I think we as Quakers spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing peacemaking, but when it comes to how to do it on the personal, one-to-one level we are often at a great loss. Last year I supervised a group of six people who were going through a huge amount of personal conflict and upheaval among them. I found myself reflecting on everything I had ever learned about how to heal or avoid personal conflict. I wrote it all down to share with them. When I was finished I realized that it is useful for many people to think about this. Here are the 21 things about conflict that I have learned in nearly 50 years.
1. Nothing is gained in trying to decide whose version of what happened is true. It does not matter in the end. What matters is that each person truly experienced it the way he or she reports it. That is how each person heard the words, and that is what each meant by his or her communication when saying it. That is how things looked to that person and that is what things meant to him or her. (Of course, it’s absolutely vital that the parties are being honest with themselves about their experiences.) Attaining peace doesn’t require one party to accept or capitulate to the other party’s version of truth. Each person simply has to grant that what it has heard is the experience of the other person. For instance, if two people went on two separate vacations and one person’s vacation was “wonderful until x happened” and the other person’s vacation was horrible “all along,” they would not argue about that, but would express sympathy and try to figure out how to do it differently and better next time. This could also happen if they went on the same vacation but had different experiences.
2. Blame is not a helpful concept. It does not move things forward. No one wants to be the blamed one. No one wants to be wrong. No one wants to have been bad or have harmed other people. When we blame, it increases the other person’s defensiveness and blocks his or her willingness to listen to us. Blaming, either internally or aloud, is a way to focus on the other person and his or her behavior, rather than on our own painful feelings and our part in what has happened.
3. Instead of saying, “It is his fault,” “It is her fault,” or “It is my fault,” it is more helpful simply to say, “It is.” If you can begin to look at the events of a conflict as simply what is, what happened, you will find it begins to change how you feel about it. It just is. That does not mean it is not still painful or that you still might not seek to change the situation in some way. This simply takes out the poison of blame and judgment and in some way helps us focus on more practical actions for the future and lessons to learn from the past.
4. Running away from conflict does not solve it. The conflict is still there when we return, but now someone may also feel abandoned or insignificant. Often, the resulting lapse of time has allowed bad feelings to fester and false assumptions to be made. It is best to address conflict as soon as one has control over one’s emotions and the other person is able to engage.
5. When people are very, very upset they get flooded by adrenaline. This is a biological wiring for “fight or flight.” We cannot just turn it off. It takes at least 20 minutes with attention off of conflict—longer if it is hard to get attention off of it—to get rid of all the adrenaline. If the other party asks for a break and then watches TV, it does not mean this person does not care. It may simply mean he or she is trying not to focus on the conflict in order to reduce adrenaline. It is a bad idea for someone to try to talk, listen, or make decisions while flooded with adrenaline. Rational thinking is impaired and the brain has a difficult time working constructively.
6. Timing of efforts to address a conflict is a two-party affair. People exist on a broad spectrum from “eager to address issues” to “extremely terrified about addressing issues.” It is not fair for the most willing party to demand that the other person engage because the first party wants to/needs to, and it is similarly not fair for the more avoidant party to insist that his or her nonengagement policy be accepted by both (or to continue avoiding without addressing when he or she will be willing to engage). If the two parties are not both willing to engage at the moment a problem arises, the one who needs more time to either calm down or gather thoughts needs to indicate that he or she needs this time and when he or she will be willing to meet. This agreement really must be met if the avoidant party expects the other party to do the hard work of holding onto oneself while waiting.
7. When in a conflict with another person, it is not helpful to keep going over in our mind (or with another person) how bad the other person is, or how bad his or her actions were, how upset he or she makes us, or how much we hate this person. All these kinds of thoughts just magnify the conflict, keep us connected to the difficult part of the person, keep us flooded with adrenaline, and prevent us from being able to move into a new place with the person. Contrary to how it often feels, focusing in this negative way does not protect us from the other person.
8. What is helpful is to focus on the good points of the person. If we are not aware of any, try to notice what those might be or what other people like about that person. In a pinch, make up something: “This person is kind and loving to his or her cat at home.” The idea here is not to lie to ourselves or live in fantasy, but we need to start connecting to the part of that person that we would like to have in our life. No one is without good. The more we focus on what we do not like about a person, the more we experience what we do not like about him or her.
9. Making fun of the person you are in conflict with, or engaging in sarcasm or ridicule, is poison. When you disrespect a person, you are very far away from where reconciliation or peace can happen. It is in fact known to be one of the markers for a marriage that will end in divorce.
