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From Conflict to Compassion: Put Love Above Winning

Angry Couple

“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:

Grow compassion.

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

About Sara Bensman

Sara Bensman is a mediator and consultant specializing in conflict resolution. She supports individuals, couples and groups moving through conflict or separation with dignity and grace. Her reflections on divorce, co-parenting and effective communication can be found at sarabensman.com/blog.

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  • Kiki

    It surprises me that you would put a cheating spouse in the same category of “relatively small matters” as the dirty dishes and barking dog.

  • Chris

    Sara –

    Practicing the compassion that you speak of has been a major challenge in the recent history of my life. I have learned that while I can do this with most issues, some of the more deeper and painful experiences I’ve lived through present seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “the tension between winning (or blaming) and loving” I think its not only about feeling compassion for the other person, but about feeling compassion for ourselves, and in doing so realizing how the need to be right is an act contrary to self love, to existing in a state of love.

    Thank you for writing this. I thought it was well done. 🙂

  • Thank you, Chris. I believe that this is the hardest and some of the most important work that we have to do on this planet, and the deeper the pain, the greater the gain. That’s well put: the need to blame or win is contrary to self love, to existing in a state of love.

  • I see your point, Kiki. I was saying that these are truly personal matters, not abstract issues we read about, but ones that impact us in every day life. Compared to terrorism and war, they’re “relatively small”, but they’re certainly not small when they’re tearing apart our life.

  • Paul

    Thanks Sara.
    Your article really struck a chord with me. You really nailed it.
    I’ll keep your four steps in mind next time I’m feeling wronged.

  • Mariano Blas

    Hi Sara, and greetings from Johannesburg, South Africa. I have been very recently in a “rushed in” relationship with someone with several personal issues. the only reason why we got very far is because at first, I tried to be compassionate about his drinking (some may say I was indeed making excuses for him) and then I wasn’t really sure whether to trust him or not. turns out that he cheated on me, used me and He was using crystal meth all this time. eventually, he ran to a different province without even saying goodbye or giving an explanation of any sort… I am seriously questioning my Buddhism these days as it seems like I cannot find any answer anywhere to this situation. did we both contribute to the mess? certainly… however, I cannot make peace with the fact of someone playing with your feelings in such way. hope you can show me a way out.
    Be happy. Mariano

  • Hi Mariano,
    I’m sorry to hear about your situation. I don’t know if I can show you a way out, but I can offer to you the idea that this was a powerful lesson that you do not have to re-learn. It sounds like you learned a lot about trusting your initial gut response and not talking yourself out of what you know is true. You learned about what you can and can’t accept regarding substance use and fidelity. And you learned some about what you really want from a relationship. I believe that both people do contribute to the situation but that doesn’t mean you contributed in the same way. Not taking care of yourself can be a contribution, albeit not as outwardly destructive as your former partners’. Along with having compassion and understanding, we also have a responsibility to take care of ourselves. I don’t say that to “blame the victim”. I encourage you to move beyond the feeling that you were the victim.
    With peace and love, Sara

  • Thanks Paul. I’m glad it resonated. Best to you.

  • Mai

    Thank you Sara. Your post really resonated in me. My partner and I have been struggling for several years now. A few days ago, we finally broke past all the heart ache and pain to truly connect and see each other- recognizing and owning our strengths and weaknesses. For so long, I was unable to let go of being right and it was a battle I was committed to winning. I was digging my heels in, fists clinched, ready to destroy everything. Eventually and after lots of self work (yoga teacher training, therapy, etc.) I realized that winning/being right didn’t matter anymore. Especially, if I was miserable, angry, ready to cut and dismiss the people I “loved”. I didn’t want to win anymore, I wanted to love.

  • That’s a lovely story, Mai. I’m glad you’re on the other end of that. It IS a lot of work to let go of being right and we have to do it again and again in relationships. Thanks for your feedback!

  • Mariano Blas

    Thank you so much Sara. It really helped to read your message this morning. peace and love.

  • Sunil Thakur

    🙂

  • Sunil Thakur

    ” I realized that winning/being right didn’t matter anymore. Especially, if I was miserable, angry, ready to cut and dismiss the people I “loved”. I didn’t want to win anymore, I wanted to love.”…….:) this was very beautiful…i too happened to realize the same …few months ago…and now i’m working to rebuild my relationships with my closed ones….:)
    Love and positive vibes for your good life. Have a beautiful smiling day. 🙂

  • That’s beautiful Mai – I hope to someday have the same results as you. Unconditional love/true love is so beautiful to me, as it takes a truly special person to love someone for so long and accept all their flaws while hoping for the best. It’s always healthy and wise to choose love. I’m hoping to get married in the near future to my beautiful princess.