5 minutes reading time (1052 words)

Conflict Can Be Less Awful. Seriously, It Can.

Joel Mag liveCynthia Morales Live1

by Joel Christie and Cynthia Morales

Few of us enjoy conflict. Maybe the debate team captain? Or possibly trial attorneys? But if we're being honest, most of us would say we feel uncomfortable, intimidated, and even afraid of conflict. But why is that? Cynthia and I are both counselors who work with HD Counseling, LLC, and we thought we would take a few minutes and explore the question: What is it about conflict that seems to be so unsettling for us as human beings?
[Note: This discussion pertains to non-violent, non-abusive conflict.]

Cynthia: To start I'll share my mental associations of conflict and they may resonate with our readers. When I hear the word "conflict" my mind immediately goes to problem, unpleasant, bad, defensive, and a feeling that I just want to avoid it. I get a twinge of anxiety, a fleeting wave of guilt and even a brief passing of irritability which come right on the heels of thoughts about some of my own personal experiences. Just by being mindful of myself in this way I quickly accessed some fear-based internal experiences related to conflict.

Joel: Great point about remembering past conflicts and how much they can affect us; times when I was hurt or felt like I "lost" or at least wasn't heard or understood. And depending on how I see these interactions, I might start to feel like my views don't matter very much. I might feel like I usually end up trampled, or possibly that I have to trample the other person if I want to be heard, respected, validated, etc.

Cynthia: Conflict can bring us to a pretty discouraging mental space, definitely. Your description suggests some valid reasons for conflict's bad reputation. When I think about why we fear conflict, I believe some of us learn to regard it as this terrible, awful, no good, very bad situation that leads to an even more terrible, awful, no good very bad situation. Some of us are programmed that way for legitimate reasons. Conflict itself has the capacity to threaten crucial aspects of wellbeing such as belonging, validation and self-esteem.

Joel: Yup.

Cynthia: We want to protect those things, and how we do so determines the nature of conflict. In a more defensive type of mindset, we may unknowingly be drawn into an argument with someone that has less to do with the issues at hand and more about securing power of our wellbeing. Hence the trample or be trampled approach you mentioned.

Joel: Earlier you also talked about a list of negative things we might associate with conflict, starting with the fact that it will involve some kind of problem. And if we don't think there is much of a chance that the problem gets better as a result of the conflict, I think that could be another reason we want to avoid it. That, and not feeling equipped to deal with disagreement and conflict, like you were saying.

Cynthia: That's a great point, Joel. Our beliefs and attitudes about conflict definitely influence our relationship with conflict. If we believe we aren't able to handle it, then that can leave us feeling pretty helpless about things, and even scared that things will get worse. When we view conflict through fear-based lenses, we perpetuate ineffective conflict resolution skills. However, conflict doesn't have to be seen that way. We can mindfully view conflict as an opportunity to achieve some important positive growth both within ourselves and in our relationships with others. It's the first step to being able to navigate the obstacle course that is conflict.

Joel: I think if we can remember our own durability before, during, and after a conflict, that helps a lot; being able to tell myself I am okay and that I still like myself even when someone disagrees with me. Am I putting too much importance on others validating me, when they are flawed human beings just like I am? Also, knowing that it's not automatically bad if the process of conflict is clumsy or uncomfortable. That's normal. But if I can't accept that I may have the added pressure of wondering why I can't be suave and perfect all the time. Hopefully, instead I can focus on listening to what the other person has to say while remaining true to my own beliefs and values (where that applies), and knowing that my own views do not have to be discarded just because someone else does not like them, or agree with them.

Cynthia: Absolutely Joel, and you conveyed a really empowering lesson about how we can embrace conflict.

Joel: I love giving empowering lessons.

[*Cynthia hits Joel with a half-full mug of coffee*]

Cynthia: Being mindful, compassionate and accepting of our experiences during conflict can lead us to being better prepared to work through it. Being less attached to the outcome of conflict also helps us to hear the person with whom we have conflict. It defuses that power differential I mentioned earlier and allows us to hold both our own beliefs as well as the other persons in a much bigger space of compassion. Conflict doesn't have to be so bad, huh?

Joel: It really doesn't, although the very nature of it—two people seeing things differently, and having those "at-odds" ideas or beliefs intersect—probably means that conflict will still be stressful for most of us. And I do think there are instances with certain people with whom it is wise to choose not to enter into conflict with. This doesn't have to mean cowering in fear, especially when we have that concept clear in our own mind: "I am making a choice not to engage in conflict with this person because I do not believe it would be productive or helpful. I am not running from them, or falsely acquiescing to what they want. I am simply not engaging in conflict with them at this time." Using your own good, discerning judgment, it might even be appropriate to tell the person some of this. Regardless, as Cynthia said several times, so much of this has to do with learning to control our own fear and being able to accept differences that may exist even after the conflict has "resolved." If we can do that, conflict will have much less of a negative impact on us.

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