It is impossible to walk through a grocery store now without seeing the hot terms natural, organic, cage free, hormone free, etc. After years of pills and shakes and fads, people are beginning to see the importance of plain ole’ fruits and veggies. Instead of energy drinks, have a green smoothie. Instead of caffeine pills, get a good night’s sleep. Instead of antidepressants, try a walk outside first.
There is a lot of logic behind this movement. Mainly– go simple. Go natural. Back to the basics. There is a principle known as Occam’s razor. William of Ockham; (also known as Occam), a Fransiscan friar who lived seven centuries ago, had one deciding principle when it came to science and philosophy: choose the hypothesis which makes the fewest assumptions. In other words, the simplest rationale is usually the best. So, when people say eat healthy, that know actually means eat simple, healthy, balanced foods, with simple proteins, grains, greens, and fruits–as opposed to a complex percentage of exact carbohydrates, chemical meal substitutes, and appetite suppressants that have no nutritional value.
So, can we apply Occam’s razor in more areas than our dining room? People readily see the need to destress, organize, live simply, declutter your life, the importance of saying no to unimportant activities, and take time for yourself.
Yet, when we begin to apply this principle to our conflicts, people bristle. Look at it this way: Husband and Wife are arguing over who should do the dishes. Husband says I leave for work an hour earlier than you; I am exhausted and deserve to relax when I come home. Wife says I was up multiple time with the children during the night; I am exhausted and deserve to relax when I come home. The argument quickly escalates and they both try harder to convince each other of the validity of their argument. “You don’t do anything worthwhile at your stupid job anyway–how can you be so tired?” “All you do when you come home is sit on the couch–it’s your turn to help.” “For years, I have been the only one who ever keeps this home clean–I’m done!”
What happened here? Both sides recognized the problem: dishes in the sink. Both sides stated their desire: to relax instead of doing dishes. Neither side acknowledged the other request, instead stepping up their own request. Since the request was not taken seriously when it was small and simple (“Can you do the dishes tonight?”), then our brain tells us to make the request bigger so that it will be taken seriously (“I have been the only one to do dishes for years!”). By not acknowledging the little request (please do the dishes) or the emotional vulnerability (I had a long night/day at work and I would like a break), the brain becomes defensive and strengthens our argument by 1) making it bigger, 2) attacking the other person’s argument, and 3) making threats about what will happen if our argument is not taken seriously.
How does this argument end? The only way to truly end an escalated argument is by applying Occam’s razor: Go back to the simplest explanation. Both parties are tired. Return to the initial request, the initial vulnerability, and acknowledge it. “Hey, I’m tired and your tired–let’s take a break for a few minutes, just heat up some leftovers. Maybe tackle the dishes together after dinner?”
The same principle applies to protracted, extended commercial, civil, workplace, health care, and family conflicts. People will often go to irrational lengths to win–spending way more money and time than an outside observer can understand. When at the end, the only way to end a spiraling conflict is to return to the beginning. What triggered it? Does someone just need to apologize and does the other person need to accept the apology and forgive? Do both sides need to acknowledge their contribution to a project? This initial knot is typically what every thread is tangled around. The rest of the mess–the insults, the escalations, the positioning, the threats, looping in unrelated criticisms to bolster the initial attack–doesn’t make sense until you use Occam’s razor to slice through it and understand what caused the initial attack. Understanding the simplest essence of the conflict helps the rest of it to make sense.
So the next time you are in a conflict that is just bigger than it needs to be–go back to basics. What am I really upset about? What is he/she upset about? Begin with the simplest part of the conflict. And leave the dishes for later.