“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Conflict in our relationships, in our communities and our country is scary and painful for all of us. And yet, it holds the key to a thriving life, because our differences provide energy for psychological and emotional growth.
Peter Turchin, author of the book ‘Ultrasociety’, calls conflict ‘a force of (destructive) creation’. You will be shocked to hear that without conflict, we would have not evolved into the remarkable society that we are today.
In his book he follows the quest of how we evolved from primitive tribes into the complex nation-states we are today in a relatively short amount of time? Philosophers and social scientists have offered many explanations for the remarkable, even bizarre trajectory of human social evolution.
But for a long time, there was no accepted explanation until now, as the new science of Cultural Evolution is giving us surprisingly new insights into the mystery of our success-story. It was competition and conflict between human groups that drove the transformation of small bands of hunter-gatherers into huge nation-states. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was war that first created despotic, archaic states and then destroyed them, replacing them with better, more equal societies.
If we want to transform our society today, we need more emotionally mature people, says Jason Digges, author of “Conflict is energy’. Our closest relationships are the most fertile place for building emotional maturity. Next time you are in conflict with someone close to you, remember that this is how you evolve yourself and thus our society.
In Authentic Relating, a relational practice that creates more depth, truth and understanding, we say that ‘conflict is connection wanting to happen’. Indeed, conflict means that two people actually care about something and want to be heard/seen by the other.
But we can use conflict also to gain insights about our beliefs about ourselves and the world. This increases our awareness about what belief patterns we give ‘power’ to. If we believe that ‘we can’t trust other people’ and we want to change that belief, our awareness is the key to freedom.
By practicing these 7 principles, we use conflict as a force for good:
- Embrace polarity
- Slow down
- Assume nothing
- Reveal your experience
- Own your beliefs
- Invite impact
- Honor yourself and others
The following practices originate from the book “Conflict is energy” by Jason Digges.
1. Embrace polarity
Which value is more important, compassion or truth? Authenticity or belonging? There is no right or wrong to this question. There simply is difference. You may not like it, and yet we prioritize values all the time—and we judge each other by our values. These judgments are a main source of our tension with each other. This tension can be used for war – when one value tries to ‘win’ over the other – or creatively – when we see difference as an asset. It is also what sparks our passion. Embracing polarity can help us be more open to considering the values of those around us, even when we don’t agree with those values, let alone understand or appreciate them.
2. Slow Down
When we are in conflict, our nervous system is under stress. Naturally, we are reacting to fear or threat by going into ‘freeze’, ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode. This adrenal activation, sometimes described as an “adrenaline spike” or “being triggered,” primes fast and potentially harmful responses. This is why slowing down is such an essential tool. Doing so gives us time to explore possibilities beyond our automatic conditioning.
Slowing down can be as simple as taking a view breaths to stay in connection with our body. It is through the body that we notice what we feel, which is essential when we want to master conflict.
3. Assume nothing
Especially in conflict situations, our subconscious mind is continuously and rapidly pattern-matching what is happening in the present moment with what has happened in the past. There are useful explanations for why this is happening, however, it is also the reason why we ‘recreate’ our past.
When we assume we know what the other person thinks about us and what going about to happen as a consequence, we get in the way of resolution. It is not the past that repeats itself but our response to our beliefs! We rob the present moment of its mystery. When we assume nothing and get curious instead by asking: ‘Is this really true?’, we often find out that our assumptions are incorrect. Therefore our actions, attitudes, and communication are mistuned to the actual situation.
4. Reveal your experience
Our ability to live into true connection gently and consistently reminds us that we all have insecurity lurking deep within ourselves. This insecurity waits for our attention and feeds off of an ego that softly whispers to us in times of uncertainty.
Although we all crave such connection, in order to fully receive this gift requires the intentional work of becoming and remaining vulnerable during times of ambiguous choices, even through the insecurity. Melissa Joyce writes for the Huffington Post: “This is the beautiful and terrifying thing about vulnerability. We must be willing to completely reveal layers of ourselves in order to reach an authentic, tangible connection with another soul. Vulnerability is in actuality connection in its invisible form.”
Communicating what we feel, want, hope and need is the pathway to staying in connection instead of freezing, fighting back or withdrawing completely.
It is also a vulnerable path that takes courage. Sometimes we hold back from sharing ourselves more fully because we fear being received poorly, aka being rejected, ridiculed, or not taken seriously. Yet more often than not, revealing something that feels uncomfortable creates a deeper connection. In fact, there is no real connection without truth.
