Want to Live in a World Without Conflict?
Would you want to live in a world without conflict? Most people would say yes. Almost everyone wants less conflict and most of us tend to avoid it when we can.
But what would the world be actually like without conflict? Well, first let’s define the term, “conflict.”
I’ve seen many definitions of conflict that resonate with me. One goes something like this: “You’re in conflict if you believe that you would be more content if you or someone else had done or not done a particular thing.” For example, you are in conflict if you believe you would have been more content if your spouse had not stood up left the room without a word while you were in the middle of telling her something. You may also be in conflict today about something that someone may or may not do in the future, if you believe the person will act other than in the way you prefer.
Do you like this definition? There are plenty of other definitions, and there are many other words in the English language for conflict. For example: disagreement, difference of opinion, dispute, argument, attack, fight, war, misbehavior, violation, or violence.
I am talking about external conflict — conflict between you and one or more others. Internal conflict is real, too. You want two things that seem incompatible. But that is (mostly) a topic for another day.
If my definition of external conflict works, then, using that definition, what would it mean for you to have no “conflict” in your life? I think it would mean that all your needs are being met all the time. Or, at least, it would mean that whenever a need of yours is not being met or looks like it won’t be fully met, this is never because of what someone else said or did or what you expect them to do or say.
How likely is that to happen? When pigs fly? (Probably even later than that!)
Ok, then. Conflict is a part of life and it’s here to stay. It is going to happen, over and over in our lives.
Now … back to my original question: if it were possible, would you want there to be no conflict in your life?
If someone asked me, the answer would be no.
Not just because my profession would vanish if there were no conflict. It’s because conflict is not all bad. In fact, there’s often a lot more to like about conflict than people realize. As I see it, conflict usually isn’t the problem. The problem is how people deal (or don’t deal) with it. Too often, lacking a better approach, they get violent — sometimes physically violent, but more often violent with words, thoughts, and/or nonverbal behavior.
I think there’s a better way. I think conflict can be a goose that lays golden eggs.
The golden eggs are the opportunities that conflict presents to improve the lives of the people involved. Opportunities to discover important stuff about ourselves and others, and to make changes that improve a situation from the standpoint of all concerned. For example, let’s say you care about someone. You’re probably pretty interested in whether that person’s needs are being met. You may not think of it that way. You probably just think, “I want him or her to be happy,” or something like that. Or maybe you don’t care about the person; you just want them to stop doing something that bothers you. Either way, if the other person’s needs are not being met, then they probably are not happy, and they probably are not going to stop doing that thing that bothers you. In my experience, not seeing conflict as an opportunity to improve lives contributes to the prolongation, and too often worsening, of the conflict.
However, if you are willing and able (for me, “able” is usually harder than “willing”) to be aware of your own needs and curious about the other person’s needs, then you have a much better shot at getting what you want!
So conflict turns out to be a great way to find out about needs that are not being met. With that knowledge, it is much more likely that something can be done to meet the need.
For most people, thinking of conflict this way is hard. It requires what I call the “reframing” of conflict. Especially when you are emotionally triggered, the more primitive part of your brain tends to co-opt the more rational, thoughtful part. It takes practice and deep intentionality to pause in that heated moment — to pause and consider that both parties are trying to get their needs met and, so far, are pursuing strategies that appear incompatible with each other. But if you can pause and step away, if you can leave the stage and visit the balcony, you may be able to see the whole play anew.
Still not buying it? Think about it this way. If you are in an argument (or avoiding one) with someone, it’s pretty likely that the conflict will not go away on its own. It may go underground, or remain internal to you, but it will still be there, possibly outside your conscious awareness, for as long as the needs at stake go unmet. If you want the conflict and the pain associated with it to actually be over — not to mention to feel okay about how it was resolved, wouldn’t it be smart to be interested in finding a way for the other person’s unmet need to be met, at least if their need can be met without leading to important needs of yours going unmet?
Most people approach conflict differently than this. If they don’t avoid or deny the conflict, they try to convince the other person that he is “wrong” and persuade him to change. This almost never works! There’s a saying I like: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in the relationship?” If it is really important for you to be “right” most of the time, then you have probably had some tough going in your relationships.
Next time, maybe you can try putting the desire to be “right” on hold and try this: Before going at the issue directly, try getting really curious about your and the other person’s unmet needs. It costs you nothing to be interested in her experience or to be inquisitive about your own. The other person is entitled to her experience, just as you are entitled to yours. You see it this way; she sees it that. Just because you show interest in his experience does not mean you have to like the strategy she is pursuing, or do the thing she wants you to do. In fact, I believe it is can be a demonstration of strength when you can stay in touch with your needs, and remain determined to satisfying them, while also showing curiosity about the feelings, needs, and experience of the other person.
Once you have shown genuine, nonjudgmental, interest in the other person’s experience — what he is feeling and what needs of his are not being met, what you may find is that he will become more open to hearing about your experience and imagining what it is like to be you in the situation. Try creating a combined list of all the needs of both you and the other person that seem to be in play. When you both get a handle on which needs of each of you are not being met, then what you have is a shared goal: to find a way to meet all the needs on the combined list, or at least the ones that are most important to each of you.
Don’t confuse “needs” with the “strategies” that might be pursued to meet the needs. Needs are hard to change and usually there is no need to change them. For example, I have a need for nutrition, for sustenance. There are infinite ways (“strategies”) of meeting that need in a given instance and over time. First, get clear on your unmet needs and those of the other person. Only then start looking for strategies to meet those needs.
Feelings are clues to needs. Feelings the other person experiences (for example, they are sad, angry, or afraid) are clues to which of their needs they perceive are not being met.
If you’ve stayed with me this far — to the point where you have one list of needs that need to be met for both of you to be satisfied — then you are well on your way to finding a golden egg in your next conflict!
Would you like to discuss how the information in this post can make a positive difference in your life? Contact me for a free conversation.