  and coaches would give each other enthusiastic hugs. girsls basketball hug

sports hugs2

coach touch 4My baseball coach had done something a little different when he touched me.  Usually touching in sports occurred during the rough and tumble of a game or as a sign that you did something good.  My baseball coach had touched me, not for any of those two reasons, but because he was trying to work out a conflict he was having with me. And it worked. I never came late again, and not only did I not think he did anything wrong, I found that I had an increased amount of respect for him because of the way he handled the situation.

Soon after, I found myself reflecting upon what he did.  He spoke to me in relative privacy.  When he began, he looked down in a way that I could tell that what I did led to him feeling unhappy.  And then, when he looked into my eyes and said that he felt that I was viewed as one of the team leaders, there was something about what he said and how he said it that led me to feel that he genuinely liked me.  At the same time, he told me what he wanted me to do in the future in very clear terms–to be on time for practice.

After that incident, I found myself often using a similar approach, and I found it very helpful.  As a result, I didn’t think there could be any problem with it.  But as the years went on, from time to time I have heard individuals complain about someone touching them in similar situations and not liking it.  And so, I began to ask some questions to see if I could come to understand the reasons for our experiences being so very different.

One teenager whom we will call Judy told me that a guy at school made a suggestion to her that made her very angry.

“Then what happened,” I asked.

Judy1“How did you feel about the way the guy handled the situation?” I asked.

“I didn’t like the way he touched me,” Judy replied. “He squeezed my shoulder and it felt threatening.”

“Hmmm,” I replied.  “Something about the way he squeezed your shoulder felt uncomfortable.  I see.  What if he just touched you gently in the back of your shoulder while saying what he said?  Would you have felt more comfortable with that?”

judy3Judy thought about this for a few seconds and then looked up at me and smiled.  “That would have been okay,” she replied.  “There was something about the way he actually touched me that felt creepy, and I didn’t like it at all.”

Although Judy said that if the boy would have touched her gently on the back, she would have felt okay about that, I have heard some other folks say that they don’t like to be touched at all.

So what do we do about this?  Do we stop touching everyone in these types of situations because some people feel uncomfortable with being touched?  Do we begin to think about what kinds of touching might be okay, and what types of touching is not okay?

I really can’t answer this type of question for everyone.  It would be very helpful if readers over the next few weeks share with us their thoughts about this, so we have more information to judge.  In the meantime, I will say this.  If you do try the touching approach with someone, I think you would be wise to watch carefully how the other person is reacting.  If the person begins to appear tense, with a crinkling of the forehead, a stiffening of the body or by pulling away from the touch, I encourage you to back off and offer an apology.  Perhaps saying something like this might be helpful, “I sense that you don’t like me to touch you.  I’ll keep that in mind in the future and respect your feelings.  I’m sorry I made you feel uncomfortable.”  Then, a gentle smile might ease some of the tension.

Well, I hope this post gives you some ideas to think about, and, as always, I hope to be reading your comments real soon.

Have a great week,

Jeff

——————————-

Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

OPENNESS TO THE OTHER: BYPASSING ANGER BY REMAINING CONFIDENTLY ENGAGED
CONFESSION OF A FORMER BULLY

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

12 Comments

  1. A soft appropriate touch (shoulder, upper back or arm ) is a great way to show concern and relay the message of understanding with the person doing the touching being deemed as approachable and wanting to help. As noted in this article, it is very important to observe the person’s reaction to being touched to ensure the person being touched is ok with it and to follow accordingly.

    • Hi Chermaine Meissner. Thanks for letting us know your take on this topic. Your view is very close to my own experience. Others, of course feel differently and it will help us to hear about the fullest range of experiences out there so we can better judge our wisest course. My Best, Jeff

  2. Personally I don’t mind being touched, its just that I have grown used to not being touched, or hugged that often. The people who don’t like being touched has made everyone nervous about doing so, to the point it comes as a surprise to me when it happens any more. I may jump, but that’s more out of surprise than anything else.

    • Hi Robin Cook. Like you, I don’t mind being touched. There are times when I enter a party and I don’t know whether I should give a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or just nod hello with a smile. This gives me some anxiety as I walk in, but I handle it the best that I can. If several people are walking in at the same time, I like to watch what the others do and I try to model my actions after them. Much thanks for your comment. Jeff

  3. I DO NOT like being touched, to the point where walking down the hall when I was in school was an anxiety attack inducing endeavor. There are also plenty of people who have dealt with either physical or sexual abuse that might be very uncomfortable with being touched or who have been in combat situations like being deployed in a military setting that makes unsolicited touching dangerous.

  4. Hi Mr Person, I understand that there are quite a few people out in the world who share your discomfort at being touched. There’s a wonderful movie that depicts one person’s story about this type of experience–Lars and the Real Girl (2007). Much thanks for letting us know about your experience. Warm Regards, Jeff

  5. I think this is indeed an important topic. I believe that though “touching” is a general word, these days it has the potential for connotative variation. I would shift the contact character to “respectful contact”. this is especially important in conflict-like situations. So I have offered a hand shake to boys and girls and adults. I have offered a handshake when a conversation has been especially difficult but seems to have mellowed. I believe the approach to the other is colored by eye contact, tone of voice and the use of wondering questions. anyway, I don’t want to be touched but i do want to be respected.
    I do avoid churches which believe hugs are a way to proclaim peace….what’s wrong with a bow of the head or a handshake or nothing more than a smile? I believe norms change among cultures. However, in American society, I sometimes feel that we have made physical touching a shallow surrogate for appreciation.
    I do see that celebration and congratulations are often accompanied by a “slap” on the back…but I don’t think the crowd is as thick once the hugging starts. Leigh

  6. Hi Leigh, I very much appreciate your detailed description of what you feel comfortable with and what begins to feel less so. This helps me to be more sensitive to how best to interact with different people. Like you, “respectful” is a crucial part of any contact for me–whether or not it involves touching. Much thanks for your comment.

  7. I believe that is one of the such a lot important info for me. And i’m happy reading your article. But want to observation on some basic things, The web site style is perfect, the articles is truly great : D. Excellent task, cheers

  8. I often wait till later in conversations than this to initiate touching when it seems appropriate, especially with people in situations were we do not know each other well (which is not the case in the scenario you described), and in fact, the other persons response to an invitation to touch as in a hand shake or high-five, is often a great guide to what their real needs are in that moment of the dialogue

  9. This article is really best one to explain the issue and related relevance with pics and the positive consequences of touch, but some times this touch also creates misunderstandings and increases distance in relationship, in context of gender and cultures of some countries. here, I would like to give my live example (From Indian Culture), when I touched to girl (colleague/classmate/neighbour) while making something to clear there, it go wrongs many times, as in Indian culture touching to opposite gender is not treated good.

    • Hi Ashutosh Tiwari,
      Thanks for your Indian Culture perspective on this.

Write Your Comment

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>