56. Conflict Resolution
I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.
William Blake (18c English poet and mystic)
Real or perceived transgressions are the most common cause of transpersonal conflicts. However, whether such conflicts will be destructive or contribute to improving the relationship depends on the way they are resolved. Bearing this in mind, here we will examine a number of common scenarios.
If you accept that you have transgressed
If people feel wronged, they get angry and this easily leads to being aggressive. Responding with defensiveness may come naturally, but this only creates a vicious circle. In fact, the best way to prevent an escalation is to avoid being defensive. The following steps can be helpful in this respect:
- Acknowledge the other person’s feelings, and if you sincerely feel sorry, say so and apologise.
- You may want to explain your intention and actions (e.g. ‘I am sorry you feel hurt, I didn’t mean to upset you’) but avoid making excuses, as they leave the impression that you are more concerned about yourself than the other person’s feelings.
- Take responsibility for your part in the event and accept (fair) consequences for your actions.
- Consider together what to do in similar situations in the future. This may turn the conflict in something positive. Whatever you come up with has to apply to both parties (you may check by asking ‘does this apply, from now on, to both of us?’). For example, you may both come to the conclusion that it is okay, in exceptional circumstances, to raise your voices. You both then have to accept that you may occasionally end up on the receiving end of shouting. On the other hand, if you both come to the conclusion that it is never good to shout at each other, you both need to work on avoiding shouting, no matter what.
If you disagree about a transgression
- If you disagree, still acknowledge the other person’s feelings. This is not surrender! You can do so without necessarily accepting that this feeling is justified or that it is all your fault.
- To avoid misunderstandings, clarify first what the real issue is (e.g. it could be the tone of your voice rather than what you said) and what exactly you disagree about. You may disagree for a number of different reasons:
- Whose fault it was: Nobody ever wins a ‘blame game’! Even when people know that they transgressed they may be reluctant to admit it, as it feels like giving in. So, to avoid unnecessary escalation of the conflict, let go of focusing on whose fault it was, and focus on positive change.
- What actually happened: it is well known that people genuinely remember the same event differently. In this case, you can acknowledge the way the other person sees things without necessarily accepting that this is a fact (e.g. ‘Okay, we remember things differently and there is no way to prove who is right…. So how can we move on from here?’)
- Emphasis: it is often the case that people emphasise different elements or aspects of the situation (‘you got angry with my mom’ versus ‘I tried to support you’). Trying ‘both-and’, rather than ‘either-or’ may be helpful in this case too (‘I tried to support you and I got angry’).
- An interpretation of what happened: trying to impose your own interpretation is unlikely to work; inviting the other to explore other possibilities may be more accepting (e.g. ‘So, for you, eating from somebody else’s plate amounts to flirting with them; is this the only way to see it?’)
- The consequences or importance of what has happened: typical responses such as ‘it’s not a big deal’, or reversely, ‘you don’t care’ breed resentment. Someone (including yourself) can be oversensitive for unrelated reasons, so recognising both standpoints may be better (e.g. ‘It seems that this affects me more (or less) than it does you’).
- Consider together what to do in similar situations (as above).
If you think that the other has transgressed
It is common in such cases to feel righteous anger (a conviction that we are right to be angry) and end up shouting, swearing etc. Such exchanges are not necessarily bad as long as their purpose is only to discharge emotions, they are not taken seriously, and they are separated from dealing with the problem. If this is not the case, they make things worse. The other is likely to feel attacked and consequently become defensive. This easily becomes a vicious circle that usually escalates the conflict. On the other hand, suppressing your emotions doesn’t help either: indignation may keep you mulling over and eat you from inside. Carrying grudges and resentment may be even more detrimental to a relationship than a fight. So it is a good idea to deal with anger first and then address the issue constructively. Here are some suggestions:
Dealing with righteous anger
- Temporarily suspend the vicious circle between your emotions and thoughts that fuel each other.
- Breathe out anger: take deep breaths and every time you exhale, let your emotions go too.
- Engage in physical activity: go for a run or vent your emotions on a sack or cushion to calm down.
- Write or draw: writing a letter to the person who has upset you is an effective way to release bottled-up emotions (but don’t send it – at least for a while!). Drawing or doodling can do the same trick.
- Talk to somebody about what has happened and how you feel. Avoid turning it into a rant though as it may have the opposite effect and fuel your anger further.
- Meditation can help you detach from your reactions.
- Anger blinds us to possible alternatives, so when you calm down, play devil’s advocate: try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. This, in turn, can reduce the anger further.
Addressing the issue is not always necessary. People often realise that they have done something wrong but find it difficult to admit (not saying sorry doesn’t mean that they don’t feel sorry, just as saying sorry doesn’t always mean that they do). Letting it go, especially if it is a one off incident, may sometimes be better. If you feel though, that talking through an issue is necessary, these steps may help. Bear in mind that to resolve a conflict constructively, you have to be in a reasonably good shape, so try first to resolve conflicts within you if you have any. Also, don’t forget that maintaining a sense of connectedness with the other person throughout this sort of conversations matters most.
- Try to avoid judging or accusing the other (‘you were selfish’). To initiate conversation, describe the effects of the situation on you, i.e. how you felt (‘I felt left out when you did that’). This is more likely to be accepted and lead to resolution.
- Explore together what has happened. Allow for a reasonable explanation that mitigates the situation. However, if it seems that such explanations are mere excuses, let the other know how you feel. If that doesn’t make any difference, you may discuss the possible consequences of one not wanting to take responsibility. Sometimes there are deeper issues that the other person may be apprehensive to acknowledge, as it makes them vulnerable. To open up, they need to trust that you will not use that (now or in the future) against him.
- As above, talk about what to do in similar situations.
Once you have addressed an issue, drop it. There is nothing to be gained from bringing it up again (i.e. to win another argument). Punishment too is highly ineffective, especially with adults, and it does not undo the wrong doing. Everybody involved can feel better though if addressing the issue initiates a realisation (which may involve genuine regret) and a resolve to make a change, as this makes the whole episode meaningful. Forgiveness is more healing than anything else, but to avoid being taken for granted or inadvertently encouraging the other to repeat the same, forgiveness may need to be gradual, built on indications that the realisation and resolve to change are sincere.