Thoughts on Conflict Transformation: The Pattern (Part 1)

Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 of Thoughts on Conflict Transformation.


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I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

James Baldwin


I loathe conflict.

I once tried to use a hug to break up a drunken bar fight between a fellow Marine and a really drunk fraternity brother. They still had the fight and I got called a “pussy” by both of them. Sometimes I think the only person American masculine culture hates more than the Other is the Peacemaker.

There are reasons of course.

And from my perspective, I see over and over how often I avoided the hard conversations that needed to be had because I was avoiding the pain, discomfort, and fear of conflict. I see how often I played the Hero, made assumptions about my xp’s needs and wants, and avoided the hard conversation that I screwed up and didn’t know how to recover.

So I doubled down on the lies to avoid the conflict instead.

I grew up in a house that fought and argued. A conflict was defined by my mother blackout drunk crying as she wandered to and fro the many wine bottles scattered across the house.

Meanwhile, my brother and I brawled in the backyard.

Afterward, my father pulling me aside, telling me, as the oldest, it was my responsibility to make sure no one got hurt while he was on the road. At 5’9″ and 175 pounds it was my job to control my angry, narcissistic, mouthy, and abusive 300-pound, 6’2″ brother while making sure my mom didn’t get too drunk. If my brother had a house party or my mom got drunk I would be held responsible. Somewhere I got the message I was responsible for how other people felt emotionally and acted physically.

This started when I was 14.

My family never had a skillful way to navigate the conflict. Outside of simply surviving there are few ways to navigate alcoholism, infidelity, and abuse. All we had were survival skills and credit cards. Our primary communication tools included crying, drunkenness, passive-aggressiveness, sarcasm, ridicule, secrets, gift giving, and physical assault.

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Llamas in Hats S1:E2

And silence.

Lots and lots of silence.

By the time I was in my late teens we were locked into the cycle of alcoholism with secrets, lies, and avoidance at the core of a family consisting of an unskillful drunken mother, a narcissist brother, and workaholic father.

Plus a poorly trained and neurotic dog.

And of course, a super smart, introverted, and anxiety driven enabler that simply wanted peace and happiness for everyone.

And, in a simplistic way, that is how I earned my armor and white horse. I was raised to be the Hero: you’re responsible, don’t let anyone get hurt, keep the family secrets, and sacrifice your needs and wants for the welfare of others.

And if anyone does hurt we will scapegoat you.

Which brings me to my secret-keeping and escalating series of lies built around the need to avoid conflict and not hurt anyone. I’ve known for a very long time this “Go along to get along” mindset was an obstacle to living a life with more integrity. As such, I have embraced the benefit of these losses I’m living through as an opportunity to dig into the loses, lean into the pain, and learn some useful skills. I certainly could use some tools. The tools I’ve been using are no longer serving me in my closest and most meaningful relationships.

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But how? Where do I go from here?

Brene Brown‘s book Braving the Wilderness offers some direction. “In addition to the courage to be vulnerable, and the willingness to practice our BRAVING skills,” writes Brown, “moving closer means we need the tools for navigating conflict.”

Essentially, she argues move in, get closer, become more vulnerable. However, moving in and getting closer requires taking a risk, facing uncertainty, and being emotionally open. One consequence of course, is these actions open me up to more pain and loss. What happens when I’m rejected, ridiculed, or met with silence, ghosting, gunnysacking, contempt, and derision?

How do I confront the conflict then?

After reading the interview Brown conducted with Dr. Michelle Buck, of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, I found a place I could start. Through a question and answer conversation with Brown, Buck outlines Five Primary Attitudes for Conflict Transformation.

Essentially, vulnerability is the key to transforming conflict from an adversarial, zero-sum outcome pitting winners against loser into a collaborative and meaningful exchange built on understanding and generosity. Conflict becomes a tool for building intimacy and not walls.

I’m going to take a few posts over the next few weeks and talk about my thoughts and experiences with these principles.

Let’s start here.


Brene Brown: Sometimes when I get overwhelmed, my default is to quote “agree to disagree” and shut it down. What do you think about that approach?

