Conflict hurts (but it is worth it)

20/12/2011 § 1 Comment

“Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Kahlil Gibran.

When I was in my early teens my parents went through a phase of having loud and lengthy arguments. This was not a common occurrence in our family – my parents placed a lot of importance on maintaining an appearance of order and peaceful co-existence. Seeing my Mum in anger tipping a full bowl of salad upside down in the middle of the kitchen table left quite an impression on me.

Eventually after a year or so the arguments stopped, as they started, for reasons unclear to me. My parents are still together and last year celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. As far as I can tell (!), they are as happily married as anyone I know.

Clearly, then, their arguments, despite the heat they generated, didn’t cause a terminal rift. If anything it made their relationship stronger. Just like copper needs to be hammered to make it strong after it comes out of the furnace, their relationship needed to be tested, shaken up a bit, so it could settle down in a more robust form.

I am reminded of this when I hear about the UK’s troubled relationship with our European partners, and the resultant tension in the UK coalition government. There seems an unwritten assumption amongst most commentators that conflict in a relationship is a bad thing, something that will inevitably, sooner or later, lead to breakdown of the relationship.  The UK, apparently, is isolated. As if a temporary disagreement can change the fact that our future is bound up inextricably with these countries who we are so close to geographically, economically and culturally.

Part of the reason we are uncomfortable with conflict is that it often hurts. I remember finding it very hard when my parents argued. I didn’t understand what was going on. My father had to re-assure me “Just because we argue, it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other”. Yet still I found it painful. And I have tried very hard in my life avoiding conflict, to avoid this pain.  What a waste of energy! These days I try to embrace conflict, to work with it and to learn.

I had a recent test of my approach to conflict in a dialogue session I convened in London a couple of weeks ago. The group that came together was a mix of people I knew from previous sessions, and some newcomers. I did a fairly brief introduction to the principles of Bohmian dialogue, we sat in silence for a minute, and then waited patiently for someone to start the conversation, with the theme  “Can any business be truly sustainable?”.  A few minutes in, one of us interrupted the flow, objecting that we were doing felt more like a discussion, and asking if we could adopt the practice of leaving a period of silence after someone has spoken. We all readily agreed and re-started the conversation. We followed this practice for a while but as we warmed to the theme, we started to ignore it.

I was aware of some tension in my role. On the one hand  as convenor of the gathering I felt a certain responsibility for keeping us all to the “form” i.e. dialogue, which is associated with reflection and deep listening rather than the ping-pong of discussion. At the same time I was very engaged emotionally and intellectually in the theme and was reluctant to interrupt the flow. I awas also aware that dialogue is a mysterious thing, and that the heavy-handed enforcement of rules can sometimes squeeze the life out of the group. Besides, we were all adults – if someone wanted to intervene, they were free to. So, rightly or wrongly, I chose not to intervene, and the discussion ran its course,

At the end I sought feedback, and wasn’t surprised to find that a couple of people were critical of me for not intervening. I wasn’t quite sure how to react – I could see their point, yet at the same time I felt, as another participant commented, that given the fact that it was a group of people generally unfamiliar to each other, we had probably got as close to dialogue as it was reasonable to expect.

I found it interesting that underlying the criticism was the assumption that because I had convened the gathering, I had more responsibility than anyone else for the behaviour of the group. This was even though I hadn’t consciously held myself out as an expert in the field, I simply invited people to join me.

Anyway, I am grateful to my critics for being willing to voice what they felt. It did cause me some pain – my ego suffered a bit! Yet I was able to take it as a learning opportunity, rather than trying to block it out somehow, as I might have in the past. I refused to take it personally, and so was able to look at their comments objectively and seek out what I had to learn. Maybe next time I will be clearer about my role. Or maybe I will experiment with taking more of a guiding role, for people unused to the form. Either way I have learned. Does that mean I am growing up?!

Anyway I have decided to adopt a new mantra for the coming year. Conflict is pain. Pain is growth. Growth is life. Life is joy.  Which means conflict is joy 🙂

I wish you all a great Christmas break.

P  xx

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