Guest post

by Matthew Watrous

My wife and I once worked in a locked dementia unit.

When people are having a bad day, they tend to be uncooperative and want to fight about everything.

There are not many good days in a dementia unit.

Many irritations arise,  like when a patient takes a bite of food and realizes someone else has been eating from that plate, or the person forgets he or she was the one eating and throws the plate across the room, upsetting the other residents.

Language is often a poor ally for calming such scenarios. There are times when no simple phrase will successfully quell the fight.

Matthew Watrous, guest authorI learned a lot while working in that community, lessons I’ve realized are applicable to the outside world for conflict resolution.

If you want to be an expert at resolving conflicts caused by human nature, go to work in a locked dementia unit.

Ninety-eight percent of social conflicts arise from conflicting desires and lack of communication. Most can be solved with butterscotch pudding and pizza before a good talk.

Nobody can be angry with butterscotch pudding in their mouth, at least momentarily, even if they’re not in a dementia unit.

We worked night shifts. We’d come in as people were eating their supper.

When I hit the floor, the first thing I’d do is check the agitation in the air. You can see it in everybody’s posture and how they guard the parts that hurt. When you’re 98-years-old and institutionalized in a locked unit, life hurts everywhere.

We did everything possible to address where it hurts before a fight had a chance to erupt. If the agitation escalated into a physical altercation, the patients might be hurt and become even more combative the next day.

People would forget where they are and don’t understand why I’m in the bathroom with them, all gloved up and ready to wipe some ass, and the only ass hanging out is theirs. Surprise!

Physical altercations happened frequently, understandably so.

Resolving conflict when you see something is going down requires attitude, self-control as well as both quick thinking and forethought. Most of the time, settling an argument was as simple as separating the hostile forces for a bit, providing a change in the environment to something more soothing and less harsh. One can turn down the lights, turn off the TV and put on soft music. Those kinds of preparations can turn everything down a few notches, even if people did want to fight.

As any married couple probably can tell you, putting together a good candlelight supper doesn’t always work.

Some people just have a hankering to fight, and they’re going to fight with whoever gets too close. So, taking them to the toilet when they’re in that mode is always fun. (It’s also a weird place for the butterscotch pudding technique, but it works!)

My coworkers have had their hands or ribs broken, their spines damaged so badly they could never work again.

An old rancher once repeatedly kicked me in the testicles so hard it hurt for weeks. He’d already broken the thumbs of a co-worker. Another violent individual had my wife pushed up against the wall with his hands around her neck before I pulled him off.

Sometimes it’s challenging to hold onto that quality of compassion and kindness.

There is a phrase I have clung to with my entire being. Even if a person has caused some intense personal pain, my reaction is to look  them dead in the eye and say, “Where do you hurt?”

Evidently, nobody had asked the man who kicked me that question. Once the pain is addressed, a patient will go right to sleep, even without administering any medications. 

Sometimes a person just needs another human being–anyone–to care about that place where it hurts.

Addressing their suffering over my own always made things go better for the rest of the shift.

The same thing applies to protestors and international conflicts. If people would look at where it hurts and address the issues there, what sources of conflicts would we have?

You cannot deny the depth of suffering existing in many communities across the U.S. Just look at the prison population.

So many things need to change. It really smells like some powerful people have a poopy butt. We know who it is. We will need to change them. Some things you can’t leave for the next shift. They’d know we were slacking.

If they didn’t want to talk about where they hurt, or when there was just nothing to be done for the pain, we didn’t talk.

Frankly, I seldom talked in the dementia unit. If the residents still had the capacity to talk, the conversations tended to be repetitive.

But I did notice that the people there responded to me differently than other staff. I suspect there’s something in my body language and the way I carry myself, but it’s not intentional.

I tend to move slowly and carefully, quietly and deliberately. My wife wishes I would wear a bell at times. 

If words have failed, think of your body language and the tension you hold within yourself. This also plays a large role in how resistive or excited the other person gets.

Take a deep breath and calm yourself before taking deliberate action. It’s normal to be angry, but not irrational. Taking action when we’re in that irrational angry state doesn’t go well.

Even if we’re in pain, fearful or really don’t care anymore, we must still go and wipe the ass of anger and evil. There’s no way we could go into conflict without a good game plan.

Most importantly, you can suppress fears and conquer anger and evil with an ounce of human kindness for all involved parties.

So, in a nutshell, here’s my conflict resolution plan:

  1. Butterscotch pudding and pizza.

2. Build a connection by addressing the suffering. Easing other people’s suffering often alleviates our own.

3. Be mindful of what you’re projecting in your body language and attitude.

4. Have a good strategy that results in everybody walking away happier than when they walked in, even if it does get physical. (I’m not a pacifist. I was an Army medic. Sometimes I had to get a little aggressive to get that first spoonful of butterscotch in their mouth or a suppository up their rectum. It’s their choice. Either way, once it’s in there, I’ve won.)

Care for one another.