The gift of conflict in relationships

Satyam explores the tools for resolving conflict in our relationships.

satyamSatyam Veronica Chalmers

I have noticed in Australia there is a culture of avoiding conflict. We seem to think that a relationship is no longer working when there is conflict. So to avoid conflict we give up on the relationship and leave. This can be either physically leaving or emotionally withdrawing. The issue isn’t conflict. The issue is that many of us have dysfunctional ways of dealing with conflict and never learnt to deal with it in a conscious healthy way.

The Gift of Conflict

Conflict is everywhere. Our workplaces are full of it and is increasingly getting worse. It’s no wonder such a large percentage of individuals would prefer to work for themselves. However, the conflict isn’t just at work, it’s also in our public spaces. I was recently in Melbourne catching a train and the conflict in the air was palpable. The train was dead quiet, however I had a feeling that one little thing could instigate a flare up. This conflict sits there brewing within us, until it explodes with racial slurs, terrorism, bullying, road rage, violence and abuse. You can see this with the recent acts of terrorism in London and Boston. Often, we blame others for conflict, however we are all responsible. The only way to connect with peace is to embrace the conflict and look within at our own internal conflict.

Conflict that isn’t dealt with is also affecting our relationships with family and friends. Often with family and friends we pretend everything is ok until it all blows up in our face. Then either the relationship ends or the conflict goes underground again until the next time someone gets triggered.

I used to have lots of conflict with my current partner of eight years. We used to get into the most ridiculous arguments about the simplest things. There were many points in the relationship where we both thought about leaving the relationship after we had an argument. However, there was one thing we did really well and that was our ability to sit down afterwards and talk honestly about what had been unconsciously triggered in the argument. We also were able to take responsibility for our role in creating the conflict. Sometimes, it took a day or two to be ready to talk, however it always happened as we both had a deep commitment to work through anything that was happening in the relationship. Now, we can usually catch anything before it flares up and work through it quickly, sometimes in a few minutes, without needing to go into arguing.

I grew up in a household that avoided conflict. It was very rare that we would have arguments, which meant that I had never learnt to deal with conflict. My only way to deal with it was to push it down and pretend it wasn’t there. So, my current relationship has been a wonderful learning experience for me about how to deal with conflict. I went from seeing conflict as unnecessary and annoying, to realising it was a gift. Conflict is a chance to work through, be honest and heal any internal conflicts within myself. The external conflict is always just a reflection of some internal conflict within myself.

I have also applied this same principle to relationships with my friends and work colleagues. In the past I would avoid conflict and withdraw from the relationship. I now work through it internally and then talk to the other person about what I have become aware of regarding the relationship. This is often very scary, however I realise now there is so much growth to be gained in a relationship that embraces conflict, rather than having it infect and destroy the relationship. I’m also much more appreciative of others being open about any issues they have regarding their relationship with me, as I feel this is showing a commitment to the relationship, rather than pretending everything is ok and pulling away.

Conflict is bound to happen in every relationship, as we all have unconscious stuff lurking in the background that eventually gets triggered by another person’s actions or inaction.

Here are some pointers to deal with conflict in our relationships and embrace the learning:

Part 1 – Turn inwards to look at the internal conflict within yourself

1. Stop and become aware of what has been triggered rather than continue fighting. Ask for ‘time out’, so you can feel what is happening for you and what has been triggered. There is no point in continuing to fight as it will only make the situation worse.

2. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict instead of blaming the other. If you feel that it is the other person’s entire fault, then you’re not taking responsibility and likely playing the ‘victim’ in the relationship. Instead, notice how you’ve contributed to this situation or conflict. For example, I often felt this way in an argument and realised that when I played the ‘victim’ I got to be the person in the ‘right’ and felt very much like a martyr. This also supported me to avoid really feeling what was happening for me.

3. Feel what has been triggered for you. There is a wealth of learning to be gained from noticing what happens when you’re triggered or encounter any form of conflict. Notice how you feel, what happens in your body or what memory has been triggered. Bring an approach of inquiry, rather than blaming the other or pushing the whole situation away and ignoring it.

4. Reflect on what the other person might be feeling, thinking, needing or perceiving. Look at what the needs, values, impact and assumptions are for the other person. Often we get so stuck in being right that we forget to look at how the other person might be perceiving us and the situation. This can take a bit of work, because we don’t like to think we did anything wrong, however we always have some part to play in the conflict.

Sometimes it is useful to have another person to talk to about the conflict, such as a conflict coach or mediator. They can support you to become aware of what is happening for you and how you could then approach the other person to resolve the conflict.

Part 2 – Work with the other party to resolve the external conflict

5. When you both are ready to talk, set up a space where you can both talk safely and with no time limit. It is important that both parties have the freedom to share without feeling pressured by time or other distractions. It is also useful to have someone there to mediate and support both parties to express themselves.

6. Set up a structure that supports both parties to share openly. My partner and I have a structure where we both sit and share for five minutes each and continue swapping until we feel resolved. During the five minutes the other person is sharing, we don’t interrupt. This prevents us from getting into reaction and fighting again.

7. Be honest about what is happening for you. At least be honest with yourself, even if you can’t be honest with the other person. You will find that similar situations keep reoccurring until you bring some awareness to whatever pattern is being triggered.

8. Notice your language when you’re talking to the other. Use ‘I’ instead of ‘you’. Talk about how you feel rather than what the other person did or didn’t do. If you start using ‘you’ too much it is probably indicating you’re blaming the other, instead of taking responsibility.

9. When it’s your turn to listen, then really listen. Listen deeply for what the other person is trying to say rather than being preoccupied with your own story and how you’re ‘right’. Put aside your story and really listen. You might be surprised at what you hear. Often by listening deeply to my partner, I find out something that explains why he said/did something, and that he hadn’t actually meant to hurt me. I also become aware of how I contributed to the conflict and how what I had said or did might have been perceived by the other person.

10. Notice what is happening in the present moment rather than the past. It is useful to acknowledge that a past pattern has been triggered and the relationship that might have started it. For example, ‘This situation reminds me of my mother when she tried to make me do something I didn’t want to do’. However, after acknowledging the memory, notice what is happening in the moment (i.e. feelings, sensations, beliefs) rather than being lost in the story of the past.

Even if the other person doesn’t want to talk or resolve the conflict, make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to resolve your own internal conflict. You may also discover, if you have felt and acknowledged to yourself everything that was triggered and taken full responsibility for your part in it, that how you feel about the other person changes. You then might also notice that the other person might change their behaviour or do something differently next time or may be inspired to also take responsibility.

Often conflict can be resolved easily, if we can develop the ability to step back and see the conflict as a gift to support us to heal and grow. When we can bring more acceptance to ourselves and our own internal conflict, we form relationships that are healthier, happier and more accepting of each other.

Satyam Veronica Chalmers – Authentic Wellbeing
Satyam is passionate about supporting women to develop a greater sense of wellbeing in their everyday lives. She has been coaching, mentoring, and counselling individuals for the past 12 years, as well as focusing intensively on her own wellbeing by exploring mindfulness techniques, inquiry work, therapeutic groups, and applying extensive research on all aspects of wellbeing to her own life.  This has enabled her to clearly facilitate others in their process towards greater levels of emotional, spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing. Satyam can be contacted at:
Life Balance = Presence. Authenticity. Joy.