Conflict: A Bridge from Separation to Unity

When we view the conflicts in our life and in the world, we see anger, fear, distrust, attack, counterattack, emotional and physical injury, even death. No wonder we avoid it at all costs. But avoiding conflict has its own price. By refusing to take risks, we stagnate in superficial and inauthentic relationships.

What are our choices besides avoidance? If we do not feel equipped to deal with conflict, we may deny our own needs and accommodate the other person. Our self-esteem will suffer, and we may become quietly resentful. This resentment often emerges as passive/aggressive behavior, which undermines the viability of our relationship.

If we believe in ourselves and our abilities we may have the confidence to compete when conflict arises. We may even win the competition, but often at the expense of the other person and the harmony of the relationship.

As we mature, and see the folly of avoidance, accommodation, and competition, we may choose to compromise when managing conflict. We attempt to be fair, and are willing to give something in order to get something. While this can be modestly effective, we experience little joy in the giving as it is only the return on our investment that has value for us. Subtle resentments can easily attach themselves to such gifts.

We may eventually consider collaboration. Collaboration is neither passive (accommodation) nor aggressive (competition). It differs from compromise in that when collaborating, each person views the other's needs and interests as not only equally important but also worth knowing, understanding, and appreciating. Possible outcomes are contemplated not from a separate place but from a shared space. Both parties know that neither can win unless they both win.

So why don't we collaborate? Because it takes time, patience, and communication skills that we were never taught. If we apply ourselves, we can learn to express ourselves assertively without the frustration and anger that can escalate the conflict. We can take responsibility for our own feelings instead of blaming the other and experiencing ourselves as a victim. We can learn the underrated act of empathetic listening, so that we can listen without defending, judging, personalizing, or rescuing.

When we take the daring step of temporarily putting our own needs aside to really listen to the other, a remarkable event occurs. We transcend our separate boundaries, and our identities become united instead of separated, unified instead of divided. We are now allies instead of adversaries, and attack the problem instead of each other. We recognize the shared values, needs and interests that lay beneath the positions that had previously divided us. From this new perspective, giving and receiving are indistinguishable, and we realize that in meeting the needs of the other we will be simultaneously meeting our own.

So, conflict can separate, confuse, antagonize, frustrate, and alienate us. Or it can be a bridge, that does appear shaky and tenuous at first, but that can ultimately be traversed with skill, integrity and dignity. Conflict is actually the ideal opportunity to heal the wounds of our relationships, and transform them and ourselves in the process.