The Up Side of Conflict

Conflict changes us.  It’s in the same category as mistakes and crisis.  We go along doing the same thing over and over in life until something happens that we didn’t plan for.  Then we’re forced to make a change. 

This experience is different than the changes we choose to make.  In those cases, we read about how to change.  We talk to our friends about it.  We make plans and join support groups.  Maybe we see a therapist or doctor.  We have moderate success at best. 

But when we lose our job, get divorced, fall on our face or have a heart attack, real change begins.  That’s what makes conflict compelling to me. 

Years ago I moved with my young family from sunny California to frigid Minnesota to go into business with my brother.  It was one of the coldest winters on record, I was pregnant and he was divorcing my best friend at the time.  It was a perfect storm. 

It didn’t take long for the storm to erupt and when that happened I did what most people do in a conflict: I blamed him entirely.  I told my story to anyone who would listen, I tried to enlist the support of my parents and extended family, and I became more self-righteous by the day.  Eventually, I threw in the towel, quit the work and moved back to the warm west coast.  

For the first few years after this family disaster I held out, waiting for my brother to apologize for his wrongdoings.  Eventually, I stopped expecting that but I still maintained my sense of righteousness. 

The story calcified in my mind into a wall that kept me from knowing my brother.  It’s taken me years and years to see how we both stumbled into a quagmire of tiny mistakes that compounded into painful conflicts and to feel compassion for his experience. 

I’ve missed 15 years of knowing him because of my stubbornness, but as a consolation prize I’ve come ups with some ideas about how to make the most out of conflict and mistakes: 

  • Figure out what you did wrong and admit it.  When we bury our mistakes or our shame, we stunt ourselves and inhibit an opportunity to grow.  Hiding our mistakes, even from ourselves, is our first response.  Acknowledging our own part in the problem in a conflict is step one. 
  • Resist blame.  It’s easier (and more enjoyable) to point the finger at the other person.  When we make a mistake or face a conflict, we so desperately want to avoid shouldering the responsibility for it that we affix that blame onto the other.  In doing this, we lose a chance to learn from our mistakes.
  • Be vulnerable.  Use the experience as an opportunity to address your greatest fear: that you’re not perfect and that others will find out.  As Brene Brown discusses in this incredible TED talk, our fear of shame holds us back from living life fully.  Recognizing our essential weaknesses and being willing to share those and keep going is a courageous act and it expands us and opens us to a larger life.
  • Keep moving forward.  Don’t freeze.  Get back on the horse.  Pick yourself up off the ground, brush yourself off and keep skipping.  To do less is to give yourself permission to shut down and stop growing and make your life a story about a time you were once tripped.

There’s tons of new research out there about the necessity of mistakes in the learning process.  In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel Dennett writes it best, “Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new.”   Without mistakes, failures, conflicts and crisis, we would be stuck forever in neutral.