I’m sitting at a table with two dear friends, chips and salsa in front of us. We’re talking about one of our least favorite topics — conflict. We confess it makes all three of us uncomfortable. Yet, we say, it’s sometimes necessary.
When it comes to conflict, I lean hard into “flight” rather than “fight.” What this looks like is me quickly saying, “I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault.” The fight version of this would sound like, “You should be sorry, it’s all your fault.”
But usually, neither of these is true. If we think of responses to conflict on a continuum, it would look like this…
It’s All Me (flight) It’s Us (figure it out together) It’s All You (fight)
The responses on either end look very different but come from the same place — fear. If I say that it’s all me then maybe it will diffuse your anger and I can control the outcome. If I say it’s all you then maybe I can avoid shame.
But the brave place, the one where I’m slowly learning to live, is in the middle. It’s difficult to get to, especially when conflict is happening, but it is possible.
Here’s what I’ve discovered helps…
1) Pause and recognize you’re feeling triggered. If you lean toward “flight” then you likely feel anxiety. If you lean toward “fight” you likely feel anger.
2) Calm your brain and body. This might mean taking a few deep breaths, saying a prayer, or taking a break from the conversation.
3) Recognize your tendency to say, “It’s all me” or “It’s all you.” Instead, pause and remind yourself and the other person, “We are in this together.”
4) Choose courage over fear. Instead of avoiding conflict or blaming the other person, be vulnerable by staying emotionally open and engaged.
5) Refocus on what you both want. For example, “What we both want is to solve this problem” or “What we both want is a peaceful relationship.” Then ask, “How can we figure this out together?”
6) Start with one small step. Conflict can feel overwhelming. Ask a question like, “What’s one small step we can take together to help with this?”
7) Remember you can only do your part. In the process of conflict, we’re only responsible for our own words and actions. Sometimes we’ll try to work through conflict with someone who is unwilling or unable to do so in a healthy way. It takes two to get to a place of reconciliation.
Note: I’m talking about the everyday conflicts of life and not those with abusive people or toxic behavior. If you’re experiencing anything harmful, please talk with a trusted professional like a counselor about your specific situation and do whatever it takes to get yourself to a place of emotional and physical safety.
Someone once told me, “Healthy conflict is part of how two people become one.” This sounded crazy when I heard it, but it started to make sense as I thought about it more. At the start of a conflict, there is “You” and “Me.” But when conflict is done well, in the end, there is an “Us.” It’s no longer about my way or your way, it’s about our way because we’ve figured it out together. Only then can we move toward needed change.
Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.” When iron sharpens iron, sparks fly. It’s not a smooth process. There are rough edges in the beginning, resistance, and the requirement of close connection. Those two pieces of iron come together with the intention, not of harming each other, but making each other better. Healthy conflict does the same.
Conflict is inevitable; letting it be destructive is optional. May we have the wisdom to know the difference between fighting with each other and for each other. May we not choose flight or fight but instead figure out things together. May our love conquer our fear.
What have you learned about how to handle conflict in a healthy way?
Conflict can be especially hard if you’re an introvert. Holley’s new book, Introvert by Design: A Guided Journal for Living with New Confidence in Who You’re Created to Be, will help you or the introverts you love to learn how to thrive in every area of your life, including your relationships.