What if conflict could be a door to positive change or a better relationship? Could a disagreement lead to a better understanding of differences and values? Is it possible to turn a challenging conversation into one that furthers intimacy and depth?
This article answers those questions with the classic lawyer answer, “it depends.” Positive change begins with a mind-body approach to conflict. An exploration of values and self-awareness leads to better listening and deeper connections. Looking at the space between seemingly divergent views can be an opportunity to find common interests while acknowledging important differences.
1. The Mind-Body Approach to Conflict
Without getting too “woo-woo,” the mind-body approach to conflict suggests that there is more than just the mind that can help parties in conflict or their advisors see a situation differently.
If we observe the mind alone, numerous studies show that the brain on conflict is like that fried egg from the 1990s drug commercials. It reverts to fast, automatic and reactive thinking, rather than the slower, more deliberate thinking. This reactive thinking goes back to prehistoric mammalian survival responses, such as flight, fight, or freeze. The neocortex region of the brain, which controls higher-order thinking, reasoning, and fine-tuned emotional response, goes out the window during conflict.
Additionally, the mind is obscured by ancestral evolution and lenses that are shaped by environment, culture, family history, education, origin, and more. These filters can cause the mind to adopt biases and obstacles to understanding, whether overtly or unconsciously. They can lead to differences in available information, observations or perceptions, interpretation or conclusions based on the same set of facts or course of events.
Looking beyond the mind to the heart, for example, suggests that there may be another way to look at a difficult situation or conflict. The heart is a massive, electromagnetic organ that pumps vital energy, blood, and oxygen throughout the body. It is the centrifugal force that creates connection with the rest of the body, physically, emotionally, and ethereally.
Approaching a conflict from the heart goes beyond the facts and evidence to the underlying emotions, values, and identities that may be threatened. It means accepting or acknowledging that friction is at the source of life, and life with others produces tension and sometimes dissention.
In practice, listening to the heart allows us to see past the immediate situation and get in touch with difficult emotions and their causes. Once we recognize triggers that spark anger, hurt, frustration, confusion, overwhelm, sadness, loss or the expansive wheel of deeper feelings, it’s possible to see conflict as an opportunity for self-awareness, compassion, and understanding. The magnanimous heart can guide us in creating a pathway that answers basic human needs when the mind just wants to shut the door.
2. Transforming Conflict with Self-Awareness and Values Assessment
Although the mind-body approach to conflict is helpful in theory, parties in conflict or their legal advisors might ask how it helps us change or resolve a challenging situation. In general, legal processes are often geared toward short-term solutions instead of long-term responses to systemic issues or patterns of injustice.
If a client asks for legal advice to part ways with a failed business, get custody of kids in a difficult divorce, or sue someone who has infringed upon their prized creations, professional rules of responsibility require lawyers to zealously, promptly, and competently advocate on that client’s behalf, regardless of personal feelings.
Similarly, in a mediation, if parties are trying to settle a multi-million dollar case, negotiate a better agreement to economize their respective interests, or reach a co-parenting plan that serves the best interests of the children, the mind is the logical source of discovering common interests and communicating better. Or is it?
Sometimes the mind does not immediately answer a problem, and emotions are so high in a dispute that they prevent logical reasoning. Relying on the mind alone without looking at the emotions driving a conflict can result in impasse or failure to see “eye to eye.” On the other hand, looking beyond the negative conflict thoughts to emotions and values can shed light on patterns, triggers, assumptions and other barriers to consonance.
In some cases, conflict persists due to unmet basic needs, paramount injustices, and systemic dysfunctions. De-escalating a conflict too quickly can deny or minimize important changes. Pushing conflict out into the open on the other hand can expose inequalities and illicit positive change, whether on an individual, systemic, or cultural level.
For example, if one parent in a broken relationship is denying the other parent access to their child, falsely accusing them of bad actions, or filing frivolous lawsuits against the other, immediate legal recourse is not obvious nor always available. It may be necessary to fight the injustice by openly addressing the psychological harm, involving counselors, witnesses, and experts who can expose the inequities and change the course of relationship.
Introducing dialogue and direct interaction between people with diverse opinions or objectives can also allow parties in conflict to vocalize their needs and values. Having a conversation with someone with different values can shed light on the breadth and depth of humanity. Accepting such differences can improve relationships by encouraging more listening. If we can express our perspectives truthfully and transparently, by being curious, responsive and respectful of others, it can make space for true connection.
