“Let go of your attachment to being right and suddenly your mind is more open.” ~Ralph Marston
When we face a conflict we face an opportunity to learn from pain. It’s like putting your hand against a hot burner on the stove. The burn warns that you have to do something differently.
You pull your hand back reflexively and you don’t touch the stove again. You’ve learned. As with the hot stove, if we get the lesson that is in front of us, we don’t need to keep repeating that particular pain.
Inconveniently, our natural inclination when we feel the sting of conflict is to outsource the blame, making it impossible to get the lesson and move on.
This is such a strong tendency that many of us live in a constant or re-occurring experience with conflict. We have conflicts with our co-workers, our boss, our neighbors, the guy in front of us in line at the coffee shop, our partners, children, and parents.
It’s the same story running over and over. In its most basic form, the story is:
I have been wronged by someone who does not see my value. They are self-centered and are not considering my point of view
Oddly enough, that is also the story we are acting out. We are refusing to see the others’ point of view; maybe because it puts our own sense of self at risk.
Who am I if I let go of my passionate perspective and wholly understand the others’ point of view? Will the world walk all over me if I don’t stand up for my rights?
Fundamentally, this fear is about a loss of ego. My outrage at my neighbor because he continually lets his dog out at 5:30AM to bark is rooted in a desire to be right: to have my experience in the world validated.
Of course, the pre-dawn barking disturbs my sleep. I don’t want to discount that impact. But if this were an event that I chose or knew I couldn’t control, I would accept it.
For example, if I opted to live somewhere beautiful knowing that there would be a 5:30 siren every day, I would manage that in my life with earplugs or a different sleep pattern and not feel indignant about it. But when I feel disregarded by the neighbor, I experience the pain of conflict.
When I am upset with my partner because he doesn’t do enough housework, it’s not because I’m in pain from doing too much housework. I’m in pain because I’m afraid he won’t see my value; that he will take me for granted and not recognize my worth. That is a fear of losing ego.
What can we do with this need to win in order to be seen? This very need is central to our primary drivers and yet runs contrary to our best interests.
As Leo Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi in 1908 in A Letter to a Hindu:
“On the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence. This contradiction must be faced.”
It seems as though our very civilization is built on this tension between winning and loving.
Tolstoy, optimistic about the resolution of this tension, believed love would rule eventually, if humans just got to the business of recognizing it and putting it at the forefront.
I’m certainly not going to disagree with that lovely thought, but working with people in interpersonal conflict for many years has taught me that this is no small request.
It’s all well and good to point a finger at terrorists or fundamentalists or the target du jour. It’s easy to see they need to lay down their arms and love one another.
But when it comes to the feud with the neighbor, the lack of recognition from the boss, the unjust lawsuit, the cheating spouse, or any of the other truly personal forms of conflict in our day-to-day lives, we take umbrage.
For those matters, it seems critical that we receive acknowledgement of our unique experience.
I’m learning that transcending this desire for rightness requires that we build a pathway out and that we cultivate that pathway, tend it, and keep it free of stumbling blocks.
Here are four not-so-simple steps to tend that path:
Let go of your perspective long enough to feel another person’s pain. Practice this every day with small matters like the person cutting in front of you in line, and increase to your miserable neighbor or needy mother. When you are annoyed by the screaming child on the plane, imagine what that parent must be feeling.
Release the need to be right.
Consider the notion that there is no right in this situation, just two perspectives. We tend to think that our perspective is the truth, but recognizing that our “rightness” is tied to our biased perspective helps get us past our ego.
Take responsibility for yourself.
Keep an eye out for what you bring to the situation that adds to the chaos. Overextending or having unclear expectations or boundaries can be as damaging as blaming or digging in your heals.
Accept what is.
When you're in conflict with a person whose behaviors are unacceptable to you, you need to take care of yourself and let go of the desire for other person to be different. You can’t change that person, but you can change your relationship. Staying engaged and wanting them to be better is like putting a hand back on the stove and wanting it to be cool.
The opportunity to grow in conflict comes when we accept the other person’s limitations and take care of ourselves without feeling indignant, bitter, or self-righteous. If we can do that, we can broaden that path through the pain toward compassion.
This post has been updated since it was first published. Angry couple image via Shutterstock