We all resolve conflicts every day. Many of our conflicts are so small we hardly notice them. Some are ones we address all the time and are very skilled at resolving. But there are some conflicts which arise over and over in our most significant relationships which never seem to be adequately worked through.
Because they keep coming up--and because they are in relationships which are important to us--we do everything we can think of to try to resolve them. When we can't we often decide that they are irresolvable. "Since I have tried everything," we reason, "and it still isn't fixed, there must be nothing I can do about it."
In thirty years of working with people in high conflict relationships I have found that there is one simple shift that opens up a vast array of possibilities for addressing and resolving conflict. This shift is to let go of trying to change the other and to focus instead on changes we can make in ourselves. When we are centered in our own experience, clear about what we need, doing what we can do to generate the qualities we need, without any expectation or demand that the other change, we discover we are immensely powerful and creative.
Nevertheless, while this shift in perspective is simple and creative, it is not easy. By looking at the reasons this shift is hard to make we can find hints for creative change.
We don't know we are trying to change others. We know we can't change others. Even if we get them to change their behavior in the short run, they can always change back. But just because we can't control them doesn't mean we don't try. If you are trying to address a conflict with someone and they are resisting you, you are trying to change them.
The problem is not in wanting others to change; of course we want that. The problem is in trying to get them to change. Even trying to get the other to understand me is trying to change them unless the other wants to know what is going on with me.
We don't know why we should change. We see the other as responsible for the problem so it is the other who should change. We aren't to blame. But when we think of responsibility only as whose fault it is we generate a fight. A fight is when we try to make each other lose.
If the only way I know to win is to get you to change, all you have to do to make me lose is do what you are already doing. What could be easier? The reason for me to change is not because I am bad or wrong the way I am, but because I am not getting what I need the way things are. We change because we care about ourselves.
We don't know how to use our emotions constructively. With these persistent conflicts our emotions can overwhelm us. We can feel flooded by them and they sometimes inspire choices which get us the opposite of what we need. We think of these as "negative" emotions. But emotions are data and energy. They are information about what we need and the energy to act to create what we need.
Emotions arise because there are important qualities missing from our lives. When we act to create those qualities for ourselves, we not only create what we need, we create what everyone needs. This is not a zero sum game. Everyone can win.
We don't know what would be a better choice. While it is simple (though not easy) to shift from trying to change others to changing ourselves, knowing what to do can be quite complex. Most of the conflicts we are trying to address are complicated.
I may have a conflict with my son over the tidiness of his bedroom. I want him to learn that if he wants to be able to find his things and have them be safe he will have to take care of them. And I don't want to live in a pig sty. Part of me wants to allow him to experience the consequences of his own choices and part of me is worried about vermin. When I can clearly hear from each of these internal perspectives and know what each is trying to create for me, I can then know how to act towards my son in a manner that supports his ability to care for himself, his property, and his relationships with others.
By letting go of the goal of changing the other and simply working to transform ourselves all conflicts can be resolved.