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The 3 Keys to unlocking Generative Conflict

How to be a creative force, and not a destructive one, in conflict situations

Which part of the terrain do you want to explore?

Conflict situations can feel like make-or-break moments in our lives and indeed they can be just that. We can look on them as unwanted turbulence that upsets the delicate balance we've carefully constructed in our daily lives. Or we can look on them as opportunities for us to explore what's really important to us, to become clearer on what our values and essential needs are, and to answer the call to take a stand for something meaningful.

We human beings generally revert to the "unwanted turbulence" perspective because it protects us from, among other things, vulnerability, from having to deal with pain (our own and/or other people's) or from having to face up to some inconvenient truth. We have 3 default ways of reacting to conflict in an effort to protect ourselves, which roughly align with our Freeze, Fight or Flight instincts, respectively:

  • We try to ignore the conflict or blow past it, which manifests itself in going silent or trying to change the subject. It feels like you're trying to have a conversation with a brick wall or like someone's pulled the shutters down.

  • We engage combatively, so it's just a series of rebuttals and refutations. It feels like fencing or ping pong.

  • We flat out run away from it, which is when we disengage and disappear. It feels like you're in a ghost town and there's just tumble weed blowing around.

So what has us react like that? When we dig right down to the core, I believe that it's because we're scared of any one or a mix of 3 things: a) we're scared of conflict itself and what it means for us, what the consequences might be; b) we're scared of the cause of the conflict and what it means to us, how it reflects on our self-identity; and c) we're scared of what might come out about ourselves during or after the conflict.

Maybe we inadvertently hurt someone and now are being asked to deal with the impact, and so we're scared of having to see the other's pain, scared of having to acknowledge that we caused it, scared of the judgements that we make about ourselves as someone who has caused pain (usually converted into being afraid of the judgement of others and very sensitive to it), scared of having to question our sense of identity and who we think we are, scared of having to look in the mirror and of what we might find there.

Maybe someone has revealed something to us that we don't want to see and so we reject or dismiss it. We're afraid of opening Pandora's box and letting out what has been safely closed away. We're afraid of something raining on our parade and spoiling our idyllic and charmed life. We're afraid of something upending our world view or calling into question a fundamental belief.

Whatever the situation, conflict and ickiness arise very often out of a desperate bid to avoid ickiness or conflict. All we want to do is protect and defend ourselves, employing survival and avoidance techniques. We deny, reject, resist reality, and justify behaviours (twisted into "contextualise" by the more manipulatively minded among us). We "choose to" focus on only the good and beautiful and positive.

But why? Because when it comes right down to the essence, we're unconsciously afraid of only one thing: that we'll be overwhelmed, that we feel we aren't equipped to handle whatever reality lies before us, that we feel we don't have the resources needed to face whatever comes up. That fear of the unknown and of our own vulnerability and potential inability to deal with things, drives us to defend ourselves upfront at even a whiff of ickiness, discomfort, conflict or hard cold reality.

We humans of the 21st century don't have much of a tolerance for reality and uncertainty, for the feeling of groundlessness and of impotence. We're put off, even disgusted, by the notion of being a helpless victim, are contemptuous of those we perceive as such, and yet we so easily slip into exactly that state - when we default to those 3 destructive ways of being in conflict, we're abdicating responsibility for our place in what's happening. We become victims of circumstance, victims to our own fears and victims to the conflict.

The part of us that is so preoccupied with all this is the ego, the "me" that resides inside each of us and that is on constant alert, on the defensive. It is the part of us that is incredibly sensitive to perceived threats and desperately wants to defend itself, sometimes at all costs. It's the part of us that never quite grew up, but rather than being childlike, it is more childish, quite immature. It is a necessary and useful part of us that keeps us safe, but it becomes unhelpful, destructive and superfluous when it has free rein and dominates who we are, how we see the world and how we act.

At its most reactive and unhelpful, it has us be petulant, moody, defensive, contemptuous, blaming, withdrawn. It flares up in a burst of emotion, which blinds us to what is right in front of us (useful if we really don't want to see something that makes us uncomfortable and that we don't know what to do with). It clouds our ability to think clearly and to see possibilities and the wider picture. It is focused on the "other" and puts all its attention "over there" in accusatory fashion, eloquently speculating about what the other is thinking, feeling, what their intentions are and what is driving them.

And so conflict arises from an effort of our "me" to protect itself and its little world. And this spirals into a vicious circle that is self-reinforcing, making our "me" stronger and more sensitive, worsening our bad moods, petulance, irritation, impatience, defensiveness, self-righteousness, judgement, neediness, withdrawal, dissociation, blissful denial and all the rest.

