It is rare that more aggression solves a problem of aggression. So I’m not going to be suggesting, here, any solutions to conflict that involve imposing more pressure on another person or organisation. I will focus on some methods which tend to bring out the peaceful potential of a situation. On a note of realism, I do accept that, sometimes, it is good to apply force to resolve a situation, especially when a person is putting others in danger. But, generally, I will look at conflict from quite a passive standpoint, concentrating on how we can manage our own behaviour.
THE SOURCE OF CONFLICT
Think of when you yourself are ‘conflicted’. Generally, this means that one part of you is in argument with another, and cannot resolve a logical or emotional difference. Perhaps you want to be thinner, but you want to eat a lot. Conflict. Or perhaps you want to work less, but you want the benefits of the money your work brings. Conflict.
The source of inner conflict here is that two separate wishes have two separate motivations. In the examples I have given, one motivation is discipline, and the other is greed. This seems to be the most common conflict through the ages – between man’s wish to discipline or shape himself and his environment, and man’s wish to fulfil his immediate appetites.
There is a lot of psychological science on the subject. In essence, when we are children, some of us are better than others at sacrificing our immediate wishes to the situation. This is predictive of adult success in doing the same thing. So, if you were bad at resisting temptation when young, you may well be like that in age, and vice versa. Does this mean you can’t change? No. But it means that we are all built differently when it comes to controlling ourselves.
As with ourselves, so with our relationships. If you want to shape your world one way, and someone else seems to be greedily stopping you, then this is a recipe for conflict. You will accuse them of selfishness, and be tempted to use force to get your way. You will be convinced that you are in the right, that you are the disciplined one. But, if you are so disciplined, then why are you feeling so frustrated with the other person? Could it be that you are failing in patience?
THE ROLE OF THE ‘SELF’ IN CONFLICT
When giving counselling, I often find it’s interesting to identify conflicted parts of the self, temporarily, as two different ‘people’. So a client might talk about ‘disciplined me’ and ‘greedy me’. This gives the conversation time to allow discussion between these two conflicting selves, until understanding and compromise are reached. The conflict stops when there is understanding, not when there is a practical solution. This is an important point, as many people think self-development is about learning to control the world. It is not. It is about learning to understand and accept the world.
In relationship counselling, the same thing happens. But, in this case, the two ‘selves’ are housed in two different bodies. So one person might see themselves as the ‘disciplined controller’, and the other as the ‘greedy disrupter’. This is the foundation of most governments, and how they scapegoat terrorists, and perpetuate conflict. In couples counselling, as soon as one person is unfaithful, the script can be written for the betrayed person to play the ‘disciplined controller’, and the other to be cast as the ‘greedy disrupter’.
I am not taking sides. I am saying that this stereotyping of each side does not resolve conflict. What resolves conflict is understanding and acceptance on both sides.
LETTING ‘GREEDY DISRUPTER’ SPEAK
The key to resolving conflict is to let the person cast as ‘greedy disrupter’ speak. For example, if you’re trying to diet, let that part of yourself that reaches for food express itself. These are some of the things it may be trying to say to you:
‘You are always depriving me of pleasure – I’m going to steal it when I can.’
‘The world is horrible – give me something tasty to palliate the pain!’
‘I feel lonely – please take my mind off my loneliness.’
If you let this part of yourself speak clearly, you may notice your insides changing. You may feel a surge of empathy, as you understand better how your actions are grounded in suffering, and misguided attempts to avoid it.
In political conflict, letting the subjugated terrorist speak allows understanding. In personal conflict, letting the scapegoated other speak also allows understanding and growth in the relationship. The answer is always to ask what is happening, and then to listen.
Most of the time, we can’t develop because we try to over-control all situations, which is counter-productive. Israel tries to over-control Palestine, calling it a ‘greedy disrupter’, but ends up creating an apartheid system which subjugates a whole population. Democrats in the US try to over-control Donald Trump, calling him a ‘greedy disrupter’, but end up creating a polarised society, which ignored the views of half the population. I am not siding with one or other side in each case, but I am inviting you to see how even well-meaning people and societies end up creating the conflict they say they do not want.
In your own life, if you want to remove conflict and create peace, look for people and things you are stereotyping as ‘greedy disrupters’. I guarantee you that they will be the areas of greatest frustration in your life. The person you are seeing as selfish because they don’t easily fit in with your plans. The social group you are seeing as destructive because they don’t fit in with your world view. Your aim should be to understand them, and to listen. The moment you stop fighting and start listening, then and only then, will you find peace.
Just for today, don’t try to control anything. Whenever you feel frustrated at yourself or others, listen harder. See what you can understand about where that part of you, or that other person, is coming from. You can always go back to your fighting another time. But, just for today, ask questions of greedy disrupters, and invite an understanding relationship with them. This will reduce your overwhelming need to control everything, and will deepen the intimacy of your relationships. You haven’t done it in the past because you were afraid of losing your position of power. The irony is that, while you were arrogantly trying to maintain your power, you were losing it!
Most conflict is an argument between man’s wish to discipline or shape himself and his environment, and man’s wish to fulfil his immediate appetites. In most conflicts, a ‘disciplined controller’, is trying to get control of a ‘greedy disrupter’. The key to resolving conflict is to let the greedy disrupter speak, and to listen. Most conflict is perpetuated because controllers get frustrated and attack those they see as disrupters.
A good practice is to observe your own frustration, and see what ‘person’ you are blaming for it. Then listen carefully to that ‘person’ (it may be a part of yourself, or another person, or a group of people). Forget your need to control for a while, and just learn to understand and accept. Then, when you have abandoned your need to control, and can understand the other, you may find peace.