10. Each person has something to teach us. People do not arrive in our lives by mistake, even when we did not choose them to be in our lives. If we successfully evade one “nuisance,” another one with the same traits will show up. It is best to learn the lessons about ourselves and life that we are to learn from this person. That we do not like this kind of person is not the lesson. This person is in your life as a teacher. It is not that this person is sitting around thinking up lessons for you in a conscious way, but in the sense that God has sent this person to illuminate an area where you struggle and where you can grow.
11. Judging a person or deciding “who is wrong and who is right” is just another form of blaming. People have differences in opinion, in cultural norms, in styles of doing things, in interpreting information, and in acting in the world. There is not a right or a wrong way about this. Our standards are right for each of us because of the life we have lived. That does not make our standards right for someone else who has lived a different life (which, of course, is why you are free to disagree with me about this if you choose). When we judge someone else or try to define him or her as wrong based on “our truth,” we are insisting that our way is the way. Instead of this, we must acknowledge and accept the differences. We must figure out how to build bridges across the differences.
12. People do not cause other people’s feelings. Rather, Person A does something and Person B observes that action and then decides what it means to him or her. We all have had experiences of starting out feeling one way about something, getting a slightly different perspective, and then having a different feeling about it. Despite the sense we have that our feelings are automatic and unbidden, we actually do choose what we feel. When we have been hurt in childhood and in our adult years, we often have an accumulation of feelings about a certain set of behaviors. When someone engages in that behavior, then we have those feelings. This is called restimulation, and it is something within us. It is not caused by the other person. Even though we may not welcome it, it is a chance to look at our old feelings, process them, and heal.
13. When someone else is disappointed or angry with us, this does not mean that we are bad or unworthy. We may have been told this in the past, and therefore this feeling may readily rear its head. It actually just means the other person is having a lot of strong and perhaps complex feelings. It is a good idea to care about others’ feelings, but when we start operating/speaking out of guilt or shame, we are now actually having a competing upset that steals the attention from the person who was originally upset. Once two people are upset, the whole thing becomes a much larger mess.
14. Dragging other people in by trying to convince them of our point of view or trying to get others to choose sides just makes the conflict bigger and worse. As a result, this causes pain in additional people and is another reason for the person with whom we are in conflict to be angry with us. It is one thing to ask someone to process feelings with us (ideally someone who does not know the person) or to speak without identifying the person. But it is quite another thing to “compile a case together” or confirm each other’s negative feelings.
15. When we direct all of our actions towards trying to prevent another person from feeling a certain way (angry, hurt, disappointed), we find ourselves caught in co-dependent emotional caretaking. We need to redirect our attention toward how we are feeling, what our needs are, and how we feel about our own behavior.
16. When speaking to another person about our upsets, it is best to use “I” statements of our experience and reactions as our own, rather than blaming others or making them responsible for our feelings. It is also best to listen carefully and respectfully to the other person’s responses and be willing to change our minds if presented with different information.
17. The use of drugs, alcohol, or violence during a conflict, or during the attempt to fix it, will make the conflict worse.
18. People who are very alike often have a great deal of conflict. This is because the behavior of the other person reminds one of oneself in some very painful ways. Perhaps we see our worst or most detested trait in the other person (but of course it looks much worse on him or her). What is helpful is not to focus on how awful the other person is but to focus back on how we feel about ourselves when we behave that way and begin by working on forgiving ourselves for our own behavior. When we can love ourselves as we are, the other person magically becomes much less annoying and more an object for compassion.
19. We are responsible at all times for choosing behavior that meets our highest moral/ethical standards—to truly live by the Golden Rule, to live in such a way that, if anything true we did was published somewhere for all to see, we would have no embarrassment, guilt, or shame about our action.
20. Culture does impact conflict. Different cultures have different ways of showing respect, caring, boundaries, etc. The culture we are raised in is invisible to us—it is like air. It is just there and is presented as “normal” or “reality” or “the way things are.” We are all therefore somewhat blind to our own cultural assumptions and usually sadly ignorant of other peoples’. It is very easy to transgress without realizing it. It is helpful to realize this potential and try to figure out if it is part of the conflict—and if so, to try to address it and use it as an opportunity for learning. Second-generation U.S. citizens and beyond tend to think of themselves as totally assimilated and are unaware of the cultural beliefs passed down through their families even centuries later. It is helpful to learn more about one’s own cultural roots and those of people with whom we are closely connected.
21. When we have made a mistake, it is best to apologize immediately, rather than trying to justify, rationalize, diminish, or cover up the mistake we made. We are not bad because we made a mistake. If we live without blaming, others should also be able to accept our mistakes without blaming. If someone else engages in blaming, that is the other person’s issue and not something we have to take on ourselves.