From time to time, we reprint essays that capture an important feature of Cooperative Wisdom. In this essay, Belinda Noyes explores what we call Deep Discernment, the process of understanding what really matters–both to ourselves and to our cooperative partners. Ms. Noyes lives in New Zealand where she “helps perfectly imperfect women meet their needs with compassion, kindness, calmness and creativity” at The Inner Practice.
“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict” ~Dorothy Thompson
About ten years ago, it became apparent that I simply couldn’t maintain a functional relationship with my in-laws, and I was devastated. The relationship became only about conflict, and it was simply too much for me.
After saying goodbye to my dream of being part of one big happy family, I felt traumatized and fearful whenever I was faced with any sort of conflict. I realize now that conflict scared me. It made me feel like I was a bad person or not spiritually evolved enough.
Despite always trying to do the right thing, I had a falling out with a family member, an argument with a good friend, and a teeny, tiny disagreement with a colleague that became a much bigger drama than it should have.
Each time I tried to learn from the previous situation and handle things differently; each time it didn’t work out for me. I was left wondering, what’s the best way to handle conflict? When someone does something to upset you, do you say how you feel? Do you ignore it and let it blow over? Is there another option?
I decided to question my belief about conflict. Is it always a negative thing?
It’s impossible to be perfectly aligned with everyone in our life so no conflict ever arises. Expecting that results in disappointment, or, in my case, feeling like I was lacking in some way.
On the other hand, it doesn’t seem right to ignore things either. When someone is out of line, do we have a duty to make them aware of their impact on others? Is potential conflict an opportunity for growth?
In some relationships, sharing your feelings is safe because the other person will respond positively. Then, you don’t have to consider questions. It’s only when you feel unsafe that you start asking whether you should ignore things that shouldn’t be ignored.
Telling people how we feel creates risk because there’s expectation that they will accept or at least acknowledge our feelings. That might not happen. The other person might not be capable of that or they might go straight to defending themselves. Chances are, the other person did not intend to hurt you, and telling them will make them feel bad, intensifying the situation. This is not the foundation in which to resolve conflict.
Ignoring conflict puts the relationship at risk. Pretty soon, all you can think about is how you’re upset with the other person. And then you look for any wrongdoings as evidence that makes that story true and justified. Things can snowball until you’re misinterpreting everything they do or say.
As I thought about this, I realized that fact and truth are different. Facts aren’t disputable. Truth is. There’s your truth, and then there is what is true for the other person. Both truths are based on perception, which can be completely different. That doesn’t mean one is right and the other is wrong. It means truth can be different for different people, because it’s influenced by experiences.
Is there another option? Yes! Tell them what you need.
When you are in conflict with someone, you can think carefully about how their behavior is impacting you. And then you can ask for changes that would make the relationship work better from your point of view.
Defining what you need requires a bit of self-reflection, and that allows you to work through what is your ‘stuff.’ Let’s say you’re angry with the other person but you can’t whittle it down so you can be clear about what you need for them. Then perhaps the conflict is internal. The other person may have triggered it but they can’t resolve it.
Focusing on what you need also removes “should” and “should not” from your internal dialogue –”they shouldn’t be so insensitive” or “they should be more respectful.” It isn’t true that they should or shouldn’t be a certain way; that’s just something you want.
Asking for what you need, instead of focusing on the other person’s negative behavior makes it easier for them to respond to you, especially if you follow your request up with a positive statement. It opens up conversation instead of confrontation. You don’t need to elaborate but often the other person will want to understand the situation further and they will ask questions that allow you to share your feelings. They may also be able to tell you what they need which is also important. The dynamic is completely different because you’re asking for their help rather than accusing them of doing something terrible.
Of course, if you tell someone what you need and they are indifferent, you may need to step back and develop better boundaries. Enforcing boundaries ends conflict, but it also creates separation. In some cases, we may need to grieve a relationship in which we simply cannot get what we need.
You can’t know unless you ask.
If I had asked my in-laws for what I needed, might things have turned out differently? Maybe.
If I knew what they needed might it have changed things? Probably. If I had known what their needs were, I would have tried to accomodate them.
I know that things would have been very different with my family member if I had just said, “I need your support; I want us to be closer because you matter to me” instead of just feeling rejected, dismissed, and criticized.
In the case of the friend who always canceled our plans at the last minute, I could have made my needs clear by saying, “Can we only make arrangements if you are sure you won’t have to cancel, because I really want to see you.”
Or, in the case of a colleague who I thought was being insensitive to a conflict of interest, I might have said, “I really enjoy talking to you, so let’s focus on other things and avoid this topic until the conflict of interest is resolved.”
There is no perfect approach to conflict. Nothing guarantees that one party won’t be hurt or upset. Still, next time you are debating whether to ignore something or blurt out your feelings, try asking yourself, “What do I need?” If you can clarify what matters to you and ask for it without attacking the other person, they may very well be willing to meet your request.