Conflict is always optional. And by that I mean that not only is it never necessary to choose conflict, it is also your choice if you do want to choose conflict. Many people unconsciously or consciously enjoy the charge of conflict and find it stimulating. After all, many of us choose to be competitive athletes, politicians, or trial lawyers and actively engage in adversarial disputes. We enjoy the process of conflict. You are not required to resolve conflict, ever. It is always your choice.
At its best, perpetual conflict can become the pressure that creates a diamond or the chiseling that makes a smooth stone. A flower has to break open the shell of its seed to grow. There are many positive metaphors in nature for stress and conflict being a positive force of growth.
At its worst, perpetual conflict can become a cycle of abuse or an addiction. The cycle of violence theory, developed by Dr. Lenore Walker, describes the process that most abusive relationships become trapped in that perpetuate violence. That process looks like this:
This is an oversimplification of the thinking process for both parties, but when two people are engaged in perpetual conflict, this internal cycle is often pretty similar on both the instigator side and the receiver side. Often in a relationship (personal or professional) that has perpetual conflict, both sides believe the other is instigating the conflict, whether that belief is reasonable or not. Both sides wait for the other to change and demand the other to change, even when that fails to work over and over again.
One woman I worked with who was in an abusive romantic relationship returned to that relationship over and over again (this is very common, and some research says that an average relationship takes about eight to sixteen times to leave permanently). This woman understood it was dangerous to return to the relationship, and her boyfriend had been convicted of multiple crimes. Nevertheless, she was caught in this internal cycle of self-abuse and, because her boyfriend’s abuse was consistent with her beliefs about herself, it was falsely comfortable to return to that relationship.
I see this often with employees who truly do become career refugees or who stay in abusive jobs without taking steps to create safety for themselves. One woman I worked with explained to me that she had always been a victim, and so she could never support herself and her daughters, always needing to rely on a boyfriend’s support. She had gone from relationship to relationship, experiencing everything from physical violence to infidelity to ridicule. When she trained for a job she was passionate about, her instructor sexually assaulted and harassed her for months before she left the program. But, even when she was away from this abuse, her beliefs about herself were equally abusive. The abuse she experienced on the outside was obviously not caused by her thoughts and her self-abuse, but it was not inconsistent with her beliefs about herself, and so she tolerated it longer than someone would have whose internal world was self-nurturing or confident. Her self-abuse pattern allowed her to feel like dangerous situations were more comfortable than safe, respectful ones. Through intense work, she shifted to seeing how her self-abusive patterns were not serving her and keeping her in danger.
On the other hand, I have seen employees stay for twenty years in jobs that were actively dangerous and where they were underpaid. One woman explained to me that she historically made approximately $10,000 less per year than a less experienced male co-worker and she saw men actively threaten women in her workplace to the point where one woman was murdered by a male co-worker outside of the workplace. But it was still scarier to this woman to think about challenging the system and stepping out of the patterns that kept her stuck in abuse.
Often, the reason we engage in these patterns is that they have kept us safe somehow in dangerous situations, and our brains start to see them as safety. For example, even though they had both been physically threatened, the women I described above have not died yet by sticking with their self-abusive patterns. Their brains have not seen what it looks like to shift patterns, and so they see any shift as a threat.
Even in less extreme scenarios, it can feel impossible to make a shift without outside support. The reason for this goes back to the problem of power dynamics. When both sides see themselves (reasonably or unreasonably) as victims, they justify increasingly bad behavior.
After all, if you are a sugar ant, your strongest attack against an elephant will do no good, so you have to go above and beyond your strongest attack to defend yourself if you see yourself in that powerless place. We live in a culture that teaches men to externalize conflict and teaches women to internalize responsibility for conflict. For example, in the United States we see more terrorist mass shootings from young white men than any other group. This is not because of their natural physical makeup, but because they have been taught to externalize their inner process or blame what they view as going wrong in the world on other people. These shooters believe they are justified in their terrorist attacks because of what they have been taught to expect from life. Men also have higher rates of suicide than women in the United States, which is another externalized expression of a conflict cycle. Women, by contrast, have higher rates than men in the United States of problems related to internalizing, like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Each of these problems, in men and women, are only a symptom of the underlying thinking.
There is nothing inherently wrong with conflict where it is not actually dangerous, and often conflict can lead to growth. I named my business after the Greek goddess of discord, Eris, and a quote from her in the Principia Discordia says, “I am the substance from which your artists and scientists build rhythms. I am the spirit with which your children and clowns laugh in happy anarchy. I am chaos. I am alive, and I tell you that you are free.” Many of us who were raised in a household where we were not allowed to disagree with adults find conflict refreshing and freeing. That is different than destructive conflict, whether the destruction is to yourself or to others.
Destructive conflict can become addictive because our brains create certain neural connections and like to retread them over and over again for efficiency. When we are repeating patterns of cover up, exposure, and conflict bonds, our brains get addicted to them, releasing hormones associated with reward, even while we are participating in something scary or self- destructive. We start to work against ourselves and become increasingly self-destructive because we have associated that pattern with satisfying a need.
As with any addiction, an addiction to over-conflict or over-drama can be intentionally shifted and redirected to something positive. It does not mean that you have to roll over and just agree with what anyone else says, be a doormat, or pretend your opinions are different than they are. It also does not mean that it should be easy, obvious, or that you should be able to do this on your own. Conflict is a normal part of life, and when we are particularly resistant to allowing any conflict in life, we can stagnate. When we are addicted to over-conflict, it can become destructive.
One important first step is to question any assumptions you might have that there is something wrong with you or with reality just as it is. When we are struggling with who we are or with what reality is, we are disempowering ourselves and creating an internal conflict. The external conflict we have is only a manifestation of what is going on inside. If you are experiencing conflict in your workplace, what is a belief you have about yourself that you may be able to question that could shift the way you are encountering the conflict? Where is there room for you to understand the other person’s unspoken thoughts about the conflict?
Another important step is to understand what are appropriate conflicts for you to resolve yourself and where it is important to bring in outside support. It is not always appropriate for a business owner or manager to resolve a conflict, especially if you have an opinion about the right outcome. Realistically, it is also not always an effective use of your time. If you feel stuck in a conflict situation it may be worth bringing in outside support to help both sides understand and shift the power dynamics of the conflict.
In addressing power dynamics and conflict, it is important to remember the following:
The root cause of conflict is our thinking
What someone says in conflict and what we make it mean are often two very different things.
Wanting to be right creates more conflict; working toward a best outcome bypasses conflict.
In order to resolve conflict, we have to resolve our conflicted, self-defeating thinking. We start by asking ourselves and the person we’re in conflict with “why?” until we can genuinely understand and have compassion for both perspectives.
Conflict can be good, productive, and inspire creativity and growth. Addiction to perpetual conflict can be destructive. Resolving that starts with resolving our internal conflict, which shows up as resistance to who we are or to what reality is.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.