How Conflict Can Be Constructive

Full disclosure, I have long considered myself conflict avoidant. Chalk it up to being a Libra peacemaker, who craves harmonious relationships, as well as someone who grew up in a household in which raised voices were rare. As a result, I didn’t learn how to gracefully navigate the waters of opposing viewpoints. More often than not, I would “go along to get along” and refrain from rocking the boat lest it capsize in emotionally stormy seas. Those were also the roots of long-time co-dependency which led me to relationships in which I was often attempting to figure out how to maintain peace and keep everyone happy. A futile task, even for a career therapist.

With all that in mind, there were still times when I would disagree with my parents. I recall an encounter with my dad who encouraged a neighbor boy to strike back physically when another kid called him names. I was appalled when he did that and self-righteously stormed out of the house. As a 20-something pacifist at the time, I asked him what right he had to tell someone else’s offspring to haul off and hit someone when he was not being physically threatened. My father’s response was that “There is a different code of ethics for men.” His contention was that if he didn’t stand up for himself and show his superiority, he would continue to be a target. We never resolved that one, although I did eventually return home.

The reality is that we each have our own perspective about how life should be and the ways in which those with whom we share it, should think and act. In many families, conflict is served up as regularly as the evening meal, and perhaps AT the evening meal. People disagree with each other about topics that include, politics, sex, religion, ethics, human rights, body sovereignty, money, animal rights, how children should be raised, peace and social justice, as well as their favorite flavor of ice cream. Not sure people would defend their choice of sweet treat quite as vociferously.

Why do people avoid conflict?

  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of emotional bullying
  • Fear of physical attack
  • Fear of being thought of as the odd person out.
  • It can lead to violence and vandalism of property.
  • It can lead to death, even as a random and not intentional occurrence. 

There is room for healthy debate where ideas are shared, and new solutions are cultivated. The words, ‘have you considered..?,’ or ‘what about..?’ are useful tools to foster improved communication and solid relationships. I think of it as ‘solutions finding,’ and not problem solving. Going for the win-win serves everyone. People can disagree when there is a culture of trust in the home or workplace when we don’t believe anyone is out to get us. Being willing to express our beliefs in a respectful way that does no harm to others, is strengthening to all parties involved.

These days, there is massive polarization. Each ‘side’ has determined that they are right and the others who disagree are not just wrong, but less than worthy of civility as a result. I have strong opinions that lean left and yet am able to see past what to me appear to be hardened and detrimental values to the essential humanity in those carrying them. I consider that if I had lived that person’s life, was taught what they were, was immersed in certain set standards and reinforcement, I would be likely to think, feel, say and do the same things.

Recently, I attended and taught at a conference in Alexandria, Virginia called Interfusion and went to a workshop called Creative Conflict: Turning Conflict Into Creation and Co-Creativity that was led by Taber Shadburne, MA.  He described it in this way:

“We usually think of conflict as a problem to be avoided, dangerous or destructive to our closeness with others.  But this is only because we have never learned how to identify conflicts clearly and use them skillfully.  With the right understanding and use of conscious conversation, conflict can be seen as a powerful source of creativity.  It can be used constructively, to create ever-deepening degrees of connection and cooperation.

We did a partner exercise in which we laid out all of the should and shouldn’t judgements we held against ourselves or others in our lives. Mine ran along the lines of better self-care, setting appropriate boundaries, and relinquishing self judgement. Casting aspersions on others for their political beliefs, lack of self-care, expecting me to take care of them, ran side by side. I wondered what would happen if I took a ‘should fast’. Would I still make the best choices? I snarkily thought how much better everyone’s life would be if they did what I (in my infinite wisdom) advised. My takeaway from the class was the idea that all of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ in our lives tend to detract from honest, heart-felt discussion. That’s one place where new ideas can emerge. 

Unproductive conflict, per Taber was that it was an argument about whose interpretation of reality is correct and whose ‘should’ is more valid. Creative conflict allows us to go heart to heart instead of head to head. I much prefer that option. He said something along the lines that we each have the right to want what we want, but don’t have the right to get it. Others have that same right, but I don’t have the obligation to provide it to them.

How can we take inventory and be in integrity when in the midst of disagreement?

  • Be aware of our motivation: do we want to make the other person wrong or hear them out?
  • Think and breathe before we speak.
  • Listen with the ears of the heart, with the intent to be present and not be thinking a few steps ahead about our response.
  • Notice what buttons the disagreement is pushing and decide whether we want that person to have access to it.
  • If you are temped to name call or otherwise demean someone for their beliefs, question whether that is productive or destructive.

A singer songwriter friend named Annabella Wood penned a song called. “I Don’t Want to Not Fight,” to describe a dynamic in her marriage to her wife. When I first heard it, it provided the perspective that conflict need not be destructive and can, in fact be a positive way of seeing life through the other person’s lenses.

“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict — alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.” – Dorothy Thompson

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