Children growing up in abusive families not only associate conflict with violence and abandonment, but also miss out on learning about healthy conflict.
Healthy conflict is about resolving friction between different people’s needs and preferences. People in healthy conflict share goals to resolve a problem or repair a ruptured relationship. They may be angry and upset, but do not wish each other harm. In contrast, people in unhealthy conflict treat each other like enemies, with goals to win while someone else loses, take something from someone, or hurt someone. People with less power in an unhealthy conflict might be trying to escape without getting hurt.
Our internal narratives strongly affect how we behave. We might hold unconscious narratives about conflict like, “I’m in danger,” or “I’ll get hurt,” or “The best defense is a good offense,” or “I always get what I want,” or “I’m too nice to get into conflicts.”
Notice how you fill in the story when you imagine someone saying, “I need to have a serious talk with you.” What does the speaker look like? What size are they relative to you? What responses do you notice in your body? How do you expect the conversation to develop? How much room do you expect your voice to have?
When childhood conflict meant getting attacked, shamed, or erased, our bodies interpret any conflict as a threatening emergency and go directly into fight, flight, or freeze. Someone who feels strong and powerful might default to attacking with fists or words. Others might default to running away, avoiding the other person in the conflict, changing the subject, or dissociating. Others might freeze or collapse, surrendering immediately to what the other person wants and apologizing for existing.
When we grow up being bullied or abandoned, it makes sense to avoid conflict at all costs, walking on eggshells to make sure everyone is kept soothed and comfortable. We know in our bones that any discomfort will be taken out on us. In contrast, when there are shared goals to meet everyone’s needs in a respectful way, it makes sense to bring up issues sooner rather than later so they can be resolved together.
While there are plenty of conflicts in the present, some conflicts are reenactments out of the past, where we hold such a strong narrative that we pull people into acting it out with us. If the old narrative comes from only one person, then it can be resolved by owning it and becoming more aware of the present, perhaps by noticing what is the same and different about the past and present situations. The other person can step aside, declining to play their assigned role.
If two people’s reenactments hook into each other, it can be a long, frustrating struggle to reach resolution. Even if one or both people recognize it as a recurring pattern, it can be difficult to untangle a mutual reenactment.
For example, if Anat expects everyone to be critical, they might hear neutral statements as criticism and respond defensively. If Danika is not hooked in, she can simply say, “I didn’t mean any criticism,” and disengage. If Danika has her own narrative about being too critical or being misunderstood, the conflict might escalate rapidly, to both people’s distress.
Listen and speak with care
A lot of conflicts arise because one person is not hearing another. It might be a momentary lapse, a function of power and privilege, or an inability to see others’ points of view. People with disabilities, and people who are marginalized in other ways, encounter conflict simply by advocating for room to live in the world.
No matter what the source of the conflict, we can start by both listening and speaking with care.
If you respond to conflict with rage, panic, or collapse, first give yourself some empathy. Your responses make sense in the context of your experiences. Over time, work to calm your nervous system, both generally and specifically in response to conflict.
Observe the people around you and how they respond to conflict. Seek out people who want to resolve issues with kindness. Practice with tiny conflicts and gather new experiences that let you know the world does not end when you speak up for yourself. Reach out for support in handling larger conflicts. Let people know you are practicing new patterns.
Orient to the present, noticing differences from past conflicts. Tune into your senses. Feel your adult size, strength, and resources that let you engage in conflict as a respectful and respected equal.
If you feel small and overwhelmed in the middle of a conflict, ask for a break. When you are triggered, you will not have your adult skills available to find a positive resolution.
Listen with kindness
Listen with kindness to your own viewpoint. What outcome do you want? Is there an underlying issue? What are you afraid will happen? Is there a way to resolve this issue on your own?
Keep in mind that the other person’s viewpoint makes sense to them. Listen to them with interest. Make room for them to be themselves.
For example, Danika is often late to meet Anat. Anat might choose meeting places where they enjoy spending time alone, recognizing that Danika is not good with time. Or, there might be an underlying issue around priorities and consideration that the two of them need to address together.
If possible, allow the other person to save face, as long as the problem is fully addressed for the future. Most people carry a lot of shame, and are reactive when they are feeling ashamed.
When you approach a conflict with kindness and positive expectations, sometimes that is enough to bring the other person with you into healthy conflict or collaboration. Sometimes they are unable or unwilling to make the shift and will remain silent, avoid the conflict, or behave like an enemy. Whether they choose to cooperate or not, their behavior is not your fault.
If someone behaves abusively, you can name the behavior and tell them how you prefer to be treated. “Please do not call me names. Let’s focus on behaviors, not personalities.” You can also attempt to refocus on the issue at hand. If they continue to behave abusively, you can take a break and try again later. If you are not free to disengage, this is not conflict, it is bullying or abuse.
The more we depend on others and they depend on us, the more we need ways to work out conflicts respectfully. We all deserve people in our lives who are kind even when they feel ashamed, angry, or upset. We should not need to keep people soothed to be treated well. Learning to manage conflict with care is a lifetime project for each of us.
- Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Ellison offers non-defensive questions, statements, and predictions to navigate conflicts.