WRITTEN BY FRIEDA LEVYCKY, FOUNDER OF BRAVING BOUNDARIES
“Seriously, WTF?”. Ok. Those words didn’t exactly come out of my mouth on Justin and my jog around Newlands Forest a few weeks ago. What I actually said was: “Thanks for waiting for me” in a fabulously passive aggressive tone, shrug of my shoulders, raised arms, head jutting forwards, raised eyebrows and a sneer on my face. Needless to say, “Seriously, WTF?” was definitely conveyed!
And, as expected, one aggressive stance (whether verbally communicated or not) was met by another: “What’s that for? Why are you ‘kakking’ me out? I turned back at the corner, ran back for a bit so you could catch up and then carried on. Just like I always do!”
Ah the joys of couple’s conflicts. And usually over the silliest things.
The funny thing is that it’s rare for me to enter into conflict voluntarily. In fact, I usually actively avoid conflict. Conflict makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable, results in direct confrontation, and leaves me feeling a mix of overwhelmed, exposed, guilty, vulnerable and fragile. These feelings are not generally my first pick of the bunch, and they can sometimes last weeks (if not years) on end.
Any yet, there are some occasions, like the above, that despite knowing that a conflict will no doubt ensue, I forge on ahead regardless. Why is that? What makes those particular circumstances different to others?
So, this got me thinking, are there actually benefits to conflict? Is this something which we should be encouraging rather than avoiding?
Coping with conflict: our default position
Before looking at the benefits of conflict, I’d like you to consider what your default position is when it comes to conflict. If it helps, sit for a minute and consider the last argument you had with someone.
- Perhaps you are someone who relishes a good “ding dong” to clear the air? The issue is out in the open. Everyone knows how you feel about the situation. Case closed. Move on (The REACTIVE approach).
- Perhaps you avoid conflict. What good can come of it anyway? Someone (if not everyone) always gets hurt. Best not to upset the apple cart. I’m sure we can find a silver-lining to the situation anyway (The POSITIVE OUTLOOK approach).
- Perhaps you see conflict as merely a problem to be resolved. Remove the emotion and apply a rational and logical approach to reach a resolution (The COMPETENCY approach).
- Or perhaps you’re like me: You’d prefer to shy away from conflict, but, sometimes you just can’t resist a dig despite knowing you’ll need to deal with the fallout.
Where do you think you sit within these conflict styles? Each of these conflict styles (harmonics)1 have both their benefits and detriments and, in fact, we should work towards being able to access the full range of conflict styles, so that we can navigate each conflictual situation with greater flexibility and ease. Alicia will explore conflict styles in greater detail in next week’s article.
For the remainder of this article though, I want to consider the overall benefits of conflict (irrespective of the conflict style you use).
The benefits of conflict
Let’s be honest for a second. Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of life. It may not be a regular occurrence, but put any two people together for long enough and conflict will ensue. We’re humans, not robots. None of us think, feel or act exactly the same way. What a boring world it would be if we did!
We each have needs, desires, values and opinions that, from time to time, will clash with those of our friends, our partners, our children and our colleagues, leading to heated discussions, passive aggressive comments, fights or, in my mother’s case, the day long silent treatment!
Despite the discomfort that many of us feel towards conflict, it has a number of benefits:
In the example above, our quarrel had nothing to do with Justin not waiting for me. It was all to do with the fact that I was supposed to be the good runner in the couple (he was the cyclist) and yet he was stronger and quicker than me. I had started to doubt my capabilities and fitness levels and started to feel “not good enough”. It was those underlying issues that needed to be released, and the conflict brought them to the surface.
Embarrassingly, our tête-à-tête, once again highlighted for me my passive-aggressive tendencies when it comes to conflict. This approach supports my desire to avoid conflict, but at the same time vent my frustrations (admittedly indirectly) with the situation. Inevitably though, it ends up as a direct confrontation anyway with a good hour of silence afterwards. “Fun” times.
But conflictual situations give us the chance to acknowledge the impact of our conflict style and adjust our behaviour and approach accordingly. So not all bad.
Using a different example, during the 6-week COVID lock down in April/May 2020, I was able to continue working remotely whereas Justin was not. As a result, he took on the household duties (actually, he always does), and I continued to work as normal. Now, I’m not the tidiest of people and I often leave my clothes lying around (much to the irritation of all of my family). By the third week of lock-down, Justin calmly asked me if we could have a chat. He told me that, although he knew that it was not my intention, he felt that I really undervalued his efforts around the house. He felt disrespected and unappreciated. Oh crumbs! That was certainly not my intention. In fact, I hadn’t even contemplated that my actions could impact someone in that manner. His approach to the situation (which was, in every essence, a conflict) allowed us to bring awareness to the issues, explain our perspectives and create a solution to address the problem moving forwards. All without either of us feeling that we’d not been heard.
From my career as a legal practitioner, people’s frustration with the hierarchy, the billable hours and poor work-life balance, (amongst other things) resulted in a lot of conflict amongst partners and senior associates alike. Over time, these conflicts have resulted in a new breed of lawyer and legal practice emerging. No longer is “Big Law” the only option. Boutique law firms with purpose driven values (rather than profit driven values) now compete with the City Firms. Individual lawyers have opted to work as consultants or contractors rather than full time employees, many of which are supported by alternative legal service providers such as Cognia Law. And Artificial Intelligence is also making its mark in the legal arena reducing time-wasting tasks, enhancing legal research and supporting contract analysis. All changes which have ultimately resulted due to a difference of opinion in approach.
This is probably the only situation where I find conflict remotely bearable, when I’m fighting for something that I truly believe in. Whether that be standing up against inappropriate behaviour in the office or fighting for a promotion/pay rise because I know that I deserve it. In those circumstances, I’m prepared to take on the wrath of my opponent if it honours my beliefs and values. In each of those situations, not only have I reminded myself of the things that are most important to me, but I’ve re-established my boundaries for others. They are made aware of the line I am not prepared to cross.
Consequences of avoiding conflict
There are ways and means of approaching conflict, but constructive conflict (i.e. conflict that embraces different ideas and viewpoints) benefits us. In contrast:
- Avoiding conflict risks compromising our values and principles, resulting in us choosing to remain silent or go along with situations that contradict what we truly believe in. This dissonance between our actions and values can lead to a sense of inner conflict and dissatisfaction.
- Avoiding conflict allows underlying issues to fester, resulting in unresolved tensions and resentments that can gradually erode relationships and create long-lasting damage. By avoiding conflict, we miss the opportunity to address and resolve small problems early on, allowing them to escalate into larger, more complex issues over time.
- Avoiding conflict limits our opportunity for personal growth. Whereas conflict allows us to explore new perspectives, create self-awareness and develop our problem-solving skills; avoiding conflict stifles self-expression, impedes emotional intelligence and prevents the opportunity for self-reflection that arises from confronting and navigating challenging situations.
As much as I struggle with conflict, it clearly does have its benefits. And embracing constructive conflict can have a transformative impact on our lives and relationships. By recognising the value of conflict and approaching it with openness, curiosity and a willingness to learn, we can harness its power to foster growth, strengthen relationships and create positive change in our lives.
While this is not a “call to arms”, perhaps it is time to go forth and rock the boat. Embrace conflict and accept it for what it is: a catalyst for growth and understanding and an opportunity to navigate life’s challenges with just a tad more resilience and grace.
1 Integrative Enneagram for Practitioners, Dirk Cloete