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Healthy Conflict

How to harness differences

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The word “conflict” tends to elicit more of a tight grimace than an anticipatory smile. This is fairly consistent across the spectrum, from global politics to community issues and relationships at home. Yet conflict is natural, inevitable, and potentially beneficial.

Conflict can mobilize our energy, spark creativity, and build stronger relationships. All you need is some degree of self-responsibility, goodwill, and a desire to engage and explore. Let’s look at the fundamentals.

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Definition

For the purposes of this discussion conflict is defined as strong argument or prolonged disagreement. Conflict that is healthy is where all parties are heard, all parties are safe, and boundaries are clear and respected.

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Why are we arguing?

Tension, misunderstanding, or conflict can surface without us understanding why it’s happening, or how to address it.

Take time to consider the details first:

·         the catalyst or trigger for the conflict

·         the specific subject matter

·         the degree to which this is a familiar issue

·         the stakes involved, including the importance of this relationship

·         how well-resourced you are right now

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What does healthy conflict look like?

In some relationships, disagreement is brushed under the proverbial carpet if possible. At the other end of the continuum is the relationship where tempers flare and harsh words may be exchanged.

It is also possible to engage in conflict in a healthy way—with self-responsibility, boundaries, and curiosity. This means the focus is on exploration and cooperation rather than avoidance or battle. Knowing yourself, and what healthy conflict looks like, can make a big difference in your relationships.

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What if the kids hear us?

Our kids pick up on a lot, they notice words, body language, behaviour, and moods. So it is generally futile to hide simmering conflict from them, they may not know the specifics, but they know something is afoot. For young kids that can be very distressing, especially if the adults suggest everything is okay.

There are some general guidelines to consider with your kids.

1.      Acknowledge that there is some disagreement or frustration, because it’s likely they’ve picked up on it.

2.      Explain that everyone will be okay, and that you will address the issue privately.

3.      Let them know that they can ask questions or check in if they feel unsettled.

This enables kids to trust what they believe they are witnessing, rather than discounting it. It is establishing clear boundaries with them about what they will be party to and what is private. It also keeps the communication lines open so that they can soothe themselves as needed. Then it’s down to you to address the conflict as well as possible, knowing that the stakes are higher when you have little ones watching and learning.

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Time out!

Unless there is clear urgency, it’s usually possible to choose the time, place, and limits for engaging in healthy conflict. This means having the emotional maturity to contain your frustrations or impatience long enough to organize a good scenario to proceed. If one or both parties are not prepared to engage, the likelihood of reaching clarity and a positive outcome is severely reduced.

When you’re in the middle of conflict, one or both parties may realize they’re too unsettled or reactive to be responsible. Then a timeout is useful, so long as there is understanding around when engagement will resume. It’s advisable to suggest a specific amount of time (say 30 minutes, or 2 hours) or a possible resume time (say after dinner, or tomorrow morning.)

Waiting can be tough; however, it’s worth it if it enables you to be more focused, responsible, and respectful when you resume.

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Practice makes perfect

Begin by taking some breath and identify a starting point; for example: “Can we talk for a few minutes? I’m feeling tense and would like to clear the air about what happened at dinner. I’m thinking we missed each other and wonder if it was the same for you.” Before going any further, pause and listen for a response.

Healthy conflict takes practice, including successes and failures, to learn skills and develop resilience and faith. A good outcome can be agreeing to disagree, or celebrating that progress was made.

Consider practising with someone—a learning lab where you’re committed to retaining a sense of humour, with a debrief at the end. You can take the pressure off by choosing a low-stakes topic, like which movie to see or where to go for a walk.

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The bottom line

We don’t always agree with each other. And we sometimes misunderstand each other. Most relationships are worth the effort to bridge these situations, and we can learn to do this in a healthy way. The fascinating side-benefit is that this frees up a good deal of contained energy, meaning more passion and creativity, and stronger relationships!

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Is my relationship different?

Every person is unique in their context and their personality. Sexual orientation, gender, lived experience, culture, and religion are part of that context.

Although generalizations can be made, a more humanistic and effective approach is to consider each person individually. Thus we are personalized, rather than objectified.

This allows for more traction to discover who we are in relation to conflict, and how to work with this in a positive way.

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Toolbox for healthy conflict

Tips to prepare for healthy conflict include the following.

·         Identify a real or imagined conflict.

·         Bring to mind the person, setting, and stakes.

·         Breathe consciously and regularly to minimize reactivity.

·         Reflect on your intention: To understand? To punish? To connect?

·         Recognize why this matters to you.

·         Reflect on your own context and possible blind spots.

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Playful conflict

Engage in playful competition, with lots of vocalization and drama. Include your kids! This can be a fun training ground for healthy conflict. There are many activities you can try.

·         card games

·         thumb or leg wrestling

·         board games

·         charades

 

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of alive magazine.

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