Dr. Michelle Buck: People often silence themselves, or “agree to disagree” without fully exploring the actual nature of the disagreement, for the sake of protecting a relationship and maintaining the connection. But when we avoid certain conversations, and never fully learn how the other person feels about all of the issues, we sometimes end up making assumptions that not only perpetuate but deepen the misunderstandings, and that can generate resentment. These results are sometimes worse for that relationship than just having the so-called argument would be. The key is to learn how to navigate conflicts or differences of opinion and a way that deepens mutual understanding, even if two people still disagree. Imagine that…after a meaningful conversation, two people could actually have increased mutual understanding, greater mutual respect, and better connection, but still completely disagree. This is very different from avoiding a conversation and not learning more about the other party.

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Where I grew up, the declaration of “agree to disagree” was usually followed by a cold war consisting of hours, days, and sometimes weeks of drunken sullenness or passive aggressive silent treatment.

Often both.

Eventually, my preferred method for dealing with conflict was “Go along to get along” and try not to be seen.

Whatever mom wanted. Whatever my brother wanted.

Anything to keep the peace so they would leave me alone. I would keep the resentments to myself and act out in other ways trying to maintain some control over my own life: joining the Marine Corp, flunking out of college, and dating girls my mom hated.

And she hated all of them.

These were self-defeating approaches. What began as passive-aggressive approaches to being heard simply created new conflicts to be avoided. My actions created one conflict after another to be avoided, as I ran off to the next shiny thing or place.

Anything to do what I wanted in order to avoid the conflict of saying “no”, creating boundaries, and standing up for myself. I end up making assumptions about what the other person needs or wants because I’m afraid to upset them because they might stop loving me. “But when we avoid certain conversations, and never fully learn how the other person feels about all of the issues,” writes Buck, “we sometimes end up making assumptions that not only perpetuate but deepen the misunderstandings, and that can generate resentment.”

And that I did. And sometimes still do.

Thirty years after I left, thinking on my family of origin, at that time, and the idea of getting close to other people in an attempt to “have increased mutual understanding, greater mutual respect, and better connection” at times terrifies me. There was no one in my family I could trust.

Is it any wonder a year of my xp’s silence pushed so many buttons. Already emotionally wrecked and barely hanging on through the humiliation and shame, I find myself in a failed relationship with a woman whose primary coping tools are an attitude of entitlement, avoidance, silence, and passive aggressiveness.

My xp’s traumas and coping skills predate me. K’s traumas and coping skills predate me. And to honest, my traumas and coping skills predate them both. We all chose to avoid what needed to be done.

Each of us, for our own reasons, refused to adult.

To my credit though, I’ve made the effort to try and understand the complete nature of what happened. My betrayal is simply one component of a complex and old dynamic. Therefore what needs to happen is the opposite of what I’ve done before. The opposite of what my thinking dictates.

And this is where vulnerability becomes essential.

In order to get to past the “agree to disagree” moment, I have to stop trying to make a point and admit I might not actually know. I have to stop assuming and realize there are very few things I deal with on a daily basis that are absolutely wrong or absolutely right except I judge them so.

Getting to a point of transforming conflict requires me to “move in.” A process that is possible only through an attitude of generosity and a commitment to being non-judgemental. Qualities that are only achievable when I look inward towards my angle of approach to conflict instead of outward towards getting others to conform to my perspective. I label them as stubborn at best, arrogant at worse, when in reality it is me that is often dug in behind a firewall.

In truth, I do this well in most areas of my life. I’m excellent at it with my clients, I do a great job of this when mediating other people’s conflicts. I just emotionally collapse when it comes to my most interpersonal relationships. I choose to take on the burden of Hero and try to fix problems before they become problems and succeed in only creating new problems.

And here is the action I need to take, when I am uncomfortable and confused, that is when I need to take the risk, face the uncertainty, be emotionally transparent and speak the most. In those moments when I might be inclined to mumble under my breath and walk away or sulk off in silence, simply go along to get along or agree to disagree, that is when I need to be vulnerable and speak up, tell my truth, and listen to theirs.

Only through a path like Brown’s B.R.A.V.I.N.G. do I find a path of belonging that can transform conflict from something painful to something that is useful.

Like pain, I have to learn how to make conflict my friend.