Transforming Conflict into Connection

I have observed over the years that there are three things that groups struggle with as they seek to work together: confusion (which is why I value clarity), lack of contribution (which is why I value diversity, equity, and inclusion), and conflict. I have also observed that of these three, conflict seems to be the least understood and the least addressed. Since it also often plays a role in the other two, it definitely warrants deeper reflection and practice. 

In many ways, I’ve been a student of conflict my whole life. My birth family was filled with it during my childhood, my chosen family was filled with it during my young adulthood, and as I grow and mature it seems to remain one of life’s rare constants.

My relationship to conflict has been sorted to say the least. At various times I’ve mastered ignoring it, instigating it, and accepting it. Thankfully (and as the result of many years of hard work), today I am able to have many positive relationships not in spite of it but in many ways because of it. I have a close friend who votes for the “other” political party, a coparent whose values are very different from own, and two siblings who live very different lifestyles from mine. These are some of the most important and valuable relationships I have, and I believe that they are helping me grow precisely because I regularly work with any conflicts that arise, in these relationships and in many others.

As any storyteller well knows, conflict is at the heart of every myth that ever moved us. It is an essential ingredient to helping our brains develop wise thoughts and employ wise deeds. It’s not just the case that we shouldn’t seek to try to bury or fix it (even if our culture encourages us to), it’s that we simply can’t. Conflict is not an obstacle, it’s a doorway, one that is vital to our continued evolution. Conflict can do things nothing else can’t: It can reveal to us what we need, what we value, where we can grow, and what we need to let go of. 

Sometimes it feels natural to avoid it not only because we all crave belonging and harmony, but because we fear and thereby resist what we do not yet know or comprehend. Sadly, our avoidance of it, however, can invite the very things we think we are fighting against: disconnection, separation, ignorance, and stagnation.

The good news is we always have choices. We can approach conflict with wisdom and compassion, and we can discover ways to let it help us rather than hurt us. One of the first things I came to understand about conflict is that it isn’t always about me versus you, or them versus us. Conflict can exist in many forms:

  • Inner conflict happens when we are disconnected from ourselves

  • Interpersonal conflict occurs when we are disconnected from ourselves and from others

  • Group conflict exists when we are disconnected from others and from our shared vision

Being able to recognize each of these forms of conflict when they show up is only the beginning. When we can see and name the ways we are responding to these conflicts is when we can claim some progress. Here are some thoughts and behaviors I’ve noticed in my own life that now act as signals to me that conflict has shown up and needs to be acknowledged...

Avoiding conflict can look like:

  • Passivity or pretending to be neutral or “objective"

  • People pleasing, including withholding opinions, keeping secrets or telling half-truths

  • Only looking at the “bright side”

  • Only looking at similarities, often recognizing groups instead of individuals

  • Looking for quick fixes, permanent solutions or “cures"

  • Silos and echo chambers - surrounding ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) with those who are “like us"

Contributing to and/or complicating conflict can look like:

  • Pointing out differences in a way that implies that they are bad, believing there is a “right” and a “wrong”

  • Arguing, interrupting, or speaking over others

  • Complaining, gossiping, or talking about how bad/wrong “they” are

  • Believing in inherent doom or “damnation"

  • Refusing to listen, especially when what’s being said makes us feel uncomfortable

  • “Explaining” or “educating” without taking into account the needs and perspectives of the listener

As a comparison, accepting conflict can look like:

  • Listening to understand instead of to be understood, thus indicating that we are willing to fully participate in an informed discussion

  • Noticing differences and admitting where we may be biased or rigid

  • Valuing all experiences, perspectives and strengths (not just saying we do) by seeking out and surrounding ourselves with those who are different from and even disagree with us

  • Recognizing, naming, allowing, and attending to our feelings and needs

  • Making polite requests and accepting responsibility for co-creating mutually-beneficial solutions

  • Allowing others to change or grow at their own preference and pace

When we start to notice our relationship to conflict, we begin to see that it serves us much better to work with it instead of against it. But making changes to our habitual behaviors is never easy. As we reconnect with ourselves, with others, and with our shared visions, our relationships to ourselves and to others are bound to change, and in many ways this is the most difficult part of the transformation. We have to be willing to let go of how we’ve long thought about ourselves and about others.

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One way I’ve heard this experience of transformation be framed, one that resonates with my own experience, is Stephen Karpman's Drama Triangle and David Emerald's Empowerment Dynamic:

  • When we feel like a powerless, wounded, vulnerable “victim,” we must save ourselves and become a “creator” of new solutions and outcomes

  • When we act like a manipulative, aggressive “persecutor,” we must learn ourselves and become a “challenger” who builds others up

  • When we react like a heroic, arrogant martyr or “rescuer,” we must empower and care for ourselves and become a “coach” who encourages others to develop their own solutions

In short, transforming conflict into connection requires that we take responsibility for learning new ways of thinking and behaving. This includes understanding that if our goal is simply to resolve conflict we are likely to force merely temporary fixes that may not serve all our best interests in the long term.

As the apparent threats that conflict appears to present are questioned and discredited, we may come to believe something new: 

  • that our needs are never in competition with one another, that we can all get our needs met

  • that each of us is doing the very best we can given our current resources and capacities

  • that our work together will never be flawless nor finished but it is always worthwhile

Choosing to believe this and to show up for conflict day after day requires honesty, commitment, patience, encouragement, and humility. If we choose to do so, we can receive the greatest rewards imaginable: mutual growth and a love that can endure anything.