We experience conflict when we perceive the other as interfering with our ability to get what we want. If our needs are in opposition, it appears that only one of us can get them met. In this competition, only one of us will win. Fearful of losing, we use whatever strategies are available (manipulation, intimidation, even violence) to ensure victory. We believe that our wellbeing, our very survival, is at stake.
As the target of our subtle or overt offensive, the other person feels threatened, reacts defensively, and then counter-attacks. Our dispute escalates, and we injure each other emotionally, perhaps physically. Alternating between withdrawing and attacking, we create dissonance, disconnection, painful divorce, calamitous warfare.
When we perceive danger, we react with this instinctive flight or fight reflex. Motivating us to transcend these primitive impulses are the memories of past conflicts and their tragic consequences. If we take a breath, and look for alternatives to this destructive, archaic style, we will find them. If we truly seek peace, and are willing to let go of our judgments and need for vindication, we can take the evolutionary leap to solve our conflicts with dignity and integrity.
How does this occur? With insight, patience, knowledge, and practice. Unfortunately, the practical and necessary skills of effective communication are not taught alongside history and mathematics in our public schools. But with diligence and dedication, we can learn to express ourselves assertively instead of passively or aggressively, and to take responsibility for our needs and feelings instead of imagining ourselves to be the victims of others' behavior. We can also learn the underrated art of empathic, active listening, so that we can listen without judging, rescuing, or personalizing.
When we have the experience of being truly heard and understood, a primary human need is satisfied. It is the basic need of every child from his parent, every spouse from her partner, every friend from another friend. It is the need to be seen, acknowledged, accepted and valued exactly as we are. It is so comforting, soothing, and validating when we receive this gift, that we release our attachment to the original desire or demand that instigated the conflict. Our heart having opened, we are moved to reciprocate by offering this same gift of authentic listening to the other.
When we take the daring step of temporarily putting our own needs aside to 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, attacking the problem instead of each other. We recognize the shared values, needs, and interests that lay behind the positions that had previously divided us. The language that we use reflects this transformation, as "I" and "you" become "we" and "mine" and "yours" become "ours." From this shared perspective, giving and receiving are merged, and we realize that in meeting the needs of the other we will be naturally and organically be meeting our own.