Victor MacGill Chaos and Complexity
Magic and Mystery
Victor MacGill's website
Mandelbrot Set

My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, Myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line

My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
Line

Mandelbrot Set  Complexity
Line

Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality
Line

Short previews
of all talks

Line

My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line

My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
Line
LineMandelbrot Set      

Working with Conflict

A talk given to the Dunedin Spiritualist Church in November 2009

Tonight I want to talk about working with conflict. I seem to have had more conflict than usual about me recently, so I thought it would make a good topic for a talk. You might wonder whether conflict is a suitable topic to talk about as a spiritual issue, but the second principle of the Spiritualist Church is the unity of creation. The other side of the unity of creation is the diversity of creation. Creation is a unity formed by the coming together of trillions and trillions of creatures and other elements in a meaningful way. When those parts work together in harmony, the unity is apparent, but when the parts work against each other, the unity starts to fall away and the separation become dominant.
 
A unity where everything is the same is not a real unity. If we were all the same, we would just be like machines.  Strangely, therefore, there is only true unity when there is difference between the parts.  We are all different; we see things in a different way. That means there will be areas of disagreement. As soon as we have difference, we have conflict. That is actually how it should be.  The trick is, however, how we express our difference in ways that maintain the harmony of unity.

Conflict in itself is not bad.  Conflict just naturally arises because of our differences. It becomes harmful, however, when express that difference in an unhelpful way. We have the power to choose to express that difference in ways that bring harmony or ways that bring discord. That is not at all easy, but that is what life is all about.

When we focus on ourselves, we often find a need to be “right” that causes so many problems. We have a need to feel good about ourselves and being shown to be wrong is often an unpleasant feeling, we try to avoid. This can make us hold on to the idea that we are right, when we should be accepting that we are not right. Some people find it harder than others to let go of this need to be right.

When we make ourselves right, we make others wrong and the more this is pointed our, often the more we hold onto being right. We then become increasingly self centred and isolated and a good solution slips further and further away. People often use their conviction of being right as permission to be abusive of people they deem to be wrong.

People often try to avoid conflict and we can understand that, because conflict is uncomfortable. The problem is of course; that the conflict rarely goes away of its own accord. In fact, it usually only gets bigger. Avoiding conflict usually only creates even more conflict to be dealt with later on. 

Giving in and becoming a doormat does not resolve conflict. It will often drive the aggressor to be more aggressive than they would have been, since their dominating style has shown itself to work for them. Resolving conflict takes courage. We must push beyond our inclination to avoid the anxiety of facing conflict and do what is needed, in the right way.

So, what are some of the skills that will help us resolve conflict in positive ways:

All parties need to genuinely seek a positive outcome. There needs to be a commitment to resolving problems in a good way. Sometimes, we feel like we are doing our share, but the other person is being unreasonable. If we remember that our job is to take responsibility for our actions in a conflict and the other person is responsible for their actions, we can hopefully avoid situations becoming unnecessarily aggressive and harmful. That will not guarantee the best outcome, or even a good outcome, but at least we can leave the situation knowing we did our fair share and more and that we were working for a good solution for all concerned.

If we can get beyond the need to be right, we are free to look for the best all round solution for everyone, rather than just the solution that gives me what I want. Keeping in mind the idea, “what will bring about the best outcome for us all?” can be a powerful guide in avoiding conflict.

Be honest and say what you need to say in a non-abusive way that does not inflame a situation. We can fool ourselves easily on this one.  I am reminded of the advice from the Celestine Prophesies that your job is to do what you can to make it as easy for the other person to be willing to work towards the best solution for all. It takes focus off us and makes us mindful of how our behaviour affects other people.

Whenever we have conflict, it springs from a clash of needs. We all have many needs. We have basic needs like food, water and shelter and then other needs such as safety and being loved and cared for. We two people’s needs clash or someone thinks their needs are not being met, it is easy to slip into dysfunctional ways of trying to get that need met. Sometimes by looking for the underlying unmet need we can find alternative ways of meeting the need that do not cause harm on unnecessary conflict.

