A friend told me about a conflict she was having with her next door neighbor.
Due to a misunderstanding the neighbor was pretty upset, so much so that when they passed on the street and my friend said hello and reached out to shake his hand, he withdrew it, avoided eye contact, muttered a monotone “hi” and quickly walked past her.
She felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. Stunned, she walked back to her house wondering what had just happened. It was even more upsetting because she’d communicated with this man about the confusion that had initially caused the conflict, and she thought that he’d understood her point of view. She wanted to find out what went wrong, but he clearly didn’t want to discuss it.
We talked about the incident for a while, brainstorming strategies that would help her deal with this unexpected blow, but eventually I left her to think it over on her own.
A surprise attack is one of the hardest conflicts to handle. It’s a shock to the system. Often the first reaction (after your heartbeat returns to normal) is to blame the other person or to blame yourself and to get caught in endless internal dialogue about who’s at fault and what to do next.
Regardless of the cause, a troubling conflict may take time to untangle and can disrupt our lives while it’s going on. We lose our balance and often operate on half-power, the other half working non-stop to figure out where to assign blame and (as much as possible) to justify our own actions. If it’s disturbing enough we lose focus at work and at home, have difficulty making even routine decisions, and spend wakeful nights deliberating over the best way to handle it. It’s hard to do anything wholeheartedly until it’s resolved.
I felt a lot of empathy for my friend. I’ve been there and it’s no fun. One of the ways I tried to help was to listen when she needed to talk, and I suggested she take care of herself during the process of unraveling the situation. Conflict is hard on the body, on the mind and on the spirit, and there are strategies that can help us keep perspective and move the conflict toward a positive resolution.
• Breathe and find your balance. A conflict can unbalance us with strong emotions and feelings of unworthiness, anger, sadness, and frustration. Don’t avoid these emotions, but rather treat them as guides. Appreciate and observe as you might observe a play. There is a lot of power in this emotional energy, and as you breathe and watch, you’ll find a way to use it that’s in line with your best purpose.
• Take the long view. It’s so easy to get caught in the turmoil of the conflict that we forget there will be a tomorrow. Take some quiet moments to close your eyes and see yourself in the future with the conflict resolved. Imagine how you’ll feel with the problem behind you. What would you like the relationship to look like a month from now, a year? Meanwhile, eat well, go to bed at regular hours, laugh and allow yourself to forget the problem occasionally. This may not be easy, but it’s effective. Allow your inner wisdom to work silently while you continue to engage in life.
• Reframe. Step outside the conflict momentarily. Instead of resisting it, ask yourself if there is a gift here – an invitation to look at the problem differently or to try out a new behavior. Acknowledge the other person by stepping into their shoes. Why are they behaving this way? What do they want? How would you feel if you were in their position?
• Practice. Brainstorm all possible responses to this situation and try them on for size. Get a friend and role-play alternatives you think you’d never choose because they’re so unlike your usual persona. Have fun exercising unexplored selves.
• Count your blessings. Notice the good things in your life. Cultivate gratitude and wonder.
After brainstorming many options my friend decided to write a letter to her neighbor. She refrained from justifying her own actions. Instead, she acknowledged his feelings and offered to talk with him about the situation. They began to talk and, over time, came to be good neighbors again.
Some questions to help you practice good conflict management:
1. What happens when you’re surprised by conflict?
2. How do you usually behave, and how is it different from what you would like to do?
3. Think about the last time you experienced this kind of “surprise attack.” How did you handle it? What might you have done differently? What next steps will you take?
Conflict can cause us to lose sight of the big picture — of what we truly want in life, why we’re here, and what’s important — or to see it more clearly. In “The Magic of Conflict,” author Thomas Crum says, “our quality of life depends not on what happens to us, but on what we do with what happens to us.” This feels true, doesn’t it? Making it operational is the key to finding our power.