5. Own Your Beliefs
Owning our beliefs is owning our momentary experience. It is an art form and art needs practice. When we endeavor to own our beliefs, we often feel uncomfortable because we find things we don’t like about ourselves.
The positive effect is that we become the creator of our lives the moment we own what belief we hold true has led us here (to judge, behave, react, etc. a certain way). The most empowered times of our lives are those when we take responsibility for our experience, and for our contribution to our circumstances. On the other hand, when we experience ourselves as victim, and blame other people or situations around us, we experience the most disempowered times in our lives.
To use conflict as a tool that reveals the beliefs you have about yourself and the world follow these questions, prompted by William Whitecloud.
What is the problem? (in one sentence)
What thoughts do you have?
What feelings do you have?
What does that say/mean about yourself?
What does that say/mean about others?
What does that say/mean about the world?
In this way, conflict becomes an opportunity to learn about our suffering. It is then up to us to ‘feed these beliefs’ and stay in our suffering or to ‘be aware of them’ and yet follow love. This means that we have to take responsibility for our actions and reveal our experience more deeply than we are comfortable with.
6. Invite Impact
Owning our beliefs and thus our ‘shit’ is an opening to feedback. Feedback is not advice – it is what I have heard, what I have seen, what I have felt. Listening is an art that needs practice. Heather Wagoner, Director of Internal Communication and Engagement at the BBC, writes that ‘Being listened to is so close to being loved that sometimes your brain can’t tell the difference’. In the Huffington Post, she highlights that listening and hearing one another involves mindful presence, setting context, creating a safe place, opening the body, making eye contact, and summarizing and reflecting on what we have heard.
Owning our beliefs is also an invitation for reciprocal vulnerability. Though it may sound counterintuitive, this vulnerability is where we truly grow. In facing this discomfort together, we open the doorway to more fulfilling relationships.
7. Honour yourself and others
Having conversations in this way doesn’t mean that both people get what they want or need. It doesn’t meant that conflict is ‘resolved’ and both parties are on the same page. It depends on how big the tension is and how long two people are willing to stay with that destructive creative tension to destroy beliefs and co-create new ones.
Some conflicts may never be healable, but if we both get to express vulnerably what we feel and we both own our beliefs, there is no victim and no perpetrator. There are two people who agree to disagree and to be on different journeys. That is how we honour ourselves and others – by continuing to be compassionate towards ourselves and the world.
It’s not easy to be human after all.
The bottom line is that there is huge potential in conflict. It is through our differences that we uncover our limiting beliefs and thus can evolve beyond them.
To practice ‘the art of conflict’, join an authentic relating or ‘circling’ workshop where you learn many of the practices mentioned above. You may want to invite your friends, partner or working colleagues to join you so that you can master conflict more effectively. Alternatively, you can also take notes on what you have learnt here and keep on reading these notes until you have internalized how you can use conflict as an opportunity for connection.
You may also find it useful to journal on a conflict that you have had last and to ask yourself what this conflict says about you and others (see “Own your beliefs”).
CALL TO EMBODIMENT
- The bottom line is that there is huge potential in conflict. It is through our differences that we uncover our limiting beliefs and thus can evolve beyond them.
- To practice ‘the art of conflict’, join an authentic relating or ‘circling’ workshop where you learn many of the practices mentioned above. You may want to invite your friends, partner or working colleagues to join you so that you can master conflict more effectively. Alternatively, you can also take notes on what you have learnt here and keep on reading these notes until you have internalised how you can use conflict as an opportunity for connection.
- Example – Partner Check Ins – Sit down with your partner and ask “would it be ok if we have a check in”. Pre frame that one person will go first and speak openly, honestly and transparently. There is no coaching, no judgement or comparison. Just two people taking the time to really see and hear each other. Once one person finishes, the other person then shares. A good way to start the conversation is to ask “whats real in your world right now?”.
- You may also find it useful to journal on a conflict that you have had last and to ask yourself what this conflict says about you and others (see “Own your beliefs”).
Turchin, Peter. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth
Whitecloud, William. SECRETS OF NATURAL SUCCESS: Five Steps to Unlocking Your Inner Genius
Jason W. Digges. “Conflict = Energy. The Transformative Practice of Authentic Relating.” Apple Books.
Melissa Joyce, Huffington Post Author, about the Power of Vulnerability
Other sources of conversation