I have had the privilege of working with people when they are going through some of the most painful moments of their lives. I have seen them hurting so badly that they can’t breathe, think, or stand. These moments are extremely hard, especially because they include multiple people, and frequently they are people that in some way care about one another, or the system in which they operate. We can make decisions for ourselves, and while they may not be easy, the hardest issues are the ones that involve other people. We are feeling so much pain and anger that we can’t see that the other person involved is also a human being with feelings. We are taught at these times that it is best to fight back and protect ourselves, but what if there is another way?
When people are in the height of conflict, when things are the most painful and angry, you can’t hear what is going on. We have so much of our focus on our own pain, that we don’t recognize what is going on in the other person’s life. We can’t see the forest through the trees. I have had some clients describe these moments as feeling like they are dying, and that the world and issues on the outside are grey or invisible. They don’t see that the other person is hurting, and if they do they feel good about them hurting, and then go through a cycle of guilt and anger for having those feelings. Many times people aren’t leaning in to meet face to face. They are standing and solidifying their positions and deepening their depiction of the person being as other or less than. We are right and they are wrong. We can’t compromise, collaborate, or have a discussion.
Society leans towards adversarial rather than collaborative methods of addressing conflict and pain. We must fight it for all we are worth in order to protect ourselves; however, many times that very action escalates issues and hurts ourselves more than others. When we are talking with our co-workers, friends, and family we share how horrible everything is and work up a righteous indignation, which only serves to hurt ourselves. It is similar to taking poison, and expecting it to hurt the other person.
What if we were taught to change the pattern? What if we learned to acknowledge the pain and conflict, and use it as a signal that we need to lean into our humanity and collaborative processes? These skills are not taught in schools, and are not promoted in our society. We immediately go to fight or flight and call in the lawyers. I believe that learning how to have difficult conversations and to manage our responses to conflict is necessary to create a lasting change, rather than depend on litigious options. In communities, families, and organizations, health is found by learning to talk when things are at their most difficult, and leaders are strong when they embrace conflict transformation and restorative practices. Learning how to transform the pain into opportunity, healing, and a new normal with rules of relationship is beautiful.
So how do you lean in when everything is hurting? The first step is to recognize the pain. Recognize that it is having an impact on you, and it is most likely having an impact on the other person, as well as whatever community surrounds you. I am not saying that conflict is easy or that dealing with the pain is not one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do, but working through the pain to clear a little of the haze is a first step. If you are in extreme pain and have not found a way to work through it so you can clearly identify what you need from the situation, or what you are actually feeling, I encourage you to speak with a therapist. He or she will help you to identify what has happened, what you feel you need to make it better, and how to prevent building a box that prevents you from having an open mind when working through options for transformation.
For leaders, and others who want to improve their personal conflict skills, I encourage you to develop a practice that helps you to healthfully deal with stress, conflict, and strong emotions. For many people, they find that a mindfulness practice is helpful to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and keeping track of their emotional barometer. They are able to recognize when a storm is coming, and take action to address their mental and emotional well being in a healthy way. When I am feeling extreme emotions, or have been through a highly emotional and conflicted event, I focus on my breathing. I make space to process what I am feeling, acknowledge its impact, and identify what I need to do to create healing in my environment. Many times I need to also do something that gets me outside and burns energy; such as, going for a run along the water front. Find what works for you. Creating effective self-care practices are key to addressing pain and conflict, as well as preventing some of them from even occurring. You are able to lean in and have difficult conversations, stand in the pain, and lead it to transformation.
How many times have you had a moment where everything hurts because of someone else’s actions, but you didn’t speak up because you felt you couldn’t or you just wanted to maintain equilibrium? How did that go? Many times we cover up pain because we don’t want to make things worse, or we don’t know how to make it go away, or we are afraid. However, when we keep sweeping pain under the rug, eventually it becomes a volcano, and volcanoes explode. Fault lines give way, molten lava (anger) come flying out through our mouths and hurt the people around us, and ultimately scar the side of the mountain (ourselves). Conflict frequently becomes more difficult and more painful the longer issues go unaddressed. It is important to learn to lean in and have those difficult conversations. It is important to be able to identify what is going on with you, and explain to the other person what actions are causing the pain. Create the space for mutual sharing and collaboration. It can be difficult to stand in this space, but the difficulty can last for less time at a lower intensity when you address conflict before the volcano erupts.
If the volcano is already erupting, take the time to evaluate what conflict resolution process is best for you. Sometimes the process is determined by contracts, threats of violence, or policy. However, if you have the ability to engage in more collaborative and party driven practices, I encourage you to do so. Practices such as mediation, facilitation, and collaborative law put the power more firmly in the hands of the parties. Where as, adjudication and arbitration put decision making abilities in the hand of a third party.
Conflict is hard, especially when it involves such strong emotions. However, there is opportunity for transformation. Lean in to who you are, what you are feeling, and work to own the process. You can break the pattern of attack and retreat, and choose a transformation process that works best for you.