At a workshop recently, as usually happens, I was asked a great question – “Is conflict always bad?” First off, no, conflict itself is not bad in and of itself. Disagreement between two parties can elicit potentially useful distinctions and strengths.
So if it’s not negative, why do relationship counselors so often struggle with, and against, conflict? Whether in the workplace or even within an intimate relationship? Because most of us were never taught beyond a crash course how to effectively deal with our developing relationship, our assessments may be quite coarse. We may learn that “conflict” equals “fight”, equals “hurting one another”. But the truth is that it doesn’t have to mean these things. Still, our earliest, and often our only, relationship teachers, our parents, may have taught us that conflict is a bad thing, that if not avoided, can lead to disastrous results.
Consider one of your close relationships. Haven’t you noticed early on that each of you had different strengths you brought to the relationship? Each may have strategies and coping skills the other could only dream about. Moreover, each had opinions and experiences the other did not, resulting in different points of view. Potentially, this conflict could lead to an ugly and unsupportive turn of events.
However if you instead view it as having different skills sets, you can enrich each person’s world view and experiences with what the other has to teach us. Whereas I may have brought X skills and knowlege to the relationship, my partner brought Y and Z, each of which is powerful and useful, but when combined with my X skills, makes us a far more complete and capable team. The conflict that revealed our different contributions in this way was a positive thing. Further, when we used our varied contributions together, we were each more rich and capable.
Conflict can also show us where our strategy is lacking. I may have learned to deal with a particular situation from my father and in all prior examples, that learning was enough. But as I encounter a new challenge and try to apply the same strategy, I may become frustrated by the less than stellar results. As my partner points out the mismatch and offers some of her own experience, I may find a newly enriched strategy as a result of the discussion.
Further, conflict can expose new territory for the relationship. No matter how long you’ve been with your partner, and you may have “settled” your differences in all of the major areas (religion/spirituality, money, and politics, for instance), but who’s to say there isn’t something else, some topic about which you and your partner have never spoken? It doesn’t mean you have to agree of course on everything, but it enriches our relationships to know and understand our partner’s opinions, preferences, and convictions. So as you and your partner discuss a new topic and discover a disagreement, the focus can be on learning something new about one another. You don’t have to, and you will regret it if you try, convince the other you are right and that they should give up their opinion! The point is not homogeneity, but rather developing a more rich understanding of your partner and their mental process, values, and beliefs system.
I’d like to emphasize respectfully and lovingly in relation to noticing disagreement is that no one wants to be insulted or have their nose proverbially rubbed in the inadequacy of their strategy. As you learn to engage in loving and mutually respectful conflict, you can each grow a great deal, and will be able to remain open to the experience as you do not have to defend yourself. This takes skill, but if you embrace that love and respect for one another right now, you are ahead of the game.