Ever try to build a house without a hammer and nails? Of course not. Nonsense.
So why do we think we can build relationships without tools? – It’s crazy. Communication tools are the hammer and nails of our relationships!
In that spirit, I want to offer you an easy-to-remember tool. I call it the Hillel Sandwich of Ending Conflict.
Perhaps you know the Hillel Sandwich? It’s a highlight of the Passover Seder experience. It’s when we put together the matzah, the maror (bitter herbs) and the charoset (the fruit and nut paste) into one wildly symbolic combo-sandwich.
Now, part of the genius of the Seder is that it has these foods that represent psychological states. Matza is about humility, simplicity, authenticity. It also represents that which is essential. Maror is about bitterness, suffering. Charoset is the sweet and sticky stuff. It represents the cement that held the Egyptian building blocks together. It is what allows us to connect with others.
Rabbi Hillel comes along and says, “Eat them all together.” Make a sandwich. The Hillel Sandwich.
That’s how we’re going to approach conflict. Like a sandwich.
Harry and Sally are in the car, late (again) for an appointment. Harry is driving fast and furious to get there. Sally is clenching her seat belt. She yells out, “Damnit Harry, you drive like a maniac!” He gets exasperated, feels criticized and throws back some derogatory remark to her. “For God’s sake, woman, I wouldn’t have to drive like a maniac if you hadn’t taken an hour to get ready!”
She blames, he counter-blames. Negativity reigns.
In a nearby car, also late to appointment, is another couple. But in this car the wife, unlike conflict-prone Sally, is a conflict avoider. She simply clenches her seatbelt and smothers her frustration with her husband’s driving. She pushes her feelings into repressed mode and lets the resentment build up. It expresses itself in much more subtle ways, like passive aggressive martyrdom or irritable bowel syndrome.
Either way you cut it, neither is a happy car ride nor a happy couple.
But now let’s imagine the wives instead know how to use the Hillel Sandwich. It looks like this:
First the matzah. The matzah is a simple, humble, and genuine statement of appreciation. What is something that you genuinely value about your partner in this (albeit challenging) situation? What is essential here?
Sally begins: “Honey, I can see that you are really working hard to get us there on time. I appreciate that!”
Next, the charoset: She shares something sweet, vulnerable and connecting about herself. The sweetest thing for the receiver to hear, by the way, is when the sharer reveals their own vulnerability. Sally does that by taking responsibility for her part in the situation: “I recognize that I took a really long time getting ready this morning and that threw us off schedule. Sorry about that. I’ll try to move faster next time.”
This kind of self-revealing statement creates a sweetness that allows him to feel connected with her instead of repulsed. Sharing our own vulnerability first always opens up the heart and ears of the other person to take in some vulnerable feedback about themselves. Not an easy feat, but it sure is effective.
The maror: This is the bitter herb, the vulnerable thing about the other: “I feel super uncomfortable with the way you’re driving. I was terrified when you sped through that stop sign. Can you please slow down? I’d rather be late than dead.”
This is the maror. He’s not going to want to hear it. It’s bitter. But it’s also the truth and needs to be shared, not just repressed. It’s a crucial part of the sandwich. Try to share it within the context of your own feelings. “I feel uncomfortable when you x.” Also share it within the context of a request. “Can you please y?”
Another piece of matzah: Finally, end with a final piece of positivity: “Also dear, even though it’s stressful, I’m excited that we’re going to this meeting together. We don’t get to spend much time together during the day and I’m happy to be doing this with you!”
This is the final slice of matzah – some simple and humble piece of appreciation that cuts to the essence of the moment – the fact that we are together and essentially happy about that.
Now I know these formulas might sound contrived, but it is possible to talk this way. It just takes a good dose of consciousness, self-control and patience… plus the helpful tool of a framework to have in mind.
Take a minute now to imagine your last conflict, be it with your partner/your friend/your family member.
How could it have gone down differently? How could it have brought you closer together?
Replay the scenario using the Hillel Sandwich formula.
Charoset: Vulnerability about self/taking responsibility for my part
Maror: Vulnerability about the other. Use ‘I feel’ statements and specific requests for changes.
Fight the good fight. Create connection and intimacy by talking through the conflict. Conflict doesn’t have to wreck your relationship. It might just rectify it.
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