Sunday, 24 August 2008


I had an interesting discussion about conflict with a friend on Thursday.

In discussing the particular situation that had given rise to the conversation, I stated that I felt conflict was needed to push institutions out of the status quo. I'm sure you're all gonna have a heart attack and die from that surprise.

It was good to be talking about the issue at hand, but I steeled myself for the inevitable "I don't think conflict is the way to go; instead, I think gently pointing the way/listening/trying to placate works much better," that everyone from Catholic priests to shopkeepers trot out. Right on cue, there it was.

Fair point of view, but it's almost like someone is saying, "Isn't using conflict a bit primitive, dear? I know you haven't caught up yet, but there are better ways." I tend to become furious out of all proportion to that underlying assumption, since every last one of them has seen me use many other ways of dealing with a situation. They mean well, but it comes across as patronising. It prevents us from defining conflict and talking about WHY it can be very useful.

Defining conflict is never an easy thing, and unfortunately, when the word comes up, most people tend to think explosions, war, blowouts that mean the end of a friendship/relationship. It's no wonder, considering the Latin root is as follows: L
conflīctus a striking together, equiv. to conflīg(ere) to strike together, contend (con- + flīgere to strike. We all know what happens when you strike two pieces of flint together, or when metal drags on tarmac: sparks, often leading to fire. We forget that fire is our friend as often, if not more so, than it is our enemy. We think conflict and we picture the wildfires that kill and destroy, the ones we can never put out until it's far too late. We forget about the times that fire warms, cleanses and tempers.

We also forget that when we strike things together, we shape them: it was a primitive way of making jewelry or tools; in modern times, think of the sculptor's chisel or diamonds grinding against eachother whilst spinning in opposite directions to shape eachother. Think about the phrase 'knocking the corners off (of someone)', meaning to shape the personality, to bring it to maturity - the image of 'striking together' is evident.

We do conflict a disservice when we think of it only at its extreme. Conflict, at its most basic, is simply, "I disagree. We aren't on the same page." There are many forms of conflict, from sitting down and discussing issues calmly and openly to full-fledged war - and yes, there are cases where the latter can be justified, none of them occurring as we speak.

Conflict is as certain as moonrise and the tides. We are different people with different experiences and beliefs, at some point we ARE going to disagree with or want something different than someone close to us. Pretending you don't is a lie - to yourself and to them, and it undermines the integrity of the relationship. If you carry on pretending, eventually you will lose the very relationship you are trying to save.

Why? Because at its heart, conflict is about engagement. If you refuse to come into conflict with someone, you are refusing to fully engage with them. You are only ever offering a part of yourself. And that's never good enough - for a relationship to be real, you need to be fully yourself with the other person: light, dark, and everything in between.

Now, I'm NOT saying, "Say whatever you want when you want," which is what a lot of people think conflict means. THAT is just naked aggression, or hostility veiled as 'telling the truth'. Conflict is about admitting differences and speaking your point of view, listening to the other person's, and finding a way forward together. It's not about bullying, domination, fighting for the sake of it. Conflict needs resolution, and in that resolution, you may find yourselves closer than before.

Paradoxical? No. Conflict is honest in a way that placating and pointing ways forward are not - it allows the other person to speak their mind and allows BOTH of you to decide the way forward. Unilaterally making a choice for someone else by avoiding conflict becomes manipulative: parental, passive-aggressive, or simply pushy.

Of course, just like anything else, conflict can be badly done - you can say things you don't mean to say; lose control and yell; have a full-fledged war when what you really need is negotiation. It may be that you've buried the conflict for so long that when you face it, it's like a dam bursting and you can't control it. It may be that you're facing someone who can't cope with disagreement and is playing dirty.

As in all things, practice moves us towards perfect. I've recently discovered a great way to enter conflict, thanks to Martha Beck:

"I'm feeling X (feeling) because of Y (evidence). Tell me where I'm wrong." Beautiful. It states your feelings, but admits that you may be misinterpreting. It also lets the other person know they're going to be listened to, and that you're invested in communication, not proving that you're right.

Conflict done right, round 1.

Why am I so invested in conflict as a way of engagement and communication? I grew up in a house where reasonable discussion wasn't much of an option: my father is a control freak extraordinaire, my mother adapted to living with it, and I was seen as an extension of them. Anything that demonstrated my individuality was stomped on as quickly as it appeared: wanting to be a surgeon (my father said, "To be a surgeon, you need to have good hands. Your gross co-ordination is fine, but you don't really have any fine co-ordination" - I was about 5); disagreeing with my father ("You've been brainwashed by your friends; you can't think for yourself."); being emotionally invested in my friendships ("They don't mean anything; you can only trust your family." NOT.). There are times when 'gently pointing the way' or reasonable chat is not an option. Your father kicking you or your mother pulling your hair happen to be two of them.

With a background like that, it's no wonder that conflict is one of the first things I try to generate in a relationship. If we can argue safely; if we can say, "I disagree" safely; if I can trust you to still be there when you don't like how I act or what I believe, I know I can trust you 100%. Whether it's Dom saying, "I think you're wrong"; Greg giving me what I call the "Facebook klaap"; Nick saying, "Bitch" or John saying, "Some of your views horrify me," I know that every last one of them will catch me when I fall. Because we can argue and still love, I know I'm safe.

Yes, conflict can keep you safe - you may think conflict can kill; but lack of conflict is just as much of a murder weapon. A young alcoholic died because the people who could have forced him into rehab (under obedience) didn't. Obviously there were dozens of other people who could have done the same, from family to friends, but no one wanted to engage in the necessary conflict.

So, it seems that conflict can be good for your health - get engaged.


Ariel said...

I know I tend to run away from conflict because I think it means The End. I also know - but am prone to forget - that often when I do end up in direct conflict with someone, in the end our relationship deepens. I always feel closer to both you and my boyfriend after we've quarrelled, and if I'd not been so afraid of offending people or getting in trouble with my parents, I might be having a much easier time now.

Thank you for this, she'enedra. It's something a lot of people, not just me, need to remember.


Anonymous said...

As one who tends to avoid conflict, I see what you are saying.

Why do I avoid it? Well, I tend to think things over slowly and prefer to reflect at length. Quick witted is one thing I most definitely am NOT!!! So in any sort of argument, I frequently come off second best - not because I am wrong (although that cetainly does happen quite a bit), but because I can't think of what to say at the right time. Not a good recipe for resolution of conflict etc!

But it is good that you assert or imply that an atmosphere of trust needs to be in place for at least some decent resolution. Getting in trouble for merely stating one's views is also an experience of my childhood...

Carry on the conflict mining, please!