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“The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them.”
– Thomas Crum

How do you act in the face of conflict? 

Conflict in the human realm presents us with many challenges, some we’d rather not face. How we act in the face of conflict tells us something about where we’ve come from and also about what personal obstacles may prevent us from handling conflict with clarity and grace.

The hardest thing about conflictual moments between us humans is that there are at least two nervous systems online (or offline, depending on how many amygdalas are hijacked). Each is looking at an issue from a different point of view borne out of an entirely different way of knowing the world and being shaped by it, and how each has learned to react to conflict. 

We come in with baggage: what conflict has felt like to us in our homes and lives up until now, which fuels our mood towards conflict. Depending on what we learned about conflict in our cumulative histories, the slight whiff of conflict may make us want to run, shut down, or get angry and have at it. We worry about asserting our truth, defending and protecting what we believe is right, or asking for what we need all because of what happened in the past. 

Consider these questions about your own history with conflict and how those patterns may be showing up today, in your organization: How did/does your family handle conflict? How does your organization or company handle conflict? What is the hard conversation you need to have that you’ve been putting off?

Psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera notes that conflict isn’t bad or wrong, it is simply an opportunity. She writes: 

“…our mind, body, and nervous systems go into high defensive mode when conflicts arise in our relationships. Our egos become extremely activated. There’s no active listening. There’s not even an awareness of another person. We become gridlocked in proving our point. This is why conflict is often just an endless cycle where two people leave feeling unseen and unheard. Healing is about having a new relationship to conflict.”

Conflict gives us the chance to learn about our behavior so that we can gain more choice in how we react. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, founder and CEO of Alignment Strategies Group, and author of Optimal Outcomes: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, notes in this podcast conversation with Jerry that there are four conflict habits that we often get stuck in. We use all four of them under different circumstances, yet there is one “primary conflict habit” which is our default. 

  1. We blame other people.
  2. We shame and blame ourselves.
  3. We avoid or shut down in the face of conflict with other people.
  4. We relentlessly seek to collaborate with other people, even when they refuse to cooperate with us.

Which one is your go-to response in the face of conflict? Where did you learn your style?

Changing the habit begins by noticing what happens and what you do. Once you know your defaults, you can create space to make new choices. For example, instead of blaming the other person, you could ask: “How might I be responsible here? How might I have contributed to this?” 

Stepping back and noticing all that’s happening from a bird’s eye view can also help us gain added perspective on our blind spots. Pausing to look at what’s really going on for you and for the other person can help you see where you get hooked emotionally in the conflict dynamic. What’s important to you in this situation? How are you seeing this? What do you feel when you hear the other person’s requests, comments, or questions? How does your reaction give light to what you value? What is important on their side of the table? What do they value? 

From the vantage point of being slightly removed, you can glean more insight into the deeper layers that may be at play–for both parties. Ultimately, you might get a good glimpse about what’s happening for you, on your side of the table, so that you can see where you’re hooked and get curious about how to unhook yourself. Maybe you need an ounce of empathy and understanding for what the other person is really reaching for; or, perhaps you realize you can set up more clear boundaries about when and how to engage with the other. There are many ways around and through conflict, but you can only control how you want to show up. 

When we learn to break the cycle, we unhook ourselves and gain freedom from the conflict cycle. We disengage from the enticing tangle and stand as we are, perhaps even more clear about ourselves and our stance than we were at the onset of the conflict. Remember how taking care of you and your wellbeing is the greatest gift you can give others? And, how clarity is kindness? The same guidelines apply here. “When we free ourselves, we naturally free whoever else is involved, too,” Jennifer reminds us. “Because if we’re not in it, they’re in it by themselves.” 

Learning to unhook yourself from the ways in which conflict brings out your least-full-self is a big part of growing up and becoming a better human (and better leader). In the process, you attain a greater range of motion in the conversations you face daily without engaging with others from the webs and other emotional places we can get stuck in.


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