I used to dread conflict. Who am I kidding? I still do, but over the last few years I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the value of conflict. Anger and conflict get a bad rap but they can serve a purpose when viewed through the right lens.
My default response to conflict is silence. Not silent treatment. More like emotionally curling up into the foetal position and waiting for the conflict to pass. If I do want to say something I tend mask what I really think through humour, sarcasm or by sugar coating what I have to say. I always thought this was a suitable response to conflict because I was taught that if I had nothing good to say, keep quiet. Then I heard an interview by Helen Huntley and Harville Hendrix.
Helen Hunt and Harville Hendrix, co-creators of Imago Relationships Therapy, describe the two extremes of relationships as being either hot or parallel. Hot relationships are when people are often in conflict. Parallel relationships occur when partners do not have conflicts but end up living parallel lives that end up drifting apart. The relationships that break up most often are not the hot relationships, but the parallel relationships. In parallel relationships people do not have conflict because they do not care or they have given up. The hot relationships still have connection, even if the interaction is unpleasant. Hot relationships benefit most from therapy where people can learn how to approach the conflict more constructively. Parallel relationships have no connection so people seek connection elsewhere.
Around the same time I was reading Crucial conversations. In this book Kerry Patterson et al explain that when people feel unsafe in a conversation they respond in one of two ways. They either go silent or violent. By violent, they do not mean physical violence. They are referring to forcing your perspective on the other person. Whereas silence means withholding your perspective from the conversation. My response was the typical silence response where I would use masking, withholding or simply withdrawing from the conversation to cope with conflict.
Crucial Conversations helped me to understand that when people get angry in conversations it wasn’t because they were bad people, it was because they were scared. It was the typical fear response of freeze, flight or fight at work. At the root, when someone got angry, they felt the same fear I felt that caused me to go silent. This reframe helped me to see people’s angry responses not as attacks on me but as attempts to defend themselves. I realised that their anger was not about me but about them.
In combination with the idea of parallel relationships I realised that if everyone I was in relationship with responded to conflict in the same way as I do (staying silent) we would remain on separate tracks that eventually drift off and separate.
I started seeing anger as a better response to conflict. When someone gets angry it lets me know that something is wrong. It is only when we know that there is a conflict that we can actually address and resolve it. And when we do resolve it the relationship is usually stronger than before.
Now when someone barges into my office and unloads with an enraged outburst, I try not to get defensive or to curl up into a foetal position but instead I thank them. Yes, I thank them. I would say something like “I was not aware that I was making you feel this way, thank you for letting me know. Can you tell me more?” I am by no means perfect (ask my wife) but when I do use this approach it has helped me to transform conflict from negative stressors in my relationships to catalysts for growth.