The Fourth Way - Creative Engagement

There is, however, a fourth way available to us. We can engage creatively with ickiness and discomfort, which means we are present, open and receptive. It feels dynamic, like there's continuous flow with eddies and some strong currents, and there's definite directional movement.

When we feel ickiness and discomfort arising, we can turn into it, rather than throwing up barriers, closing the shutters or ignoring it. We can turn into it and welcome it as an opportunity to learn something about ourselves, others and the world. In order to this we need to bring into conscious awareness and cultivate 3 fundamental preconditions within ourselves, 3 human essentials: Presence, Courage and Dignity.

Presence is required to be aware of the signals of discomfort as they arise within us, to stay with the discomfort and sit with what it arouses in us, to notice as it moves through us or pools in us or roots itself in us. Presence is required to be with the other and the world, while also being with myself. Presence is required to stay in relationship and keep the connection alive, the communication channels open and flowing. Presence is required to receive information, see things as they are. Presence is required to be aware of which filters I might be seeing the world through, which paradigms I'm operating in, and which fundamental beliefs might be limiting my vision.

Courage is required to be present. Seeing things as they are rather than as we want them to be, being with who we are rather than how we would like to be, being with others as they are - all of this requires courage. All of this requires Heart and especially whole-heartedness. Courage is required to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and stay with what we see, even when it scares us or has us flinch. Courage is required to stay with the pain that we see in another when we know that we caused it. Courage is required to stay open and receptive to everything when all we want to do is protect ourselves and hide away. Courage is required to stay with our own pain and suffering when we just want to shut it out or distract ourselves or make it stop. Courage is required to call ourselves into question, to question our worldview, our truths, our beliefs and our very identity.

Dignity is required so that we don't crumble and fall to pieces when reality hits us square in the face or has the ground shift and tilt under our feet. Dignity is required so that we can look ourselves in the eye and not feel disgust, shame, anger, loathing, fear, judgement, self-pity. Dignity is required so that we clearly see and whole-heartedly accept the whole human being within us. Dignity is required so that we don't put concepts and people on pedestals, elevating them while debasing others. Dignity is required so that we can inhabit others' perspectives, as fully as possible, with empathy and compassion. Dignity is required so that we can approach each other and conflict with open heart, open mind and open will - meaning that we stay open and receptive to our own and others' emotions, that we keep our mind open and curious to explore hypotheses and threads, that we are willing to stay engaged and be moulded, transformed, shaped by the conversation and each other.

In practice, what do these 3 things, Presence, Courage and Dignity translate into?

1. Attentive listening and above all, Covey's old adage "listen to understand" - often our first reaction when we disagree is to simply tell the other that they're wrong, and then justify making them wrong with some rationalisation or other. When I hear something that triggers me or that I totally disagree with, what would happen if I listened and tried to understand how the other person came to that opinion or belief? What are they basing their opinion on? What do they know and see that I don't? What might I be missing? Can I stay present with them and my own reactions? Do I have the courage to step "over there" into their perspective and explore it? Can I be with them and talk to them eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart?

2. Accepting and acknowledging someone's perspective and lived experience as wholly valid and legitimate, versus rejecting it or dismissing it as invalid. This is the most basic form of honouring dignity, of demonstrating an open heart and an open mind. While I may not share the perspective or I may have a different lived experience, I can not simply deny their validity just because it doesn't square up with what I believe. Some people use the 2% truth rule (there's 2% truth in everything), but it's actually me being 98% dismissive and not actually engaging in the conversation, it gives me a neat way of shutting it down to avoid the topic. What if I were truly courageous and stepped into the other's lived experience and perspective as if it were true for me too? What can I learn about myself and the way I see the world? What can I learn about the other?

3. Staying open, receptive and willing to be moulded and transformed by the conversation, versus being attached to opinion, being right or being "seen as".

The added bonus of these keys, Presence, Courage and Dignity, is that as well as deepening and strengthening our relationships, they also go a long way towards maintaining intellectual humility and intellectual rigour by keeping the mind open and curious, by bringing into awareness all the assumptions and conclusions we jump to, by checking the gaps in our understanding, by being aware that our knowledge of the world and other people's lives (even our own selves!) is very limited, by knowing that when we're triggered there's something important for us in the discomfort and ickiness. Where our ego loves to lean over the map and talk about places, our "I" sets off on the road to explore the terrain. And that's what grants us Wisdom.

Learn to be a creative force in your life and relationships, join us 29-31 March 2019 in Piedmont, Italy for our leadership connection retreat.

I leave you with this brief and beautiful teaching by Pema Chödrön:

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