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Compassionate Conflict

While there is a positive type of conflict, most of what we experience is destructive, to our mental and emotional health and to our relationships. We’ll never eliminate conflict, but there is a better way to manage it.



I think I must be conflict-fatigued. Most people don’t like conflict and like many, I find myself avoiding it whenever possible lately. Of course, that doesn’t work at work, since I facilitate conflict mediations and I recently started a new contract where I’m doing just that between two organizations. Keep in mind, it’s their conflict, not mine, but my stomach has been in knots since the project started.


I know full well that conflict can be anxiety-inducing and exhausting for the parties involved, but why am I having a reaction? I think it’s really that I’m just tired of people behaving unkindly to other people. It feels mindless, vindictive and destructive.


I’m grateful for my mindfulness skills though that are telling me through my clenched gut that I need to do some inner work before I try to mediate outside. The reality is that conflict is an entirely natural part of human relationships because a conflict in its simplest form is just a difference of opinion. The basic resolution to a conflict can be reached easily as long as we don’t wait to address it, we remember that we’re dealing with another human being just like us, and we’re open to compromise.


And that’s why I get called, because most people don’t deal with it right away, they stop seeing the other party as human, but more of an obstacle or object, and they aren’t open to compromise because they’re sure they’re right. By the time I’m asked to step in, what probably started as a minor disagreement is usually a full-blown destructive conflict that’s affecting whole teams or departments.


At that point, people have had lots of times to make up stories, which we all do, they’ve vented to other people about how horrible someone is and gotten buy-in, and they’ve lost sight of the fact that destructive conflict hurts everyone involved, including themselves. That makes the situation so much more complicated and difficult, which is probably why my stomach is unhappy.


Witnessing anything upsetting causes us some degree of upset, even if we’re not involved. And emotions are contagious, so if we’re spending time with angry people, it takes a lot of energy to hold those emotions at bay from ourselves. This is just as true with watching the news, which is why I suggest so often that people avoid it. Watching people treating other people cruelly sparks anger within us. Anger, like all of our emotions serves a purpose, and in this case, it would be to take action to protect another person from being treated cruelly, but unfortunately, there’s not usually any action we can actually take in most cases. So anger just sits in the body, stoking the stress response and causing us to feel ill.


It may sound like an oxymoron, but we can have compassionate conflict. In fact, I think it may be the only way to lower the temperature on all of the destructive conflict around the globe. I have seen a substantial increase in conflict over the past ten years and spend a lot more of my time mediating conflict in my work over the past 5 years than ever in the past. I sometimes feel quite challenged, as the intensity of conflict has increased as well, which I believe is just a microcosm of the increased divide in the U.S. People dig in their heels, don’t want to listen to another side and are absolutely positive that they are right and the other party is wrong.


There are a few problems with that of course. First, none of us knows for sure what is right or wrong. We never have all of the information and we have no idea what the ramifications of any decisions will be over time. Second, with the vast majority of my clients, it all comes down to egos and once the ego is in charge, accountability is obliterated because the ego always wants to be right. Third, when we approach a difference of opinions from this I’m right/you’re wrong perspective, we prevent effective communication from even occurring. If you believe you’re right before the conversation even gets started, the other person’s defense mechanisms kick in immediately because they feel attacked. Meanwhile, no one can actively listen. We’re too busy defending ourselves or strategizing what we will say next to crush our opponents.


When ego is in control, the goal is a win-lose outcome. That outcome usually means someone has won by force, at least for the moment, but nothing gets better. The “wrong” party won’t be cooperative, supportive or productive. The “right” party will cut themselves off from support, new ideas, improved productivity or better relationships. So the reality is that when ego is in control, it’s a lose-lose proposition.


I facilitate group conflict mediation sessions using Dr. Marshal Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication framework that is a compassionate approach to conflict resolution. Dr. Rosenberg’s very mindful approach helped me tremendously on a personal level. Just the premise that people’s unacceptable or inappropriate behavior is simply an expression of them having an unmet need completely shifted my perspective. It takes practice to be sure, but once you get in the habit of thinking about someone else’s unmet need instead of the stories we normally make up, like they’re terrible, selfish, rude, etc., it’s much easier to actually listen to them.


Nonviolent Communication, also referred to as compassionate communication, is a method for resolving conflict by expressing needs without criticism or blame, and then listening and responding with empathy. If your ego just raised its head, don’t worry, you’re normal. Most people mistakenly believe that if you don’t win, you lose and again, your ego never wants to be wrong and the last thing you want to do is have empathy for the enemy. The truth, however, is that it’s not usually your enemy you’re in conflict with. It’s your significant other, your children, your supervisor, your coworker or your friend.


