"How many of you love dealing with conflict?" I often ask when I do conflict resolution training. No hand goes up. "How many of you believe conflict sucks?" I ask. This time, everyone laughs and raises a hand. Whether we go through a relationship or marriage crisis, whether we face a conflict at work, or whether we experience some existential crisis, the reality is that we associate conflict with pain, sometimes with intense pain. Ah! If we could just get rid of conflict!
Disempowering conflict management style
I follow up, asking the participants in my workshop to think of a conflict they faced in the past and to come up with a list with emotions, attitudes, actions, or metaphors they associate with the experience of that particular conflict. Generally they mention anxiety, stress, fear, insecurity, anger, frustration, violence, etc. Recently, a client told me that he felt like being lost in a labyrinth, like carrying a heavy rock on his shoulder.
These sorts of emotions are common when we are confronted by a conflict or a problem. We should also recognize that these emotions put us in a state of mind that disempowers us. We can easily become victims when a conflict hijacks our life.
Giving conflict a chance
What’s a better strategy? What’s the first step to turn things around, to experience conflict in a more empowering and constructive way? One of the attitudes mediators develop toward conflict is to perceive it as an opportunity and not merely as a problem. This attitude allows for exploration and creativity, and it can open the path toward transformation and change.
What then if you ask different questions about a conflict you face right now? What changes if instead of seeing it as a painful experience and an overwhelming problem with no solution, you look at it as an opportunity? What if you see the conflict as an opportunity for growth? What if you consider what you can learn from a particular painful situation? How would your attitude change? What new options might emerge? What would be possible?
There is wisdom in conflict
We cannot avoid conflict: it’s just a natural component of our human condition, but what is in our power, is to decide to experience it as an opportunity for growth and for change.
This is what I learned from the leader of a terrorist group I have met in a high-security prison in Colombia, while I was facilitating ceasefire talks between the government and his armed insurgent group. He was serving a 30-year sentence and unlike what I had anticipated, I didn’t see him as either angry or bitter. Instead, he was serene, peaceful, and had a great sense of humor. How come? I asked him. “When I realized that I’ll be almost 80 years old when I come out of prison, I asked myself what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” he told me, “and I decided to use this time to reconcile myself with God, with my family, and to work for a peaceful solution to our violent conflict.” He had refused to be a victim of his own situation. In that prison cell, he had found a way to be free.
How to discover conflict as positive
Now, take a moment, and reflect. Find a quiet spot, and ask yourself the following questions:
- What were some of the conflicts you experienced in your own life?
- Which one caused emotions that hijacked your life and disempowered you?
- Which one, instead, were you able to experience in a more constructive way?
- Which were the conflicts you resolved in a positive way? What made the positive outcome possible?
- What did you learn about yourself and about life more in general from the conflicts you faced?
- What about a conflict you are going through right now? What happens if you see it as an opportunity for growth and for transformation? What can you learn from it? What’s positive about it?