It is good to recognise that there is always a lesson for us when we find ourselves in conflict. Recognising that we are in conflict offers us the opportunity to reflect on ourselves, our nature and our behaviour and see how we might be contributing to the conflict. It is important to remember that our job in a conflict is not to prove the other person wrong or to personally “win” the conflict, but to look at our own performance, recognise what we are doing that is perpetuating or winding up the conflict and do what is necessary to stop it and find a better solution for all involved.

When we are looking for a solution it often sits on a continuum of solutions. At one end we have a bad solution that works for nobody through to solutions that are workable, but do not really bring about a good outcome. Further along the continuum, we come to a compromise where everyone gives us some of what they want, right through to a new solution that gives everyone what they wanted. When we have found a solution, therefore, it can be useful to stop and think of what could be an even better solution. I once heard a story of two people quarrelling over an orange they both wanted. Someone came and divided the orange into to, but what they missed was that one person wanted to the orange peel for cooking, while the other wanted the juice. Had they talked and discovered this, they both could have had the whole orange.

Conflict has two aspects. One side is about the content of the disagreement or what is being argued about. Sometimes there will be a clear answer, such as “who won the Rugby World Cup in 1987?” It was New Zealand and it can be verified. More often the answer is less clear, such as “which Political Party will be the best for New Zealand at the next election?”

The other aspect of a disagreement is how those involved behave towards each other. This is separate from the content of the conflict. Many people think that because they are certain they are right about the content, it does not matter how they engage with the other person. Both the content and the behaviour are vital. We need to respect the other person and their right to different views, even if we might consider them to be wrong. We need to avoid behaving in ways that will inflame the other person, such as through aggressive or intimidating behaviours, ridicule, sarcasm, put downs, going silent, storming out or whatever. We are capable of many subtle ways of inflaming situations that do not outwardly appear to be aggressive. Often we create conflict by failing to act to diffuse a situation. We quietly watch as situation get out of hand.
It is important to get the right balance between sticking up for ourselves and our rights and being aggressive and domineering towards others.

I am not presenting myself as someone who is particularly good at resolving conflict. Karen Horney, an American psychologist, interestingly noted that, under pressure, we tend to respond to conflict in one of three ways. Some of us will “move against” the perceived threat, attacking and taking it on directly. Others will “move away” from the perceived threat and be avoidant. Yet others will “move towards” so they will try and please the perceived aggressor, so they desist from the actions that are not liked.

These three ways of responding are develop early in childhood. When our primary method of responding proves to not be effective, we often have a second we will try. So, for example, a person my first hide away, and if that fails, try and please or perhaps attack. We can see that none of these strategies are in fact effective. We need an adult approach that is a blend of all three, standing up for ourselves, seeing how we can get the other person to want to co-operate and avoid unnecessary conflict.

Of the three approaches, I am a pleaser. Particularly through my work in prisons, I have worked to develop the ability to respond in a better way, but the old patterns are surprisingly strongly embedded in my nature. It is easy to see how a mix of the three styles of coping with conflict makes it hard to resolve conflict. If a “move against” person comes up against a “move away”, the “move against” person is likely to get their way as they dominate the “move away” person.

There may be extreme cases, where a positive outcome cannot be possible and we do need to stand resolutely and without accepting the other person’s point of view. Hitler, Stalin. and, Mao ze Dong are three obvious examples that comes to mind, but such a response should be a last response or a response only made when we absolutely certain that there is not a better approach.

Responding to conflict is not straight forward. We have many human inclinations that make it appealing to respond in ways that inflame the situation rather than work towards creating a solution. The choice is ours as to whether our thoughts, words and actions increase the level of harmony and unity in the world or whether that plant discord and strife.  There are many ways to get it wrong and many ways to fool ourselves that we are doing things the right way, when all the time we are unnecessarily inflaming a situation.

The second principle of the unity of creation needs to be more than words written on a wall. It is a personal challenge for you and me to work in ways that take on and resolve conflict and reduce aggression and harm, so we can bring about an increase in harmony and unity in our world.

Line
 Back to topDisclaimer  *  Email Victor *  Audio Greeting * The Ground of Faith * Victor's Blog * Newsletter