Having relationships with people, from your spouse to a co-worker to a random driver on the road or the woman who delivers your mail, means there’s a potential for conflict. I’ve seen too much conflict in my life and it’s taken a toll on my body and mental health.
Maybe you, too, grind your teeth at night, have headaches or stomach-aches, feel helpless or trapped, or eat/drink compulsively or suffer from an autoimmune disease.
After retiring from journalism, I went to school and learned about conflict resolution. I wanted to understand why my family was the way it was, and continues to be. I learned through journalism that research brings knowledge, and knowledge can make sense of difficult situations and makes life’s problems easier to live with.
Let’s start on this massive subject by looking at the basics, and we’ll start with Google’s definition of conflict.
1: an extended struggle : fight, battle. 2a : a clashing or sharp disagreement (as between ideas, interests, or purposes) b : mental struggle resulting from needs, drives, wishes, or demands that are in opposition or are not compatible. conflict. verb.
We’re in conflicts from birth to death, yet many of us are completely bewildered as to how to deal with them. Some people go immediately to battle stations while others shut down. Watching another person go into a rage can cause huge stress to the observer. Those who avoid engaging in conflicts often keep their stress from showing to the outside world, but their bodies pay a price. Conflict can make us sick, and can even kill us.
I don’t have a medical degree but I’ll share my own experience. I grew up in a family where a great deal of harm was done by a strict avoidance of overt conflict. But somehow the silent stuff seemed more potent. My parents didn’t know how to talk through disagreements. They punished the other by giving each other the silent treatment. Mom got migraines and Dad turned to alcohol, then succumbed to depression. One sibling was so angry they stopped eating and became anorexic. The other shut themselves in their room much of the time. All five of us scattered through the house or property so we could avoid contact. Is it any wonder that the three children, now in our 60s, are strangers to each other.
When I was trying to make sense of these experiences for my memoir, I found a fascinating little book called Grow Yourself Back Up, by John Lee. He makes sense of behaviour I saw in my family, and I was finally able to let go of the anger and gain some empathy.
“Profound silence is often a sign of regression,” he writes. “The philosophy ‘If I don’t say anything, I can’t be wrong’ is an adult version of what young children do…Silence may be better than ranting, raging or being physically abusive but it can just as surely lead to separation, distance or even divorce.”
He says one of the main contributors to regression is thinking we know what another person needs, thinks or feels without first asking them. “As children, many of us had to learn these signals, to pick up on the cues that Dad was angry or that Mother was hurt…We had to become mind readers in order to make ourselves a little less likely to get into trouble.”
One of the tips Lee offers to minimize regression is to cut the invisible strings that keep you behaving in ways that are no longer useful. These include not expressing anger and grief, not asking for what you really want and triangulating, manipulating or maneuvering for power.
Asking a loved one, “What do you want from me?” seems easy to say but hard to do.
We learn to avoid conflict from those who raised us. It takes an awful lot of work and insight to overcome the natural inclination to repeat behaviours demonstrated by our parents.
But it can be done.
One thing I picked up from my education in conflict resolution was the relationship between feelings and needs. If someone feels judged, they need to feel acceptance. If someone feels they’ve been attacked, they need support. If someone feels blamed, they need to be seen as competent.
Here are a few more:
If someone feels:
singled out — need fairness
picked on — consistency
unfairly treated — equality
trapped — to be trusted
betrayed — supported
manipulated — direct communication
excluded — inclusion/belonging
misinterpreted — accuracy
dismissed — recognition/appreciation
worried — certainty
isolated — connection
intimidated — security
Maybe there’s some fodder for a conversation with the important people in your life. What do you feel? What is it you need? If it’s any comfort, you’re not alone. But rest assured, there are ways of handling conflict that can make your life better.