I was not raised in an environment where conflict was encouraged. When conflict did arise, particularly in the power dynamic of father and child, it did not go well. I did not have the skills to engage in meaningful conversation during conflict and I resorted to anger and rebellion. My father did not have the skills either so we both ended up feeling misunderstood and estranged.
To avoid conflict, people often resort to a variety of tactics. I mentioned my less-than-effective anger and rebellion. This led me to engage in some destructive behavior toward myself. Other people become passive-aggressive and, instead of asking for what they want directly, do something to hurt the other person in a roundabout way. Other people stuff their feelings which can also become self-destructive. The feelings that get stuffed are then expressed through a variety of means like overeating, compulsive shopping, drinking, or even depression.
But as I have discovered in my adulthood, it doesn’t have to be that way! You can have conversations where people disagree and not end up throwing things at each other (literally or metaphorically). I’m not saying this is always easy, but it is rewarding on many levels. Relationships are saved and issues resolved, often through compromise or through an agreement to kindly disagree. It does require a willingness to try something new–which can be scary– and a willingness to open to opinions that are different than your own.
I’ve recently been reading Radical Candor by Kim Scott and it has been giving me a lot of ideas about how to communicate better. The two key dimensions of radical candor are to “care personally” and “challenge directly.” Caring personally about one another seems to be a great place to start when you are interacting with someone else. But when we are stuck in our own view of things this can be lost. And “challenge directly” can sound scary to those of us who are not used to speaking up for ourselves. It is radical because so many of us are conditioned to avoid saying what we really think.
“Challenge directly” can happen in a LOT of ways. As Kim points out in the recent edition of her book, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that communication has cultural norms and racial implications. And while challenge directly is more about telling people when their work isn’t good enough, if you broaden the idea to include communicate directly it is applicable to all kinds of situations. Communicating directly with care is an important part of getting to solutions and understanding one another in most relationships—work or otherwise.
Many years ago, in a training I was part of through Spirit Rock Meditation Center, conflict arose very quickly in our group of over 80 people from across the country. We were asked to do the work of hearing each other through some very heated emotions and it was challenging. In the end, we grew closer than we could have ever been if we had sidestepped important issues related to race and privilege.
I’ll never forget what Jack Kornfield, meditation teacher and founder of Spirit Rock, had to say to us in response to what we were going through. Very nonchalantly he said, “What’s the matter with conflict?” Indeed, what is the matter with conflict? It just means we’re humans with a variety of viewpoints, conditioning, and abilities.
When we are afraid of conflict, we avoid asking for what we need and we avoid taking care of ourselves in important ways. Here are my six steps for overcoming your fear of conflict with compassion and kindness for yourself and others:
1. Take a few deep breaths (or breathe for an entire day) before you write or speak. The idea here is to be calm before you start a conversation. When you are calm, you have your wits about you and your brain is engaged. You are more likely to have a respectful, non-reactive conversation.
2. Ask for what you want. Do you know what you want? Or do you just know what you don’t want? Try to get clear in your own heart and mind about your needs and what strategies might help you meet them. You are unlikely to get what you want unless you ask.
3. Be willing to compromise. What you want might not be completely possible. Be willing to let your conversation be two-sided. After you’ve asked for what you want, be willing to hear other viewpoints and ideas about what might meet your needs besides the one thing you’ve decided needs to happen.
4. Don’t take a “no” as a failure. Sometimes you just don’t get what you want. Don’t see that as a failure, but as an opportunity that you had to work on your fear of conflict. We all hear “no” in our lives and this is not a reason to stop speaking up in the future.
5. Be willing to be vulnerable. It takes guts to say what is on your heart. But it is the only way that you can truly stand in your power. I studied the Course in Miracles for many years and my favorite lesson was “In my defenselessness my safety lies.” Being vulnerable means putting down your defenses and opening to the heart of yourself and others. You are only not safe when you are in defensive mode.
6. View others with compassion. Even after working on all the steps above, there will be times that it is difficult to have a conversation with someone. Particularly in these times, your work is to see the other person with compassion. They must be going through a lot themselves if they are making life difficult for you. Can you bring compassion to them and realize we are all trying to do the best we know how? Sometimes our best doesn’t look very good. This is true for everyone.
When you practice these steps, you may or may not get what you want or agree on everything all the time, but you will feel freedom and spaciousness. Freedom comes when we speak directly from our hearts and are willing to step into our power with courage and kindness.