Handling Conflict

“Attachment” is what psychologists refer to as “our desire to bond with other people.” In other words, to be human means to desire relationships with other humans. However, the closer we get to other human beings, the more likely conflict is to arise.

Conflict can come in two forms: good or bad. Dr. Alan Godwin, psychologist and author of the book, How to Solve Your People Problems, says, “Obviously bad conflict results when people problems are handled poorly. We argue but accomplish nothing. We spend our energy reacting to each other’s reactions, leaving problems unsolved.”

Bad conflict is bad because nothing good comes from it. Dr. Godwin says, “Good conflict may feel bad when we are in the middle of it, but the results are good so it’s worth the effort.” 

So what’s the difference if both seem upsetting in the process? During bad conflict, people’s buttons get pushed. Buttons are areas of sensitivity that when brought up cause us to feel emotionally distraught or weak. We can feel just as threatened as we would if a poisonous snake slithered into the room.

Then we would react in much the same way: either ready to battle the snake (fight) or run the other direction avoiding the problem entirely (flight). Usually fight reactions between people involve yelling, name calling, or physical abuse, and do not lead to resolution.

Flight reactions involve leaving the scene, shutting down, giving in or pretending the conflict doesn’t even exist. None of these responses create peace and harmony.

When people never learn how to experience good conflict, they and their relationships suffer. Problems don’t get solved. The parties will develop a sense of hopelessness about their relationship, trust will be compromised, their energy depleted, their judgment impaired, and in general, they will feel worse and worse.

Research also suggests that people who live in constant emotional turmoil have higher levels of stress which compromises their immune system making physical illness much more likely. In other words, engaging in bad conflict regularly can literally make you sick.

Good conflict has the opposite results. Problems are generally solved and forgotten. The people involved are empowered and energized from the positive experience of moving through their difficulties together. This also builds greater trust between them. 

Good conflict brings out the best in people and helps them grow personally. The benefits to our physical health are many as well. People in healthy relationships recover from injuries or illnesses faster and actually experience fewer such incidences. They also live longer.

Dr. Godwin says participating in good conflict involves developing five reasoning muscles. The Humility Muscle is our ability to acknowledge ways we have been wrong and admitting so. 

The Awareness Muscle means we are willing to examine how we are contributing to the current conflict. We may grow in awareness through looking at ourselves strongly in the mirror or by willingly receiving feedback from those in relationship with us. 

The Responsibility Muscle involves being bothered by our own role in causing the problem instead of looking for how to blame the other person. Using this muscle requires us to admit to our shortcomings and ask for forgiveness.

The Empathy Muscle is utilized when we realize we have hurt someone else and work to understand their pain and validate their experience with us. We may or may not agree with their perspective, but we can acknowledge their discomfort and again ask for their forgiveness.

And finally, Dr. Godwin recommends using our Reliability Muscle to make positive changes based on what we have learned through dealing with this conflict. Brainstorm with the other person about ways you can be different next time and make a commitment to implement the necessary changes immediately.

Remember, all human relationships will encounter conflict in some form, especially the closer you get to the person. How conflict is handled is the key. Simply stated, bad conflict feels bad to everyone and has long term negative effects. Good conflict results are far more positive, uplifting, and encouraging to everyone involved. 

So let’s all build our reasoning muscles so we can have healthier and happier relationships. That’s something we can all handle.

© - Cindy D. Whitmer (February 23, 2013)