Conflict may frighten you, or at the least, you find it unpleasant. Perhaps the last thing you would choose to do is to engage in conflict, and yet this is exactly what I encourage you to do in spite of the anxiety you may feel.
Firstly, a few words about avoiding conflict because avoidance is an important choice to be able to make. Some situations are too challenging, others will shift for the better if you avoid communicating over them, a few conflicts are not worth the effort required to engage. And, in the short term, avoiding engagement in order to prepare is irreplaceable for accumulating strength – when you have that luxury.
My experience tells me, however, that there are many more situations in which people are not engaging in a conflict, but would be better off doing so, than situations in which people are engaging, but would be better off not engaging in the conflict. Since conflicted circumstances will often worsen if we do not proactively move into them, people should be much more concerned about the consequences of not engaging in conflict than they are.
Here are some specific reasons that support a pro-engagement attitude:
1) It is easier to address conflict in the early stages than in more developed stages. When not addressed, conflict tends to escalate or fester. In either case, valuable relationships can be damaged and opportunities lost.
2) People generally prefer to get along with each other. Frequently conflict is based on misunderstanding and by talking with the other person it is possible to rectify misunderstandings that have led to hard feelings.
3) The third reason is concerned with opportunity and potential. When we share our differences they interact in ways that create new possibilities and often better ways of solving presenting problems. In short, many conflicts have an inherent creative potential waiting to be tapped.
4) When we engage in the present, we build capacity for the future. Dealing with a perplexing difference today enhances the capacity to tackle even more challenging situations in the future. Conflict engagement is an important feature in the development of any strong relationship.
5) By paying attention to how the other party experiences me, I learn about how to modify my behaviour so I can be more effective and empowered in the future. In order to listen with wise ears, I need to let go of the defensive need to be right. There will always be parts of myself of which I am unaware, and no matter how good my intentions are they can produce some damaging effects. There may be much of value to learn from someone with whom we have differences.
6) Conflict often means hurt. The wound one feels, if not addressed, may close off a part of the self. If we don’t address the ‘injury’ we lose part of the capacity to fully be ourselves. The capacity of communication with the other party to restore or enhance relationship is a richer pathway than one on which we travel alone.
7) In conflict we become defensive about our actions and our viewpoints. A very interesting question is, really, what are we defending and why? I have not heard a fully satisfying answer. Robert Kegan at Harvard writes that conflict challenges our pretense of completeness. The meaning I take from this provocative statement is that we walk around in an illusion of wholeness or completeness. Underneath our reactivity and defensiveness lies a part of the self wanting growth. The conflict will teach us how, if we allow it to do so. The insights we may gain open the door to the spiritual dimensions of the conflict experience.
Let me know if you engage in more conflict after reading this article.