When is Relationship Conflict Positive?

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I think it is possible to do anger and conflict well. But I think this means recognising the other person for who they are. If we can do this, then anger and conflict can lead to deeper and richer relationships.

Conflict Can Be Difficult

I much prefer the quiet life. My preference is for the inner world, and I like things to go along smoothly; my preferred mood is an elated calmness. The adventures I go on are largely in the world of ideas, thoughts and feelings. Some of my friends prefer the opposite of all these. Their lives are about activity in the external world — whether it be martial arts or building an organisation. And some of them enjoy an emotional roller-coaster ride.

What both my friends and I have similar difficulty with is conflict. It has taken us a long time to learn to do it well. This isn’t surprising — it didn’t appear on the curricula where we went to school. And we can’t name many good models among our parents or other authority figures.

Culturally I think there is an attitude that conflict is best avoided. This goes well beyond the ‘positive thinking’ movement to ‘team building’ in (in-)human relations departments to the ‘white lies’ told for the sake of politeness.

And yet, sometimes conflict has been a very positive experience for me. In my experience conflict and anger are not bad — but simply badly done.

We Need to Be Seen

How can anger and conflict be done well? The usual guidelines are true and helpful I think:

  • Don’t attribute motive to the other person
  • Don’t engage in personal attacks
  • Use ‘I’ statements
  • Play the ball, not the man (i.e., attack the argument, not the person)

I’d like to come at this slightly sideways. When we experience good conflict I think this is because we sense that the other person is engaging with us personally. We are seen for who we are.

I think that being seen is a deep need that we have. Being ignored, even by people we aren’t particularly close to, even by those we don’t particularly like, often feels bad. A common childhood demand is “Look at me!”. And if the adults don’t look, then the children often do something that they know will get attention — even if it is negative attention.

To be recognised for who we are, to be listened and welcomed can be profoundly moving experiences. A thank you that feels genuine — say, a thank you that shows that the person thanking us actually knows what we did — can be uplifting.

Recognising Differences

To be recognised for who we are is to have our uniqueness valued. To be seen is to be seen to be different — seeing is a matter of contrast. Which brings me back to conflict.

I think those conflicts that we find enlivening are those where we are seen for who we are. This can mean:

  • that our intentions, as well as our perceptions and arguments, are paid attention to,
  • that we are not reduced to our argument,
  • that the conflict is seen as part of the relationship rather than vice versa (though this may not be true in all situations — in academia, for example, it may be the case that an individual is part of a tradition of argument).

I’m not suggesting that conflict is the only way for us to be seen for who we are. I don’t think that it is even the main way that most of us are seen for who we are. I do want to point out that being seen for who we are is important, and that, while conflict usually gets in the way of this, it doesn’t have to. It is possible that when our anger and our conflicts are done well, they can lead to deepening our relationships. It is possible that our differences can enrich our relationships. Our diversity can lead to a much richer experience. But this can only happen if our uniqueness is acknowledged and if we do the work needed to welcome it. To accommodate others in their diversity usually means change, and this usually takes effort. It is also likely that we will all benefit from this effort.

It may be that I have been especially fortunate in those I have had conflict with. I’ve lived a non-mainstream life in some ways (as a religious person in Australia, as a youth worker, as someone interested in alternative health), and so I am conscious that what I have written about here may not be your experience. So I would like to hear whether you have had a positive experience of conflict. And can you say why it was positive — as compared to what is usually the case of conflict being negative? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

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