Conflict Is A Good Thing
Here's a radical thought: what if you believed that conflict was a good thing? I'm serious.
What if two people who have differing opinions could come together in conflict, but instead of the usual fight or flight response, what if they could actually get closer?
I believe it's possible, and I believe many of us have been doing conflict wrong for far too long.
I grew up learning that the loudest, scariest person (usually my dad, but I often put in a respectable second-place showing) won the argument. When yelling didn't work, I had to start getting physical. And when that no longer worked… well, I didn't want to know what would come next.
It was mostly my brother that I fought with back in the day, and things between us got plenty ugly for a time… until I discovered something incredible: the way I learned to fight wasn't the way everyone fought. People have many different ways to handle conflict. Some avoid it, some fight harder, but some use it to get closer to one another.
I discovered that's what I wanted: better relationships, closer friendships and a better way to deal with conflict. I didn't like the fight or flight options. And I knew there was a better way. There had to be! Because not everyone had a miserable relationship with their brother, or spouse, or boss. Some people actually liked each other. I wanted to like my brother, but I was way too angry at him all of the time.
As it turns out, I was right about there being a better way. It was a technique I learned from a course called the Pursuit of Excellence. Basically, it was just better communication and understanding.
We all do things that make the most sense to us at any particular moment. But what makes the most sense to you might not make the most sense to me. That's where the conflict comes from in the first place.
What I learned was to break it all down into understandable chunks and then talk the other person through those chunks, also giving them the opportunity to tell their side. Here's what I mean:
Everything starts with data. These are the things we say and do, what we taste, feel, touch, smell, etc. These are the facts, the pieces of evidence that would stand up in court. Sometimes, conflict occurs when we get our facts mixed up. And sometimes an argument can be cleared up just by walking through the facts together. These usually result in hilarious tales of misunderstanding, and are what most romantic comedies are based upon.
But sometimes, people disagree about the evidence and there's no way to prove either side. I find in these cases it's best to give the benefit of the doubt. 'Innocent until proven guilty.'
Most conflict, however, stems from what we do with the data: we make up stories. My story is totally based on my history, my beliefs, my experiences and my truths - or what I think are truths. Your story will be based on your history, beliefs, experiences and truths. And rarely will the twain ever be identical.
That's why it's so important to talk it out with the other person. Too often, we jump right to the result: our emotions. We blame our sadness, anger, frustration, etc on the other person when they have no idea what (story) led to that emotion.
When you can guide someone through your story - without judgement, without jumping straight to emotion, without assuming one story is right and one is wrong - they are far more likely to understand you. They are able to learn something new about you, and get closer to you, and you to them.
There's no use trying to make everyone more like you, in trying to force them to have an identical story to yours. But there's a ton of value in letting people know you. That's the power of conflict.
I understand you may have doubts. There's the fear of angry outbursts or hurt feelings. But those fears aren't actually fears of conflict. They're fears about one particular approach to conflict.
A new approach takes time and practice, but here are the steps that have served me well:
1. Clarify your data, story and feeling - sort it out for yourself first. This helps you to know yourself better too.
2. Ask permission to talk with the person. They may not be ready.
3. Present the data (facts only!) and check in. Does the other person have the same data?
4. Then present your story in a way that they can follow it. Use 'I' language; it's your story.
5. Then present your feelings and your intention. What do you want out of the conflict? Do you want to ask the other person to change a behaviour? To make a new agreement? Or just to understand you? People need to be led.
I hope my story gives you new insight into dealing with conflict constructively. It may just save your relationships like it's saved mine.
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