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Keeping Conflict in Perspective

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them.- M.D. Arnold

A friend told me about a conflict with her next-door neighbor.

Due to a misunderstanding, the neighbor was pretty upset, so much so that when they passed on the street, and my friend said hello and reached out to shake his hand, he withdrew it, avoided eye contact, muttered a monotone hi, and quickly walked past her.

She felt like she had been punched in the stomach. Stunned, she walked back to her house, wondering what had just happened. It was even more upsetting because she communicated with this man about the confusion that had initially caused the conflict, and she thought that heed understood her point of view. She wanted to find out what went wrong, but he did not like to discuss it.

We talked about the incident for a while, brainstorming strategies to help her deal with this unexpected blow, but eventually, I left her to think it over on her own.

A surprise attack is one of the most brutal conflicts to manage. It is a shock to the system. The first reaction (after your heartbeat returns to normal) is to blame the other person or yourself and get caught in an endless internal dialogue about who is at fault and what to do next.

Regardless of the cause, a troubling conflict may take time to untangle and can disrupt our lives while it is going on. We lose our balance and often run on half power, the other half working non-stop to figure out where to assign blame and (as much as possible) justify our actions. If it is disturbing enough, we lose focus at work and home, have difficulty making even routine decisions, and spend wakeful nights deliberating over the best way to manage it. It is hard to do anything wholeheartedly until it is resolved.

I felt much empathy for my friend. I have been there, and it is no fun. One of the ways I tried to help was to listen when she needed to talk, and I suggested she take care of herself while unraveling the situation. Conflict is brutal to the body, mind, and spirit, and some strategies can help us keep perspective and move the battle toward a positive resolution.

Breathe and find your balance. A conflict can unbalance us with strong emotions and feelings of unworthiness, anger, sadness, and frustration. Do not avoid these emotions but treat them as guides. Appreciate and see as you might observe a play. There is much power in this emotional energy, and as you breathe and watch, you will find a way to use it that aligns with our best purpose.

Take the long view. It is so easy to get caught in the turmoil of the conflict that we forget there will be a tomorrow. Take quiet moments to close your eyes and see yourself with a conflicted future. Imagine how you will feel with the problem behind you. What would the relationship look like a month from now, a year? 

Meanwhile, eat well, go to bed at regular hours, laugh and allow yourself to forget the problem occasionally. This may not be easy, but it is effective. Allow your inner wisdom to work silently while you engage in life.

Reframe. Step outside the conflict momentarily. Instead of resisting it, ask yourself if there is a gift here, an invitation to look at the problem differently or try out new behavior. Acknowledge the other person by stepping into their shoes. Why are they behaving this way? What do they want? How would you feel if you were in their position?

Practice. Brainstorm all responses to this situation and try them on for size. Get a friend and role-play alternatives you think you would never choose because they are unlike your usual persona. Have fun exercising new selves.

Count your blessings. Notice the good things in your life. Cultivate gratitude and wonder.

After brainstorming options, my friend wrote a letter to her neighbor. She refrained from justifying wrong actions. Instead, she acknowledged his feelings and offered to talk with him about the situation. They began to talk and, over time, became good neighbors again.

  • Here are questions to help you practice good conflict management:
    What happens when you are surprised by conflict?
  • How do you usually behave, and how is it different from what you would like to do?
  •  Think about the last time you experienced this “surprise attack.” How did you manage it? 
  • What might you have done differently? 
  • What next steps will you take?

Conflict can cause us to lose sight of the big picture of what we genuinely want in life, why we are here, and what is essential or to see it more clearly. In “The Magic of Conflict,” author Thomas Crum says, “our quality of life depends not on what happens to us, but on what we do with what happens to us.” This feels true. Making it operational is the key to finding our power.

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