By Mel Luymes
There’s nothing like Thanksgiving with the family to see how we deal with conflict. I guess you’ll be reading this a few weeks after the fact, but it is Thanksgiving weekend as I write this.
And what great timing! I just finished four days of an incredible course in Understanding Conflict from the University of Waterloo so I’m eager to use my new knowledge on my unsuspecting family.
My key take-away from the course is that the key to managing a conflict is to accurately identify the problem. Seems simple, but I think this step is the stickiest because we humans have a strong tendency to think that ‘other people’ are the problem. And, spoiler alert, other people are rarely the problem, it is our own expectations of a situation that are often the culprit.
But for some reason, it is easier and juicier to make others into the problem and so we develop a villain-victim narrative about the situation. We recruit our friends into our story and then we might even start to draw the trenches of polarization. And if certain friends don’t buy into our story, we will be in conflict with them too. The conflict story gets stuck on our faces, and we can’t even see it because it is now the lens through which we see. So, it is a never-ending cycle of who-hurt-who and it leads to resentment, broken families, difficult workplaces, etc.
And, as I’m learning about myself this Thanksgiving, conflict isn’t always overt and explosive because many of us just smile and nod or apologize too quickly to keep an artificial peace. I read somewhere that if conflict is kept quiet, it moves inside and makes a war within our bodies, expressing itself as sickness and disease.
Apart from our health, the other downside to not addressing a conflict is the missed opportunity. When conflicting parties de-personalize the problem and understand where the others are coming from, a gift appears for them. The gift could be a new perspective, idea, opportunity or solution, a deeper relationship … a miracle, really. But this gift is hard-earned because the only way to get to it is through the thorns of conflict.
The thorns are the internal pain or the outward disdain, when even the thought of the other person makes your stomach turn and your face gets hot with anger. I’ve been there. Heck, I’ve been there since April if I’m being honest. It is said that resentment is like drinking poison, while expecting the other to die. Yup, the only one that is suffering here is me.
“Just let it go”, people say. But I think that before we can really let things go, we need to do some serious self-reflection first. Even if the other party isn’t there, we can get to the deeper part of the conflict in order to heal it and move on. Because we just see the tip of the iceberg. On the surface it might not be too big of an issue to some, but things that hurt deeply likely go all the way to our core human needs. Those thorny emotions are the alarm bells warning that part of us is being stepped on. According to the Understanding Conflict course, delivered by Credence & Co, the core needs are Belonging, Meaning, Recognition, Self-Determination, and Security. I can see how at least three of my needs were seriously stepped on back in April, so it is understandable that I would feel how I feel. I think that acknowledging and allowing for one’s own needs and emotions is the first step to transforming a conflict.
The next step is to re-humanize the other. In the conflict process, we make the other out to be either illogical or having ill-intent and we might even caricaturize them as non-humans. But if we truly listened to them, we would see them operating from a logic that is different from our own, and we might understand why they acted as they did, stemming from their own pain and core needs.
And only after first giving empathy to ourselves and then seeing the humanity in the other can we peel the conflict off our faces to de-personalize it and identify the problem as the problem.
And then might come a brave conversation with the “other” to find the gift in resolution. Much of my thinking on conflict resolution comes from NonViolent Communication TM which was developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. He writes that “to practice the process of conflict resolution, we must completely abandon the goal of getting people to do what we want.” We have to get ourselves out of the way and let a situation be what it is, instead of what we think it should be.
But it is so difficult! I don’t know why we hold so deeply to these wounds and conflict stories instead of letting them heal. There is some sort of power in playing the victim that I can’t quite understand. But for the sake of our health, our families, our workplaces, our institutions, and our world, I believe we all must lean into the difficult thorny spaces to find the gifts.
Lucky for us, every relationship gives us an opportunity to practice and to transform conflict. And so does every Thanksgiving! ◊