In my classroom, we talk about conflict as the most significant part of telling an effective story. Without conflict, stories are boring. We need the conflict for character growth and development. It teaches the character about life and love. It develops the theme and the meaning. How do the characters use conflict to learn, and become better human beings? How do they learn more about themselves and others and how they exist in the world that is full of other people?
Alternatively, in life, we often avoid conflict at all costs. We hide our true feelings, we speak around issues, we end up venting to other people instead of bringing it to the attention of the person with whom we have the problem. Part of my job is to help students figure out how to have meaningful dialogue, whether they agree on a topic or not.
Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
As much as we try to avoid conflict, it often creates breakthroughs, more authentic connections, and meaningful relationships. If we avoid conflict, we end up never getting real with those we love or work with. We worry about how someone will receive our authentic selves and our truths, so we keep them to ourselves and end up with all of the unresolved issues swirling around inside. This becomes an internal conflict rife with a multitude of negative emotions: anxiety, worry, resentment, anger, guilt, perhaps even shame.
The major problem with this is that often, this comes from inferences we’ve made about the person’s intentions, tone, or actions. The person may not have intended what we received. Our reactions are based on our own experiences, filters, and perceptions, not necessarily the behavior itself. When it comes to actions, we have observable data and inferred data. If we hold onto unresolved issues and don’t ever explain to the other person how we were feeling, we aren’t giving them a chance to clarify, explain, or even apologize. We also have to acknowledge that some of the conflict we avoid is because we have done something (usually unintentionally) to hurt or offend another person, and we are too afraid of admitting our fault or failure to have the difficult conversation that needs to take place.
Where and how does grace play into this? How do we forgive and move on if we haven’t even given the other person (or ourselves) a chance to make everything clear? How do our assumptions and beliefs about the world and ourselves play into the ways in which we create and resolve conflicts?
Expectations breed resentments. When we expect something from or of others and they don’t meet our expectations, we resent the behavior, or worse, the person.
According to Crucial Conversations work (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler) we need to create a safe place to share deep dialogue. When we are moving out of safe spaces we tend to gravitate toward silence (withdraw, shut down) or violence (label, attack). Often, at work, when a moment becomes contentious or heads toward crisis, I will barricade myself in my own experience by becoming still, stoic, and silent. I refuse to speak. Internally, I am seething. I have decided that this person/experience is no longer getting anything from me. Irrevocable damage is done. At home, I will yell. I will escalate the situation. Clearly, neither of these reactions is productive. Neither of them ensures my own growth or strengthening of my relationships. It is more damaging and destructive. It creates even more conflict.
“Two monologues do not make a dialogue.” – Jeff Daly
Assuming positive intentions might make a big difference. When we assume that everyone is coming from a good, kind, loving place, then it’s easier to forgive them if we feel they have said something that isn’t in line with that belief. Also, framing conversations around the idea that intent and impact might be different, and that we should discuss if there are ever any differences between the two.
“All conflicts involve you, and sometimes other people.” – Susan Scott
We decode other’s behavior through our own filters and make meaning out of it. We ascribe thoughts and feelings to people and create this whole story about what it means about us that we become defensive. It makes sense because we are trying to take care of ourselves, but instead we should move into a conversation with another person from a place of curiosity. We must investigate where people are coming from to find a way forward together.
As teachers we work with students from many backgrounds, diverse experiences, different perspectives and ways of being in the world. In order to affect positive change in our society, we must work through those inevitable conflicts to impact lasting transformation in our community. It’s a perfect opportunity to discuss the intent/impact and still work through to accomplish the task at hand, which is bigger than either of us as individuals.
They say we should seek first to understand, and then to be understood. But maybe the true purpose of a conversation is not to be understand or to understand the other person, but to create a fuller and more complete understanding of the world.