The Cool Thing About Conflict
I can’t honestly say that I have yet met a person who loves conflict.
Even the scrappiest folks – the one who seem to just draw disagreements to themselves – will, when entering into a discussion of conflict, concur that it quite simply sucks.
So if we all loathe conflict, and we are all trying our best to avoid it like we avoid root canals and cleaning out the garage, then why does it still happen to us so frequently?
It would be one thing if you or I were the only person who hated conflict and everyone else loved it. But clearly that is not the case. So either everyone else is holding out on us, or there is something here that we are collectively missing.
In my last post, “The Hunt for Equipoise“, I talked about how pain can be a motivator to help us learn and grow. It may not be our preferred mode of education, but it can often be an effective method of last ditch resort when everything else has failed to adequately turn our focus towards a lesson in need of learning.
Perhaps, in confronting the appearance of conflict in our lives, we need to acknowledge what lies beneath the surface – a joint opportunity for self-healing, growth and evolution.
A couple of months ago I moved to a new home. After I moved, it seemed that there was about a month’s worth of concurrent ongoing conflicts that accompanied my physical relocation. Conflicts were popping up on nearly every front – with work, friends, even my health. I was so stressed out I wasn’t able to sleep, and for the first time ever I asked my doctor for a prescription to help me rest.
Then one morning I “woke” up (a rather generous term for the quality of sleep I’d been getting) and all those pent-up emotions just came pouring out. Some were new and related directly to the move and the usual challenges moving can kick up (think “why can’t AT&T get my internet working here when it worked just fine at the old house” sort of challenges here). Others were much older, dating all the way back to my childhood, youth, or young adult years.
I just lay there with my eyes closed, watching and feeling and releasing as all that new and then older fallout from years worth of conflicts moved up and through me. Wave upon wave of anxiety, fear, sadness, uncertainty, pain, anger, disappointment and other strong and long-delayed emotions surged through my body as I inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, exhaled, breathing in courage, breathing out my feelings and releasing them as I did so, just like my meditation mentor taught me to do.
I experienced a fresh start in multiple ways during that brief but incredibly rich and fruitful period of time. Not only did I physically move to a new space, but emotionally, mentally, and relationally I also moved from a place of holding in the old to letting it out to make more space for the new on multiple levels.
I also adopted a new way of relating to conflict from that day forward.
I became much more willing to take conflict step by step as it arrived in my life, rather than routinely pushing it back down to deal with “later” when I was alone/had more time to think/felt stronger/and so forth. Conflicts build up in exactly that way, turning into a terrifying tornado when they might have only been a tiny little swirl of unassuming dust.
I learned to approach conflict with respect and openness, like I would a teacher, a mentor, maybe even a friend who was arriving to help me learn a lesson I had clearly asked to learn (for instance, my mentor always warns me about praying for patience – she says, “You know what you get when you ask for patience? Opportunities to learn to be patient!”)
I also learned to look and see the view of the conflict from two sides – mine and the other person’s. I began to develop an appreciation that any conflict takes two – even if it is internal. For internal conflicts, I am working towards achieving a mutually acceptable solution between two different aspects of myself. When inner peace and gratitude return, this is how I know I have met my goal.
For external conflicts, I am working to find first the common ground, next the source of the conflict (usually this is a concrete and rather specific issue in need of resolution, although sometimes it is more fundamental), followed by the identification of a (hopefully) win-win scenario that holds sufficient promise to resolve the issue from both perspectives. Finally, there is work to do to land on an appropriate avenue for sharing my ideas in a respectful way – a way that may more readily invite a positive, collaborative response from the other person.
With external conflict as well, I have to look for inner peace and gratitude to signal that there is an end in sight to the conflict cycle, since I cannot always expect to receive those signs from the other party (my mentor reminds me that I cannot control the other person’s reaction and it is really none of my business. What I can control is my words and actions to handle the situation in a respectful way, and my inner state will be a guide to let me know how well I am doing).
It may also be worth mentioning that, to date, I have not discovered that one type of conflict resolution – internal or external – is easier or harder to resolve than the other. They both have their challenges and their opportunities.
Finally, I have learned that conflict can be very beneficial for building self-esteem. This lesson was a very weird-feeling one at first – because I used to see the presence of conflict as an automatic sign that a) I was doing something wrong, or b) there was something wrong with me.
So to be able to begin to see conflict as an independent and objective, non-partisan visitor into my life has been a big step forward for me in my self-esteem work. Only with the presence of a conflict in need of resolution do I get to be my own personal champion, working hard to stand up for myself and do what is right by me, while at the same time working equally hard to be a person I can feel proud of in the midst of discussions and negotiations with the other party.
I feel especially wonderful when I have done the right thing to the very best of my ability, and no matter how hard that may have been to do (and by this I mean the thing that my gut instinct tells me is the right action each time I ponder the issue – and for me it can take multiple contemplations to arrive at this place with any conclusiveness).
After the conflict has passed and I can look back on it and feel my own strength, courage, humility, respect, and character growing commensurately, well, that is a very cool thing indeed.
Today’s Takeaway: What is the experience of conflict like for you? Is it easier today for you than it used to be, or harder? Are there certain people or situations which seem to foster more or less conflict, and why do you think that is? How do you feel you handle conflict? These are important questions to ask – and the more willing you are to explore the before-during-after process of each conflict, like a lawyer carefully examining a case for cons and pros, the less conflicting the presence of conflict will become over time.
Quarreling couple photo available from Shutterstock
Cutts, S. (2012). The Cool Thing About Conflict. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 30, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mentoring-recovery/2012/10/the-cool-thing-about-conflict/