Ever since I decided to study mediation years ago, I have been on alert for signs of when people are in conflict because of misunderstandings. That’s my favourite part of conflict resolution: when people find out that some of their conflict is due to failure to understand what the other side is saying, and then working through that part once the parties realize they weren’t so divided as they thought they were.
As I mentioned in my last post, my mother is visiting for six days. This Spring Break visit went better than the last one we shared. Yesterday I lived through a perfect example of wanting the same outcome as the other party in a conflict, yet approaching it from such different perspectives that I began to suspect we were NOT aiming for the same goal.
Mom and I agreed quickly and easily to make tuna melt sandwiches on sourdough bread. We both went to the kitchen. She turned the stove on to heat the skillet, and I started on tuna. In the drawer where my black-handled can opener usually lives was a new one with red handles, thoughtfully matching the red kitchen appliances. Mom gleefully explained how the old can opener didn’t work right, so she bought a new one while I was at work the day before. “But I like the other can opener,” I said. “I’d like to use it.” Mom had thrown it in the trash.
I mixed up the tuna and moved on to the cheese. I had only begun slicing when Mom grabbed the bag of sourdough and began laying out bread slices right in my work space. I moved the block of cheese over a little so I could have some more room, and she gratefully slapped a couple more slices of bread down. So I picked up the cheese and moved to a different counter. “What are you doing?” She asked, dismayed. “The bread is here for you, to hold the cheese.”
I wasn’t ready for the bread, and she was stressing me out, so I sliced the cheese on the other counter. When I returned, she took the cheese slices from me and arranged them evenly across all the bread lying out. She looked up at me as though she was saying See how useful it is to have bread slices on the counter? She had also laid out home-canned jalapenos from my dad. Mmmmm. (Oooh, agreement! We both like the peppers.)
“Now you put the tuna over the cheese,” she explained in a ‘mom voice,’ teaching me how to do a simple task as though I was a kid again. I spread out the tuna on one slice, and then flipped the matching bread slice over the top.
“No!” she gasped. I had chosen the wrong slice. Sourdough loaves are unevenly shaped, so one needs to keep slices of the same size together. If I had placed them, my matching slices would have been side-by-side. Mom placed the matching slices above and below. Since there were four in a grid on the counter, I naturally assumed she had done it my way. She had not.
Not wanting to mess with her system, but clearly aware that I do it differently; I didn’t say anything to her. When I grill sandwiches on my own, I butter a slice, place in on the skillet, arrange all the stuff on it, butter the next slice and place it on top. Then I don’t get butter on my hands or butter on the counter, and all the guts don’t fall out while I transfer it from the counter to the pan.
She wanted me to do the cooking, because she isn’t used to my stove. But I was not sure how to progress. I stood, staring at the hot pan and the sandwiches on the counter, trying to think it through. Mom, equally irritated but equally kind, was not saying anything to me. We were stumped, each unable to move forward with our routine because we were at a place in grilling sandwiches we had never been at before. We had arrived by a new path, were at an unfamiliar stage, and the way forward was unclear.
“How do I butter the bread now that it’s already a sandwich?” I asked. “If I try it, all the stuff will spill out.” Turns out, I wasn’t supposed to put the top on the bread until I buttered it. She hadn’t stopped me because she assumed I was doing it my way and she didn’t want to interfere. Mom had no good suggestion for me, since I had already moved too far away from her system.
I don’t know how we got through the grilling. I literally do not recall what we did. By that time we were very confused and frustrated with each other. Writing this down and reading the description, it doesn’t seem like anything at all worth getting frustrated over. But we had such strong emotions, and molehills became mountains.
While we ate our sandwiches we laughed about it. “I could NOT figure out what you were doing!” she chuckled. “And I could not understand what you were doing!” I said. We raised glasses of wine and Mom chose the toast, “Celebrating our differences,” she said.