Whether it occurs with a romantic partner, friends and family, or co-workers, conflict is a part of life. The question isn’t whether it will happen, but how we handle it. Here are some great tips.
As individuals, we are always going to bring new ideas, world views, and ways of being to a relationship. This can be an extremely positive gift, helping each other to expand and grow. But at times, it is inevitable that differing ideas, opinions, or hiccups in communication can also lead to conflict. When this happens, if left unresolved, there is the potential for real damage to be done, particularly if it re-occurs over time.
Although it is unrealistic to expect a relationship to be completely conflict-free, we do have the ability to reduce the refractory period – the time it takes to come back to harmony. The sooner we can make a connection during conflict, or after conflict, the less permanent or damaging the repercussions will be. The speed with which we learn to reconnect will often determine how quickly the issue is resolved.
Let’s be honest here. Engaging in actions that reach out to the other person during conflict may be the last thing you feel like doing at the time. So, for the record, no one is saying that it’s going to be easy. In fact, it might take everything you have to rise above your desire to hold onto your grudge. Our egoic instinct is to defend ourselves.
It may feel completely counter-intuitive to stop the battle to reach out to the other. However, if we can do so, it’s a double bonus – not only are we are more likely to reduce the conflict, but we’ve just had a win over our ego’s need to strengthen itself.
The following are examples of what can be done to amend the situation as quickly as possible
Reach out physically. If touch is already an appropriate element of your existing relationship, it’s one of the most powerful and effective tools you have in your tool-kit. Reach out a hand to touch the knee or shoulder of the other, or perhaps wrap them up in a big bear hug. Try to make this contact even when it’s difficult, even when the conversation intensifies. Reach out and touch when you’re giving each other the silent treatment. When one of you makes this move, the whole dynamic changes instantly. When in conflict, we can so easily be stuck in our heads, going around in circles, thinking we have so many reasons to cut ourselves off from the other person. Touch will bring you both out of your heads, and back into your body, pulling you out of the argument and giving new perspective.
If touch isn’t an option
But what if the person you are in conflict with says, “Don’t touch me!”? What can you do?
There are two options. Option one is to just go there anyway. If I was in a fight with my partner and I was really upset, and he went to hug me, my first reaction would be; “Don’t hug me. I don’t want to be touched.” I might try to maintain my stand.
As humans, we’re attached our story. If he hugs me, it will be hard for me to hold onto my story. But if he just reacts, “I’m going there anyway,” and wraps me in a big bear hug, I end up melting. It softens me. That’s one option.
The second option is to give the other person some more time. They may feel like they need to express themselves for a little longer before being touched. Or if you’re in the midst of extremely high conflict, one of the things that can be helpful is just to take some time out. This is because when you’re operating in this state you are likely to be experiencing what’s called emotional flooding; you’re so flooded with emotions running through your system that you really can’t think clearly.
When you feel it has gotten to that stage, you can say, “OK, we need to take 10 or 15 or 20 minutes,” and agree on a time to come back. Then you will be much more able to connect with your partner.
Touch may not be possible until you’ve reached a point where you’ve separated and then come back together. But as soon as you can, touching will help to reconnect you and remind you of the bond between the two of you.
Laughter is an incredible tool for handling conflict and dissolving tension when emotions are running high. Bringing humour into the situation can immediately break up the tension. It gives each party a chance to gain some perspective, putting the quarrel into a larger context. This can jolt you both out of a defensive frame of mind.
Seek opportunities during conflict to bring some lighthearted humour into the situation. It can be particularly useful to use a private ‘in’ joke that the two of you have.
However, it is important to ensure that you are laughing with the other person, not at them. Both people involved need to be in on the joke. Otherwise it can have the opposite effect and escalate the situation. Be aware that there is a fine line between being funny and being hurtful, so proceed with caution.
Show that you understand
Understanding the other party is the easiest way to make amends. They may not want to be touched. And they’re not always going to laugh. But understanding them is one of the most practical things you can do to dissolve the tension.
It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them, but at least they hear that they’ve been understood. In conflict, the need to be understood is often what we are fighting for.
We do not always necessarily need to be right or to win, we’re often simply fighting to be heard and have our perspective be seen. Even saying something like “I totally understand why you would feel like that,” works wonders. Even repeating back to them what they have said, for example “OK, I totally see why you’d feel like that because you’re in this position,” can dissolve the argument just like that.
If, during conflict, you can express yourself in a way that shows a barrier dropping, it can have an incredible and immediate effect. When two people are in disagreement, it can be easy to become selfish and forget about the other person’s feelings. We are so busy fighting for our point of view that we lose perspective. When one party exposes their feelings and vulnerabilities, and their expression is seen as genuine, it allows the other to more readily access warmth. We are reminded that the person we are in conflict with is human, with insecurities and feelings, and the gap between them and you is lessened. It catapults us into compassion and gives permission for the guards to drop.
Vulnerability takes speaking from the heart. When we connect to each other from the heart, it changes the entire dynamic of the conversation and allows each other’s points of view to be held and seen. It is highly likely that the other person will also soften. Vulnerability instantly creates a letting down of our guard; it creates intimacy. It can feel like a great risk, but it comes with abundant rewards.
Transmutation of the situation
How we perceive conflict, both during and after the event, will determine the ongoing effects and outcomes of the situation. Using the analogy of the alchemical process of transmuting lead into gold, so too can a situation that initially seemed dire become an opportunity for growth, and create a positive outcome.
Finding the gold within the conflict involves being able to reflect upon the situation and seek ways in which it can be used as an opportunity for both personal transformation, as well as the evolution of the relationship itself. Many spiritual traditions teach that our struggles in life can be the very things that expand us. When you have this attitude towards conflict, it’s a bit like being in a yoga or exercise class.
Perhaps there’s a challenge there, but you know that what you are doing has a greater purpose, a higher perspective, and therefore your attitude towards it is less disastrous, and more opportunistic.
By asking yourselves, “What did we learn from this, how can we grow from this?” you reduce the likelihood of making the same mistakes again. Furthermore, you will learn to find a level of contentment even in the difficult times, knowing from past experience that there will be a silver lining in every interaction.
Something to point out here: when it comes to making amends, sometimes the action comes before the feeling. You might not feel like reaching out. Goodness knows, when you are in the throes of a slinging match, the last thing you may feel inclined to do is gently reach out for a hug, or show your vulnerabilities.
Taking action in these ways may be seem like the hardest thing to do, a personal challenge and spiritual practice in and of itself. But when we do, if we can stay in that space, the feeling and intimacy follow. It’s like anything in life. For example, if you smile long enough, you can start to feel genuinely happy. You might not feel like smiling, but if you create the action, the emotion will often come afterwards.
So to prevent breakdowns in our relationships, see the dangers and make amends as soon as you can. Use these tools to minimise the pain and find the gold. With this, we can bounce back from conflict quicker, gain greater lessons from the process, and decrease the damage done. And try to remember – quite often making peace is more important than being right. Life is too short to spend it holding grudges!
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