We won't like everything we hear of course, and there are some conflicts we can’t resolve. But before anything stands a chance of resolution, all issues that need addressing must rise to the surface. We must accept the difficulty of having differences to begin with, sometimes tackling hard truths that we are not proud of. We often struggle from the impact of strong feelings that are hard to overcome. The challenge is to rest in those feelings with an open heart and mind.
Easier said than done. As the brain goes into survival mode during conflict, the heart tends to clench up, as discussed above. Sometimes, this reaction can be counteracted through a return to rest. Significant research indicates that rest is integral to innovation and problem-solving because System 2 processing or the Default Mode Network (DMN) is activated.
In the context of a difficult conversation or conflict, resting the brain, by taking a breath, going for a walk, or stretching the body, for example, can help parties regroup, recharge, and address the situation with a clear mind.
3. Creating Intimacy from a Challenging Conversation
Staying present to hear another person’s perspective is very challenging during a heated argument. If we’re hearing things that cause defensiveness, it’s easy to lock up and shut out the words and tone. What if in these moments, it’s possible to slow down and hear the emotions driving the argument? When emotional reasoning is understood, parties in conflict can begin to hear each other better, which can in turn create more intimacy and connection.
One way to create connection during a challenging conversation is having the intent to learn the other person’s story. If one person is constantly saying things like “you don’t do that right” or “you never help me with that” the person hearing it is likely to feel attacked or believe they are a failure. On the other hand, if we go into an argument wanting to understand the other person’s point of view, the entire conversation changes.
Another way to show up to a difficult interaction is with the intent to express views and feelings confidently, while respecting the other person’s perspective. For example, if one person wants pizza for dinner and the other is lactose intolerant, there might be a conversation about cheese alternatives.
We can also approach a conflict by looking at the problem directly with intent to solve, without attributing the problem to the other person’s character or faults. This task can be easy for lawyers and problem solvers but maybe not so easy for those who are dealing with the emotional side of the conflict.
Beginning with our own stories when we know there are differences in opinions or values might end a conversation before it even starts. For example, if we want to convince or persuade the other person, it will likely prevent further discussion or willingness to hear differences. The reason our own story doesn’t work is that it triggers the other person’s identity from the beginning. When I’m tired at the end of the day and say something to my spouse like “I’m exhausted and hungry – isn’t dinner ready yet?” he might hear “you’re a bad husband or inconsiderate person.”
On the other hand, if we begin a difficult conversation with the perspective of a neutral observer, like a third person or mutual friend watching the interaction, we may perceive things differently. This third story is the invisible one that is true for both parties. It’s not right or wrong, better or worse. It’s just different.
This neutral perspective does several things to assuage the parties involved in a conflict. It removes judgment and negative character attributions from the conversation. It allows both parties to have different preferences or perspectives without placing blame or claiming one way is right or wrong. It acknowledges each other’s points of view, understanding that there may be complex emotions involved. And it allows us to gain a deeper understanding of each other.
Instead of the comment above, I might open a stress-driven conversation with “I’ve had a really long day. Did you have any thoughts about dinner?” Without placing blame on my spouse, this comment allows me to express my feelings while opening the floor to hear from him too.
Of course, this approach doesn’t always work. Sometimes, my spouse may jump in with his own story, saying something like: “dinner’s not ready. you just don’t understand - you’re not here all day to deal with the kids and it causes a lot of stress.” Instead of getting defensive though, I might turn it back to the third story or the common problem or need between us. I could say something like: “It sounds like there’s a lot of stress with the kids’ behavior, want to tell me more and we can figure dinner out together?”
It’s also important to understand that the time may not always be right for a difficult conversation. No one wants to be forced into a conversation, especially one that triggers or challenges their beliefs, values, or emotions. Rather than forcing it, we can use open ended questions like “help me understand….” or “let’s work on this” to allow the other person to let down their guard. These types of questions remove judgment from the interaction and invite the other person to engage in a deeper dialogue.
While it’s never easy, it is possible to use conflict as an opportunity to change a difficult interaction into a positive one. Transformation begins by tapping into resources outside of the over-reactive mind, such as the heart and body. Once we acknowledge the high emotions driving a conflict, it can expose threatened values or needs that merit further exploration. Finally, communicating with another person who has different views in a neutral, respectful way promotes understanding and ultimately deepens the relationship.