Conflict is not inherently bad – I know this theoretically. I’ve heard it taught in workshops, I’ve even taught it myself. Regardless of that head knowledge, my visceral response to real or perceived conflict is not unlike the dog in the car who just realized the joy ride has led to the vet. Whether the conflict is interpersonal, professional, or with my own demons, I begin to sweat, crouch in defense, and fear the encounter before me.
What do we tell our proverbial pet in the face of so much fear? “It’s going to be okay. It’s for your own good. The doctor has treats.” Which is why I wanted to examine exactly how handling conflict is indeed for my own good.
It can expand your worldview. If you let it.
Without conflict, there is no growth.
In conflict situations, we can be so immersed in fight or flight responses that we can’t respond rationally. We can lose the best parts of ourselves in such moments; those parts of ourselves that can help us be the person we want to be, rather than the person we cringe in memory of after the fact.
So how do we access that? Sometimes all it takes is a deep breath. Sometimes ten or twenty. Sometimes it means stepping away from the situation momentarily to return to our senses. Giving yourself enough time and space to consider who you want to be in the conflict, rather than just what you want out of it, opens the possibility for constructive communication. Our conflicts often find themselves following the same pathways; the bickering may sound different, but it’s always about the same thing. Constructive communication instead creates the possibility of forging a new path.
So, how to begin? By asking questions. Start with yourself: What is this triggering for you? Why is it so important? What buttons are being pushed by this situation? By taking a stance of curiosity in the face of conflict, we create the possibility of a mutually positive outcome. Routinely, during this step is when I realize just how much the conflict is not really about what’s happening on the surface. It’s about something much more fundamental; feeling respected, feeling heard, a sense of fear that something is being taken from me. Simply by naming it, I’m able to diffuse the visceral response just enough to begin the next critical step: Applying that same curiosity to the person I’m in conflict with.
The surprises possible here are countless. This is the true opportunity for my worldview to expand. If I let it. Understanding the underlying positions, interests, and values from the other person’s point of view never fails to highlight similarities and differences. The similarities may come from universal truths (i.e., I’m not the only one who feels a need to be respected), while differences illuminate a whole way of being in the world I may never have considered before. The conflict has enriched my life, simply by making me see more of life. It can create greater self-awareness, and deepen my understanding of others.
It’s better than the alternative.
You can handle conflict. Or it can handle you.
A key idea in approaching conflict collaboratively is to make sure concerns are aired early on according to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. This is true in client-vendor relationships, friendships, and even your own health. Think about that last visit to your doctor. Did you have a worry nagging at you that you felt you shouldn’t bring up because it probably was nothing/the doctor was busy/you didn’t want to look like a hypochondriac? And yet, when you voice your concerns, you are taking ownership of your health and advocating for your very life. Conflict can be an opportunity to speak up for yourself.
A life without conflict is not a life. To breathe is to experience conflict. It makes for eye-catching news headlines, and overcoming it is the basis of all great stories. To exist in the world is to live in the midst of competing priorities and agendas, of people having bad days and making them yours. In the workplace there are strong personalities, hard-crunching deadlines, and quickly shifting needs. Conflict is never far behind in such circumstances.
Conflict can remind us about the fundamental needs we have. I often have to remind myself that the fact that life is messy is not a bad thing. To be honest, I usually prefer things to be neat. I like knowing what’s expected and what to expect. And I prefer my drama on screen. But life inserts itself, with its ambiguity, challenges, and driving needs. And those are the moments, as resistant as I may be at times, that I feel really alive. As Maurice Chevalier once said, “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”
It can create necessary change.
I have long loved this quote by Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Sometimes, what finally drives us to make a change we’ve been putting off because it seemed too hard, or too scary, is conflict. Perhaps the inner conflict of being out of sync with your own values finally makes you take an important career step. Perhaps a festering conflict with a friend comes to a head and makes you realize the relationship is more important than winning and you take a new approach to the conversation. Perhaps the conflict is imposed on you; a merger, rents raised, failing health. And your response is an opportunity to become more than you were before.
There really should be merit badges for adults in my opinion. I know I would like one for every time I’ve consciously entered into a conflict situation rather than cowered away from it. But even if I’m not awarded a Handling Conflict Effectively badge, I do feel a sense of hard-won wisdom and some new tools for the next encounter. Despite my visceral response and loathing of conflict, every moment of it that I’ve entered has created just a little more courage for the next occasion.
Tips for handling the inevitable conflict that life throws at you.
1) Take a deep breath. Our animal brain takes over when conflict arises and shoves aside logic, empathy, even oxygen. Taking a deep breath (or ten) literally and metaphorically allows you to calm your animal brain long enough to figure out how you want to approach the conflict. You can do this in the moment, or if in a particularly heated conflict, you can do this by removing yourself from the situation just long enough to be able to think clearly, rather than reactively.
2) Get curious. Sometimes I pretend I’m an anthropologist, studying myself and others for greater understanding of the world. It can be particularly helpful to take a respectfully curious look at yourself – your motivations, positions, and interests – in the conflict at hand. Ask yourself questions: Why is this so important to me? What is this making me think and feel? Does this connect to something else in a way that the person I’m in conflict with couldn’t possibly anticipate? And in turn, taking that same approach of curiosity with the person you are in conflict with gets you that much closer to mutual understanding.
3) Ask yourself, “Who do I want to be in this conflict?” Ultimately, you don’t have absolute control over the outcome of the situation. You can only control who you are trying to be while you are in it. And that is often enough. As Samuel Beckett famously wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”