I'll just go ahead and call it like I see it. Most people aren't great at dealing with conflict. Name calling, blame, high levels of defensiveness, resentment... It's not easy to remain respectful in the heat of an intense disagreement. We are all unskillful sometimes.
Yet there are people I know who are very good at dealing with conflict, and I'd like to be more like them.
They're not always gracious, they slip up sometimes, but they've courageously faced enough conflict that they've gotten really good at learning from it rather than becoming its victim.
For those who seek to be better communicators until the day we die as I do, who will never stop wanting to love more deeply and show up more powerfully for ourselves and others, I offer this interview. Here are two questions about dealing with conflict in relationship, and their answers from a man who's considered a wizard in the world of coaching, Master Relationship Coach Charles Zook.
How does conflict affect relationships? Is it all bad, or is there a benefit to conflict sometimes?
The impact of conflict depends largely on how we engage conflict.
If done skillfully it can be a huge contribution; if done unskillfully it will likely result in a lot of toes being stepped on, so to speak. The culture and history most of us live in does not support education and modeling regarding skillful approaches to conflict (look around, lots of unskillfulness out there!).
In every moment of our lives, and of our relationships, there is "Glass Half Full" (things that are fulfilling the way they are) and "Glass Half Empty" (things that are not fulfilling the way they are). Conflict generally falls under the Glass Half Empty umbrella.
In our culture we tend to interact with Glass Half Empty with a "what's wrong" conversation. We are well trained and quite experienced with this type of conversation. We can tell you what's wrong with just about anything, especially our partners!
Developing a more constructive relationship with conflict starts with shifting from "what's wrong" to "what is wanting to happen." It is kind of like the shift from movie critic to movie director. A movie critic states, "I did not like this part", but does not have to address, "so what would you do differently to make it better?". To experience benefit from conflict we need to challenge ourselves to move from movie critic, "let me tell you what is wrong with this relationship," to a more challenging conversation, "what are we learning from this and how can we integrate this learning to make our relationship better in the future?"
Learning how to do this is challenging but potentially very rewarding. Yet not learning how to do this is also challenging, and largely lacks any sense of progress, fulfillment, power, or self determination.
How do we tell the difference between projections and other people's work?
Messy question reflecting a reality that is messy.
From a Newtonian world view -- one that sees the future as determined by the past -- we should be able to parse these out. A certain percentage is projection, the rest other people's work, it varies by situation, like that.
From a more Quantum Physics world view -- one that sees the future as TBD/to be determined, full of possibilities -- it is more holographic. Each component is there completely, and depending on what you are looking for, you will find it.
In practical terms this may not be very helpful so far, but we need to establish that there is no measurable reality about this stuff, it is more a discussion about how can we approach this in ways that leads to fulfilling outcomes. The foundational assertion is that "If we tell enough truth, it will sort itself out, we will discover what is wanting to happen, we will reveal next step(s)." Without a specific example, I will address this conceptually.
When dealing with yourself:
Compassionately start with curiosity from the perspective of it is ALL me.
What is my role in this?
What is it I am wanting to learn from this life experience?
What am I feeling?
What do I need?
If I could interact with this situation in a manner that reflects my values and vision, what would that look like?
What to I want to create going forward?
What could I do differently in the future that would contribute to different outcomes?
Look for the gold of what there is to learn by approaching the situation as if there was something for you to learn and do differently in the future.
When dealing with another, compassionately start with curiosity about the whole situation. What was their experience?
What are they feeling?
What do they need?
How was the situation different than how they would like it to have been?
What would they like to create going forward?
What requests do they have?
AND, are they interested and willing to hear your experience?
If we are seeking to be right and avoid being wrong, then the interaction will center around that concern. If we can let go of the need to be right and avoid being wrong, we can listen and learn and problem solve and come up with creative ideas about how to do things differently in the future.
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Thank you to the people who offered questions for this interview. And thank you for your generous sharing and wisdom, Coach Charles.
To everyone reading: Was this helpful? What are YOUR questions about conflict? We're happy to keep offering insights as long as you share questions. You can post your questions anonymously or include your name; it's up to you.
Those wanting a clear and practical tool that works, to deal with conflict, can join Charles and me (Jessica Rios, Founder, Leaning into Light) as we co-lead a 90-minute phone workshop on Sunday March 20th: Dealing with Conflict. Cost is $28pp, limited to the first 20 participants. Sign up here!
Our featured free recording for September is a 35-minute conversation with mailman Sean Lanham called Mailman Magic and the Power of Letters. You can listen here!
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.