A few years ago, a friend of mine asked if could dog-sit for her for three days. My friend was going out of town for a few weeks, and her usual dog sitter was not available for the first few days of the trip. It seemed an easy ask.  Her dog is a little toy poodle named Buddy.
Up until my friend left, Buddy and I got along fine.  He would always bark when I came in the house, but he was friendly and responsive.  Then my friend left. 
Day 1 Buddy spent in his cage.  He didn’t venture out, not to eat or drink or pee.  I tried to coax him, but he would simply growl if I approached him.
I remembered my friend saying: “Don’t worry. Buddy might stay in his cage at first, but if you leave it open and leave him access to food and water, he’ll come out on his own time.” So, I did that.  I made sure the cage was open, which it had been anyway, and I left for a few hours. 

When I returned,  it didn’t look to me like Buddy had eaten or drunk anything.
Day 2, I decided to brave it, put my hand in his cage and bring him outside to “do his business.”  He did growl, but as my friend had also told me, he didn’t bite me.  I held him under his belly and with my other hand on his backside, I carried him outside.
I put him down on the grass in my friend’s backyard, and I sat.  Buddy stood there on the grass. Then I noticed what he was doing.  He was frozen, immobile, and shaking.  He stood there shaking the whole 20 minutes I waited with him. 
Finally, I brought him back in and he ran back to his cage.
I tried this routine a few more times, but nothing happened. 
Day 3, I was now concerned Buddy might be dying a slow death, and was not sure how to stop it.  So I was relieved when the “real” dog sitter came by to fetch Buddy that morning. It was amazing to see him turn into another dog before my eyes.  At first, he too hid in his cage and growled at the new person. But after she held him in her arms for a few minutes, he settled down and off they went.  My friend told me later that Buddy was fine at the dog sitter’s home for the rest of the trip.
Although that happened quite a few years ago, the image of Buddy in the backyard has stayed with me.  He was so afraid of what could happen to him, that he didn’t even move.  He just stood there shaking.
Sometimes that image helps me normalize what happens for me and for others in conflict.  We share some fundamental traits with other animals, and feeling a fear of the unknown is one of them.
Knowing that we can all get as afraid as Buddy, helps me focus on creating emotional safety for myself and others in tense conversations  Over the years, I’ve come to see that there is nothing more important for the flow of conversation to work than to infuse as much safety as possible into the conversation. 

Here are some ideas for how to increase safety, with a focus on how to set up the conversation:

  • Where are you going to suggest to meet to have the conversation? What environment could be more relax-inducing?
  • What could you say to the other person that could reassure them that you are asking to have a productive conversation, and really want to hear what they have to say?
  • How can you frame what you want to talk about so that it’s invitational?
  • How are you going to start the conversation to set a collaborative tone and share your best intentions for the conversation (what is your best intention anyway!?

When the dog sitter picked up Buddy and held him in her arms, that is what soothed him. It was that sense of reassuring and non-anxious presence that helped him find his way back home to his own calm center. I didn’t know that when I sat in my chair in the back yard with Buddy, simply watching him shake and hoping he would stop. 

I wonder how our few days together might have been different if I’d picked him up in my arms as well, and whispered gently:
“You okay Buddy?”
That’s the feeling we all want with each other, especially in conflict.  To gently hold on to ourselves and to each other, to feel the reassurance of care, to hear:

“You okay Buddy?”