I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict lately. When I am embroiled in a disagreement, I think about how its course could be different. I believe that conflict is potentially present in all human communication and that its peaceful resolution is as rare as poached quail’s eggs on caesar salad.
I’ve gotten myself into more than my share of conflicts, or more than my share of openly declared conflicts. I believe in the power of conflict to surface real issues, to reveal personalities, to enable understanding, and to hurt and destroy relationships. This last happens all too frequently. It happens in my life and the lives of individuals, groups and nations. Just this past week a conflict erupted over a letter I wrote to two colleagues. They saw my message as a final decision. I thought I had presented it as an invitation to dialogue.
What I want from initiating conflict is dialogue. I want to say what I believe and hear what the other person believes, to hold the “narrow ridge” as the theologian Martin Buber wrote. Conflict can raise emotional temperatures to the boiling, but need not cause parties to say things solely in retaliation for their own hurt and anger. This hurting is so easily done and so hard to repair.
Why do I continue to initiate conflict if the perils are so plentiful? I believe that it is often the only way to explore issues, find common ground, and move toward mutual understanding. To stay in conflict takes courage, thick skin, and a cool head. Mediators and facilitators of international peace processes know this. I am neither of these and not nearly as skillful as these roles require. So perhaps I am naive about conflict. I am unwilling to accept that it must result in more conflict because I have seen its bond loosen, its participants soften, and its core evaporate. I have witnessed couples learning in and from conflict. I have been a part of its resolution in some groups, but also part of its escalation in others. Yet, I continue to believe in conflict as a prime indicator of constructive difference and a prime opportunity for growth and change.
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