“It is only in the mirror of relationships that we discover
who we are and our place in the world.”
A wise person once observed, ‘you can’t be human alone’. The story of our lives, who we are or think we are, is largely the story of our relationships with others. But how this story unfolds is not always a “feel good” journey of self-actualization. Life is complex and even the best relationships have their challenges.
This is the relationship bargain. We need and seek relationships but the people in our lives are who they are — not who we want them to be. And therein lies the snarly roots of conflict. Relationships are challenging because of the simple fact that people are all uniquely different with their own complicated life stories, ingrained habits and ways of seeing the world. Conflict happens when we bump up against these differences.
The problem with conflict is that when it does pop up we can easily be thrown off balance. Emotions get involved, our bodies tense up and we very quickly find ourselves in a place we don’t want to be. Our efforts to communicate not only fail they often end up triggering more conflict and misunderstanding. Over time, unresolved conflict can undermine our health and well-being, reshape our brains and even shorten our lifespan.
A healthier – and infinitely more life serving – approach to our discomfort with conflict is to welcome it rather than try to push it away. By welcoming conflict we make a choice to face whatever issues are arising from conflict with honestly, courage, and compassion. Rather than closing ourselves off to the other person in an effort to protect our wounded self, we open our hearts and minds to being present. Pausing, taking a mindful breath, gives us a brief moment to both acknowledge our discomfort and to remind ourselves that whatever differences are contributing to the conflict, they are most likely deeply ingrained and need to be respected and honored.
When we embrace conflict in this way we are also communicating to another that we care about them and the relationship. Communicating in this way we can soften the defensive emotions that often block understanding and dialogue. As trust and understanding builds, distrust fades allowing us to share our truth with another and listen carefully and deeply as they respond and share their truth.
Approaching conflict with a heart full of compassion is also our way of reinforcing our commitment to our values and how we want to be in the world . Rather than allowing ourselves to be pulled down by the stress of conflict, we can choose to be with it, to find the wisdom in it and to let ourselves be transformed by it. The more we practice this way of being with conflict, the more we see it as an opportunity to grow and transform both individually and in relationship to others.
And therein lies the joy of conflict . . .