In my work as a therapist and leadership coach I have come to appreciate how important it is to engage skillfully with conflict. What I notice in myself and others is often an aversion or avoidance of conflict. This tendency to want to avoid conflict makes sense, given the evolutionary inheritance of our neurobiological self, which prioritizes safety and survival.
We tend to want to move away from conflict as a way of seeking safety.
However, what we often discover is that this can be an unhelpful strategy. One of our challenges as human beings is to find ways to subvert this evolutionary tendency, especially when it gets in the way of resolving conflict in our personal and professional relationships. How can we work creatively with conflict? A first step is recognizing it as an unavoidable reality of human connection and responding to it as an emergent quality of our relational interdependence.
Examining the Safety of Compromise
One of the unhelpful effects of our conflict aversion is the fallacy that there is safety in compromise. I see this frequently in working with couples who are desperate to resolve their conflicts. These couples often come to therapy with a long history of struggling to balance their respective needs. Instead, they rely exclusively on compromises that have not addressed their deeper, sometimes unconscious, unmet needs.
During the process of therapy, one or both partners in the relationship often discover that their fear of conflict is rooted in their experience. This usually came in the form of trauma during an earlier life stage. When conflict does arise in their relationships, as it always does, they are triggered by this fear response to seek safety, either by emotionally or physically disappearing or going numb or fighting for their survival.
A first step is to notice this impulse to seek safety in the midst of conflict and begin to cultivate the capacity to tolerate this distress. This begins with simply noticing what this impulse feels like in our bodies, without judging or pushing away. In this present moment space of noticing this impulse, we can take an emotional posture of curiosity and vulnerability. Being curious and vulnerable to what we are experiencing, we expand our capacity to be in conflict and are less inclined to be trapped in compromises which do not actually resolve it.
To authentically resolve a conflict, we align ourselves with the fundamental tensions that arise within a particular relationship, are curious about those tensions, and vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to be changed in the process. Too often, we rush to compromise, not because we can deeply and authentically assent to it, but because we are impelled to find safety in it. As a result, the underlying emergent conflict, inherent in the present moment of the relationship, is understood and honored, thereby changing the relationship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad Byrum is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist with a focus on interpersonal relationships. In Brad’s words, “We work together to understand what you want and need, to identify the changes you want to make, and to create the solutions that work for you.”