What does systems thinking say about handling conflict?
(Handling conflict is a big topic, but hopefully, there is an idea or two here that you, the reader, find useful.)
Most of us avoid conflict for the wrong reasons. We perceive or “feel” that it’s going to be bad for us. A situation feels uncomfortable often because of what think may happen versus what is actually happening at the moment. Conflict threatens us, not because of the conflict itself, but because of what it might represent. The idea of conflict can mean different things to different people. We have different stories or beliefs about what conflict means, what we should or shouldn’t do around conflict, and how much we should avoid it. I think it’s useful to unpack some thinking about conflict, as this can help one handle conflict better.
Conflict is disagreement. Disagreement is not conflict.
At one end of the continuum, conflict can mean any kind of disagreement. A couple’s beliefs might “conflict” leading to arguments, for example. At the other end of this continuum, there is physical or emotional abuse that can signal genuine danger. Having an argument or “fighting” (non-physical) is often thought of as conflict. The simplest idea about conflict is that two people disagree. But not all disagreements represent conflict!
I disagree with someone simply because I have a different opinion. You like chocolate ice cream, I like vanilla. But I could also disagree with you because I misunderstood you. Or I have the wrong information; I thought you liked chocolate but in fact you like vanilla. The chocolate versus vanilla disagreement is what I call the “content” of the disagreement. It’s not actually important. What matters is the emotional process related to how one perceives the implications of the content. What assumptions or stories does one have about the content?
The two levels of disagreement
Disagreements can have two levels or components. One is the “content”, or the topic of the conversation. The other is the emotional process based on the perceptions one has about the content. These perceptions are often what we think disagreement means to the relationship. For example, spending money on eating out. In this example, one partner might be worried about money but doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s a source of worry for both of them and they have argued intensely about it before. One partner might think that “going out” is important to the relationship. Not going out can mean that the relationship could be in trouble. Or, one might be exhausted from work but feel guilty about not wanting to go.
In all these cases, someone wants to avoid “conflict”, they want to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing with the other, so they go along with what the other wants. Notice that it’s not about the dinner, it’s about what the dinner represents. It’s a perceived threat of being rejected or not approved of, or a weakening of the relationship. So one or both “go along” even though they don’t really want to, to avoid having an argument, fighting, or “being in conflict.” The trouble with this approach to handling conflict is that it does not resolve the underlying issue. In addition, it can mislead the other person, or it can get in the way of having good emotional contact.
Holding onto self allows one to agree to disagree
How do you resolve a disagreement? You get agreement! Therefore most arguments are about trying to change others or others trying to change me. It’s about trying to “agree” on one thing when there are two things. Somebody has to give up their “thing”. People do this in families to avoid disagreements and have “good relationships”. Don’t rock the boat, learn to get along, and keep the peace are all about being in agreement and avoiding the discomfort of a disturbed relationship.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s okay to agree to disagree. Partners do NOT have to agree on everything. But each person should be very clear on what is important to them. Going back to the example, I might be tired and just want to order takeout. But I feel guilty about how much I’ve been working. I have to own both. I have to decide what I’m willing to do and not willing to do. If I’m less reactive, I might offer alternatives. I might suggest we go out next week, and I’ll take it easier on work. Or let’s go out, but not too late or too far away. Perhaps I really have an issue with working too much and my partner and I need to discuss this. Can I “own” this? Can I be willing to discuss it and work on it?
It’s about the self, not the content.
In this example, maybe my partner has emotional process creating some reactivity in them. They think spending time together, getting attention, and being appreciated means the relationship and they as a person are “safe” and “good”. It means, to them, that I care about them more than I care about work and my career. Or maybe they are just bored because they are missing something in their life. They want me to fix this by taking them out. These are things that need to be discussed and worked out. But again, it’s not about the dinner, it’s about what it represents on an emotional level.
Follow the reactivity. Your reactivity.
Not everything has to have all kinds of emotions linked to it. But if reactivity is rising, then you can be sure that there is some emotional process operating. Reactivity is information. It’s a signal. It’s useful! Take a moment to notice and observe what’s coming up for you. What is the feeling? Can you notice what’s going on in your body? Is there a “story” you are telling yourself at the moment? (There is.) This is an opportunity to get more clear about how you are operating in the relationship. This is an opportunity to learn how to avoid conflict.
You aren’t right. But you can be different.
I don’t have to be right. Most things that we disagree on are opinions and not truths. Chocolate is not better than vanilla. There are opinions about this, but they are just opinions using a certain perspective. Most things are just as simple as ice cream. I can have my opinion, but I’m not right. It’s just my opinion. If I’m thoughtful, I’ll be open to new information and might even change my opinion. But I can’t do this if I’m too worried about being wrong, or what others will think. My level of reactivity will be an indicator of how much I am threatened, thus it’s my job to figure out what the threat is. Because it’s my threat and it’s for me to manage. (I’m not talking about real physical or emotional threats of harm.)
A New York Times article on handling conflict inspired this post. But I think the shortcoming of the article is that it misses the emotional process in relationships. It’s the emotional process that usually creates conflict, especially in relationships. This is because the emotional process creates the reactivity, which creates the conflict. The article has techniques for how to ask questions and how to listen. These are useful, if the reactivity is manageable, and they might help one manage reactivity. But if the reactivity from the emotional process is too high, the techniques fall away.
Managing conflict is about managing self.
The other component to managing conflict is about holding on to self. Individuals will often get reactivity if they feel they are being forced to go along with the other. So one way to avoid conflict is to just always go along with others! Sometimes this is fine. But it will lead to longer-term issues. So one has to recognize their tendency to go along (or push others to go along with them) and then work on defining self better. The techniques of how to have a conversation are useful, but only if one is clear about “self” and what they are willing to do or not willing to do.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if you feel a “conflict” is starting to happen.
1. Am I getting reactive? This is an important part of handling conflict.
2. What perceived threats or issues are coming up for me?
3. What does this perceived threat mean to me? To the relationship?
4. What is my pattern of behaviour? Fight, Flight, Agree?
5. Am I going along just to keep the peace?
6. Am I trying to be right? What happens if I’m not right?
7. Am I afraid of being wrong? What does it mean if I’m “wrong”
8. Do I think something is unfair? What does it mean if things aren’t “fair”
9. How is my reactivity contributing to the situation?
Thank you for your interest in family systems.
The Globe and Mail article that inspired this post is here: Handling Conflict.
Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.
Listen to this video with Dan Papero on marital conflict