The steps are simple, but of course, overcoming our ego is the challenge. The first step is to simply observe the situation that’s upsetting you and describe it in a nonjudgmental fashion. Instead of thinking or saying, “How can he be so selfish?,” we describe the actual reality, as in, “He scheduled an event for us without first asking me if I was available.” The goal is to avoid labeling others or yourself. Selfish is a label and is based on judgment. What if he simply forgot to ask you, or thought you’d be so excited to go to this event, he didn’t need to?


The cause of our upset is not external events, but our judgment of those events. The events are simply a trigger for our inner reactions. We can begin to take responsibility for our own reactions, or with practice, responses, by shifting our inner and outer dialogue. How many times have you said something like, “you make me so mad?” Can anyone really make you feel anything? If you change the language to the first person only, the temperature goes down. It could sound something like, “When you said that, I felt angry.”


In compassionate communication, we take responsibility for our emotions by identifying our precise feelings. Feelings are considered emotional states plus physical sensation. Excited, mad and content, for example, meet that definition. Ignored, disrespected and misunderstood do not because they include a judgment about someone else’s intentions, while mixing emotion, description, and assumption. Despite what our egos tell us, we never know someone else’s intentions or feelings. We assign them through storytelling and that feeds the fuel of conflict.


Through compassionate communication, we connect our feelings with our unmet needs in the situation. “I felt disappointed when I realized that you didn’t do the dishes because I need a break.” While compassionate communication acknowledges basic human needs like housing, food, and exercise, it also includes more complex needs like autonomy, respect, love, play and rest.


Once you’ve shared your feelings and needs in a nonjudgmental way, you can make a specific request, like “would you be willing to consider doing the dishes tonight?” The key is to be specific, so that the other person clearly understands what will satisfy you. It’s amazing how many times we think that someone else “should” know what we need. By focusing on what we want, not what we don’t want (which can sound reproachful), the other party has the choice to respond to your request without their own defense mechanisms going up.


When you phrase a request that offers the other party a choice, like by starting it with “would you be willing to consider,” listen carefully to the other person’s response and be attuned to the feelings and needs their words are expressing, even indirectly. The answer may not be what you want, like “sure I’ll do the dishes.” It could be, “but I’m tired, too, and I just want to relax and watch TV.”


Try to empathize with the other person’s feelings and needs. Repeat back what you think is being said, without sounding patronizing. If your response is, “you’re so lazy,” you’ve just escalated the conflict. If you access empathy, your response could be something like, “since we’re both too tired to do the dishes, what’s a different option?” Now you’ve de-escalated the conflict and opened the door for compromise. Do the dishes together? Leave the dishes until the next day? Neither party now feels threatened so the conflict goes away.


While who does the dishes may be a regular conflict in your household, it is a simpler conflict than the conflicts that erupt over politics, race or power in the world today. But the same premise holds true. If we can keep seeing other people as people, human just like us with the same universal needs, we can evoke empathy and that tamps down ego, allowing us to think creatively, to brainstorm strategies that meet everyone’s needs.


In compassionate communication, it’s not the needs that are in conflict because we all have the same needs, like security, autonomy, consideration, emotional safety, understanding and self-expression. It’s just the strategies for meeting those needs that are at the heart of conflict. When we demand that our needs be met without caring about another person’s needs, conflict is unavoidable. But when we act from the heart instead of the ego and consider other people’s needs, conflict disappears and what we end up with is stronger relationships, positive emotions and actually meeting the needs of both parties, while creating a happier, healthier environment that we either work or live in.


Mindfulness includes empathy and non-judgment, so practicing compassionate communication strengthens our mindfulness skills. When you find yourself in a situation with the potential for conflict, take a pause. Set an intention as to what you’re trying to accomplish. “I want something and they want something. My intention is to try to meet both of our needs.” Move out of ego and think from the heart. We don’t need to defend ourselves from a perceived threat to our ego. We need to feel empathy for ourselves and for others and wouldn’t that make the world a better place?


My gut reaction to conflict is based in empathy. I don’t enjoy seeing people suffer and when there’s destructive conflict, believe me, there’s a lot of suffering. So I’ll focus on doing what I can to support them through needing to be right to seeing other possibilities. Needing to be right is based in ego, plain and simple, so perhaps the easiest question we can all ask ourselves is, do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?


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