OF US CONSIDER OURSELVES PEACEFUL and try to avoid conflict whenever
possible. But stressful situations, especially those involving others,
can create conflict in our personal and professional relationships.
Yet, conflict need not be a bad thing - it can actually be used as a
positive force to create more positive relationships with others and
ourselves. The first step toward using conflict constructively involves
embracing conflict as an integral part of life.
All of human progress, for the most part, is linked to conflicts and
the need to overcome them toward positive outcomes. For if life was
devoid of conflict, we would never be forced to look for solutions to
our problems. And it is this process of finding solutions that helps
us to make our lives happy and successful.
Handling Interpersonal Conflict
When interpersonal conflict arises, for example, it usually indicates
a missing link in communication--that two people have different pictures
of the same situation. And since these pictures do not match, an ensuing
argument revolves around whose picture is right.
At the heart of interpersonal conflicts is the assumption that one person
must be right, and the other wrong. The problem with this "winner
take all" belief is obvious. Here, conflict becomes a matter of
two people defending their respective positions without gaining any
insight into the opposing party’s point of view.
According to the Toltec approach to living, the way out of this scenario
is to see conflict as a process of gaining new knowledge, rather than
vanquishing an opponent.
Using conflict constructively requires a shift from the perspective
that “only one person can be right” toward one of seeking
mutual understanding. This perspective acknowledges that both people
can be right. By using this as a starting point, conflicts that were
previously insurmountable can now actually resolve themselves and relationships
can be strengthened.
How does this work in real life? It’s staff appraisal time in Mary’s
company. Although the year was difficult, Mary feels that she's done
well and is looking forward to a raise and end-of-year bonus. Yet, when
it is Mary's turn for review, her boss says he is not so happy with
her performance and lists areas that need improvement.
Suddenly, there is conflict, and Mary feels bad because she feels that
her work has been invalidated and her self-worth undermined. She doesn’t
say anything, but goes home feeling depressed.
In another instance, Stan and Anna have been happily married for three
years when Anna starts to develop a feeling of unease. She can’t
put a finger on what is wrong, but says to Stan, “I don’t
know why I am saying this, but I feel that there is something wrong
with our relationship.”
Stan feels threatened, thinking that he is being attacked. Here is conflict
again, and Stan becomes very angry and lashes out at Anna.
In both instances, these people have run into perception problems. Like
most of us, they have been taught that conflict is bad and should be
perceived as a negative, personal attack. Depending on their psychological
make-up, they either become aggressive or run away.
Learn to Listen
Learning to handle conflict constructively starts with the attitude
that we can learn something from any situation - even one that appears
to be adversarial.
If our perception and communication with others is unclear or based
on false assumptions, we will never find the missing link that constitutes
new knowledge that will help us resolve conflicts. The first step is
learning to listen with absolute openness - something most people do
not do very well because they have too much on their minds.
Listening with absolute openness means being that we are fully receptive
to what another person says, without interrupting or formulating mental
responses while the other person is talking. This includes suspending
natural tendencies to “react” or hastily “interpret”
whenever we feel under attack.
What we often assume as an attack is nothing more than a habitual assumption.
By listening fully and defenselessly, we start to hear what others are
trying to communicate. This is a vital part of discovering what the
situation is really all about. And unless we are clear on this, we never
find new knowledge that truly resolves the situation.
Watch Out for Your Self-image
Another cause of false assumptions about what others are saying is our
Most of us are unhappy about some aspect of ourselves, whether it is
part of our behavior or a perceived shortcoming. These personally perceived
inadequacies not only contribute to our self-image but also to many
communication problems with others. This is because, like it or not,
we interpret all communication through our self-image.
How does this work? If, for example, we are timid, we tend to assume
that others are aggressive, even when they are just being open and honest.
This means that, even if we correctly hear the words used by others,
we still interpret and make assumptions based on our self-image.
Becoming aware of habitual responses caused by our own self-image makes
us less likely to see conflict as a negative, personal attack. We are
less likely to become aggressive or run away. Additionally, we are more
objective in our assessments of a situation, thereby helping us deescalate
Find the Missing Knowledge
Because interpersonal conflicts usually result from a lack of knowledge
about another person's perspective, the key to improving our understanding
of potential conflict situations lies in uncovering what is missing
so that both pictures match one another.
Sometimes, missing knowledge lies in what others say. By remembering
to listen with absolute openness we often discover all we need to know
to resolve conflicts immediately. This means that we need to continually
test our assumptions and ask questions.
In conflict situations, we need to encourage open communication between
parties. We should prompt others to more fully reveal their feelings
and attitudes about the conflict at hand, along the lines of “please
tell me more,” rather than “please explain yourself,”
which will only encourage resentment.
By approaching conflict constructively we move forward, rather than
remaining stuck in old patterns. And armed with missing knowledge into
the true nature of the conflict, we can set about making positive changes
in our lives and into our interpersonal relationships.
month in the Toltec Way series: Easter – a Time of Death, a Time
of Rebirth by Théun Mares
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