Conflict

A conflict is when the other is not as we want the other to be or when we are not as the others wants us to be.

We think conflicts cannot be resolved because of what we understand the nature of conflict to be and how we conceive of the process of resolution. As we develop a fuller understanding of the nature of conflict, possibilities for resolution open up to us.

We may say to ourselves about a troubling situation, "I won't say anything. I don't want to start a conflict." By conflict in this context we mean, "I don't want to start a fight." "What I have to say about what is bothering me will hurt her feelings and then she will respond in kind and then we will be caught up in trying to make each other lose and I don't want to go there, so I just won't say anything."

In another sense, however, the conflict exists whether I say anything about it or not. The other is doing something which bothers me. There is a quality to our relationship I don't like and it is not serving my needs. The other has made or is making choices which create events which create a quality in our relationship which is not good for me or for our relationship.

While I may think of the conflict as the fight we might get into if I say anything, we may also think of the conflict as the condition that exists already as I contemplate what, if anything, I will do to respond. For our purposes in learning to more fully resolve conflict, it is necessary to separate out

  • the condition or event that triggered my awareness of the problem, and
  • the response that I consider making to the problem.

So we will talk about conflicts and strategies for addressing conflicts as different things.

My awareness of the problem may have been triggered by any one of a number of co-occurring circumstances. The other may have made a choice I didn't like. An event may have occurred which was not what I expected or what I believe serves my needs. The qualities in our relationship may have shifted such that it is no longer safe or satisfying. Thus I may see a conflict as a choice or strategy, an occurrence or event, or as a quality or condition of the relationship itself. Let's look at a simple example of this.

Suppose you are driving on a crowded Interstate highway on your way home after work. You get over into the right hand lane to join the queue for your exit. As you are slowing, cars continue past you on your left and one of them suddenly cuts in front of you.

You notice feelings of anger arise in you as you hit the brakes to avoid the other car. You notice thoughts about the other driver as one who is selfish and entitled and dangerous. You entertain thoughts of flashing your lights or your horn or riding the car's bumper to express your feelings.

At one level the conflict may be seen as the result of the choice of the other driver to cut in front of you. This driver has a strategy of pulling past other drivers in the queue to save a few seconds on his or her way home.

At another level the conflict may be seen as the event the choice created. The abrupt appearance of a car pulling into your lane caused you to have to brake, to have concerns about your safety, and to worry that the car behind you may not have seen you brake and could slam into you.

And at the third level, the event created tension, alarm, fear, anger and the awareness that others on the highway are not as concerned about the common welfare as you would like. Others are not looking out for your best interests. These are not the qualities that best serve you or those around you.

We may then think of the conflict as

  • the strategy that the other used,
  • the event or interaction that the strategy created, or
  • the quality or need that results from the event.

All three of these are perfectly valid perspectives. But we want to focus especially on the qualities we need. This is the perspective which will most help us know how to act in ways that get us what we need, which will serve to resolve the conflict.

When a conflict arises in our awareness, we experience it as a problem to be solved so we try to figure out what to do. We go looking for a strategy. Whatever strategy we settle upon will create an event. Something will happen. As that event unfolds it will create qualities in our relationships with others. But if we pick a strategy before we know what qualities we are trying to create, we are likely to do something that will get us the opposite of what we need.

Flashing your lights or horn or riding the other car's bumper or flipping off the driver are all things that many of us do and most of us at least fantasize doing. But let's look at what those choices create. They raise your heart rate and your blood pressure, they distract you from other things that are going on, and they put your car in dangerous proximity to a car whose driver we already know shows poor judgment.

If, on the other hand, we start from the point of view of the qualities we are trying to create we can see that what we are looking for is a calm and safe ride home. We want to be on a highway where people are attentive to others and considerate of their needs. The strategy of flashing lights and horn does nothing to create these qualities and, in fact, creates the opposite.

Ultimately we will have to settle on a strategy for responding to the conflicts which arise for us. Even deciding to slow down and take a deep breath and give thanks for good reflexes is a strategy. But whatever strategy we choose will create a new event. And whatever new event arises will generate new qualities. It is the qualities we are after.

When we know which qualities are missing in the circumstances we call conflicts, then we can choose strategies that will create what we need, that will create those qualities. This resolves the conflict. Very simple. And actually very hard to do.

Complexity of Conflict

Perhaps in the circumstance of someone cutting us off in traffic the resolution is simple. But getting cut off in traffic is an event which arises often and does so in a relationship of low significance. This driver is a stranger, so we don't have an investment in repairing the relationship or trying to get him or her to change. Getting cut off is something that happens over and over, so we have lots of opportunities to practice how we will deal with it.

Consider instead the situation of a man who is known to have an "anger problem" who discovers that the shared printer in his home has a jam and he cleans it out. The paper that is stuck turns out to be the second page of the letter that his wife has written to her "friend," a guy who plays in a local band whom she often goes to see "because she likes the music." When the text on the crumpled paper describes her attraction to and wish to be with the musician, what does the man do? What strategies will create what he needs in this situation?

  • At one level the conflict the man has is with the paper and the printer. They are in a problematic relationship and when he has cleared the jam, the conflict goes away.
  • At another level he has a window into his relationship with his wife and he learns that his understanding of their relationship is not the same as hers. He suspects that she is not entirely honest with him.
  • At still another level there is a part of him who is desperate to preserve the relationship and so argues that he should just ignore this information, but another part of him feels as though he is becoming a cuckold and wants to protect his integrity by addressing this issue with his wife. He is thus in conflict with himself.
  • At still another level he wonders about his place in the relationship and with his children and in the world and he wonders if this is his punishment for times when he has been dismissive toward his wife. He fears the marriage may end but he has made a vow before God to stay with her "'til death do us part."

Each of these aspects of the conflict will have to be fully addressed and resolved if he is to feel fully satisfied with the outcome.

You will recall the promises that I made in the Introduction.

  • You will have fewer and less intense conflicts in your personal life.
  • You will greatly enhance the quality of your relationships and you will get much greater satisfaction from them.
  • You will come to know yourself better and will have greater integrity in all of your actions.
  • You will know your true place in the created order and will experience greater and greater harmony with the energy and the intelligence of the Creator.

And you will recall that each of these sets of promises arises in a different dimension of our lives--the personal, the interpersonal, the intrapersonal, and the transpersonal realms--and conflict and its resolution appear differently in each of them.

Realm

Conflict

Resolution

Personal: physical-material

Conditions in my experience are not what I consider to be optimal for me

The situation is corrected and the conflict is gone

Interpersonal: relational

Others are not doing what they "should" or they are not approving of me

Our expectations are clarified and met. The relationship is solid and satisfying

Intrapersonal: internal

I'm not happy with myself. I'm of two minds. I am anxious and uncertain.

I can see and appreciate my own complexity and accept myself without denying aspects of who I am.

Transpersonal: metaphysical- spiritual

I don't know my place in the world. I feel abandoned by God. The suffering I experience has no meaning.

I can act confidently in harmony with my place in the grand scheme of Creation.

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