What is conflict? Where do we begin to define it? Despite the fact that many of us try to live harmoniously, it seems to creep its way into so facets of our lives. While periodic conflict is inevitable, we often do all we can to avoid it and seldom pause to consider how it could be used constructively. Avoiding conflict because it is uncomfortable prevents us from seeing it for all that it is. Seizing opportunities to approach conflict openly at the very least might help us identify how often it appears in our lives and at best provide us with some clarity to rise above it. So, in this way, perhaps clarifying the extent to which we are caught up in conflict dynamics could serve as a valuable starting point. We’ve all been in situations where we become defensive when someone provides a perspective that counters our own or questions our integrity, hard work or commitment. We often feel like we are being unfairly criticized. Our tendency to react, clouds our discernment, diverting us from having an open conversation with the person who just “pulled the rug from underneath us”. When we’re not open, we remain just as uneasy as the first moment we felt “undeservedly judged”. Many of us choose not to move forward and stay caught up in these uncomfortable emotions.
Choosing to remain overwhelmed by anger or frustration and attack the person confronting us, leads to an even more hostile reaction from them. Notice the pattern here – being conflicted or harbouring resentful emotions brings the same compromised energy back to us. At this point, if we don’t catch ourselves, the situation could go from bad to worse, as we choose to use words that we later regret. Of course, conflict is not formulaic and any variation of the pattern just described may unfold. If we decided to spiral downward and continue to react, then the following scenario will sound familiar. When we walk away from a confrontation, there’s a raw physical sensation in our bodies. Mentally we tell ourselves that we have been slighted, as endless “loops” that highlight how we were victimized circulate in our minds. “Why are people so hard to deal with?” “Why does this always happen to me?” “Can’t anyone understand the contribution I’m trying to make? “ Our egos tend to have a need to dwell in these limiting perspectives over and over again.
Every step of the way however, opportunities to choose more wisely and approach the interaction differently present themselves. A masterful initial encounter may have unfolded in the following way. We hear the criticism, hold our emotions in check, ask “the critic” to elaborate on his or her perspective, make a decision to respond accordingly and if we so choose, walk away and thank him or her for sharing their perspective. If there’s still a feeling that the criticism is unwarranted, then we could calmly say that we understand where the person is “coming from” while explaining why we took the approach we did. As you read this and are perhaps triggered by a memory of an uncomfortable encounter, you might say that the approach just described is “easier said than done”. Well, the saying, “you can catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar”, is most applicable in this case. While we might be hurt emotionally and not feeling very forgiving, if we demonstrate that we’re respectful and express ourselves calmly, the situation has much more potential to be diffused effectively (and by extension, enhances the learning process).
Returning to our unfolding conflict, if we chose to react, and anger got the better of us at the outset, another opportunity to choose wisely would still present itself. We could humbly apologize for our reaction (see the honey reference above) and explain that the context of the criticism struck us harshly. We didn’t feel that it was warranted as we were sure that we provided a high quality effort (in the workplace) or were considerate (in a social situation). These are just two of any number of examples of conflict that many of us regularly encounter. Our honesty would most likely lead to a simmering down of the “fire” within “our opponent”. Even if we took our frustration a step further by actively participating in a series of “unflattering comments” being lobbed back and forth, there would still be an opportunity to alleviate the tension and “salvage” the situation.
A major part of the problem lies in our uncompromising attachment to our perspectives. Moving beyond the need to assert our views in the way we see them might also transform our tendency to walk away from situations with any thought to how they “affected” us. We could overcome feeling physically and emotionally uncomfortable and perhaps through an enhanced our approach to conflict, we may not even have had the compromising encounter in the first place. This is the gift of experience and time. The more situations of a similar nature we have, the easier it might be to address them with clarity. Take time to learn from your experience with conflict and be open to “stepping back” to modify your approach – it may just transform your life!