Thoughts on Conflict Transformation: Winners and Losers (Part 4)

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


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We each have a divine inner voice that opens us to truth and a mediating social voice that is reluctant to show its truth to others.

Mark Nepo


Long before I have a conflict with others I have conflict within myself.

How often have I walked into a situation carrying a sense of impending dread about the outcome or responsibility about how others will feel? In these situations I find myself haunted by an imposter syndrome or simple self-doubt. I teeter between what should I say, shouldn’t say, and what can I do to make this better for them? Us? It?

How often has this internal conflict blocked me from fully listening, experiencing, or participating in the relationship? How often have my perceptions, expectations, pride, arrogance, shame, and isolation precipitated the exact external conflict I was trying to avoid? How often have my biases end up confirming what I expect to find?

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Entirely too often.

I create my own reality and therefore I’ve created the conflict.

I wage this thinking and/or emotional war long before I arrive…only to continue it after I leave.

“Did I sound stupid?”

“I should have said XYX.”

“I can’t believe I misspelled her name on the powerpoint presentation, printed 300 of them and shared them with everyone.”

“I ruin everything. You don’t. Stop being dramatic. Yes I do…”

As such, when I get to the internalizing of, “I fucked my ex-wife and betrayed my Loves, life, and self. What am I suppose to do now?!” I’m left with the internal war of trying to find a solution that keeps the conflict inside and not rippling across the lives of the people, life, and place I love. I cannot ask for help. I cannot talk about it. I cannot let anyone know. I have to fix this.”

Nearly every day I waged war on myself. I created the conflict and then struggled to contain the conflict.

Therefore when I say I did more damage to myself than I did anyone else, know that isn’t looking for sympathy or compassion. It is a wound I will always carry. It will always bleed…even if no one else knows. Sixteen months later I still taste the coppery residue of blood leaching out my Ugly ulcers into my life.

It is the shame of knowing I’ve attempted a type of suicide but the damage is on the inside. It wasn’t a gunshot wound which I could point to but rather a slow death by poison leaving behind hidden ulcers. No one did this to me. I did this to myself. No one else to blame or hold accountable.

Only the most genuine and generous people are left to hold my hand and yet I still sense Shame on the edge, circling like a vulture, waiting for me to fail, waiting for me to set myself on fire.

Again.

It is for this reason, more than any others, I isolate. I don’t trust myself not to hurt people that love me. For example, recently I recognized that when C asked me to leave, I respected that wish because not only don’t I want a hostage but also because I didn’t believe I was worthy of her love.

This sense of lacking is a bleeding ulcer across my life.

By the time my relationship with C ended I was a shell. Internally living with the equivalent of an emotional and spiritual scorched earth. There was little fertile ground left to till.

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The conflict inherent in shame will always be there. I’ve lived so long with its’ whispers I cannot imagine it not haunting me.

However, if I lean into it, learn more about myself than before, focus on learning to be more skillful, I may open the door to find new possibilities that I had not even considered before.

Moving forward in order to become more authentic to the inner voice means learning to navigate the internal shame driven conflicts first to tend my own garden and to harvest from my experiences something more bountiful.

Brene Brown: I like that you use the term “conflict transformation,” not “resolution.” It feels more about a connection in some way to me. What’s the difference?

Dr. Michelle Buck: In all of my work, I chose to focus on “conflict transformation”, rather than the more traditional term “conflict resolution.” to me, the latter suggest going back to a previous state of affairs, and has a connotation that there may be a winner or a loser. How will this disagreement be resolved? Whose solution will be selected as the “better” one? In contrast, I choose to focus on “conflict transformation,” suggesting that by creatively navigating the conversational landscape of differences and disagreements, we have the opportunity to create something new. At a minimum, we learn more about each other than before. Ideally, we may find new possibilities that had not even been considered before. Conflict transformation is about creating a deeper understanding. It requires perspective-taking. As a result, it enables greater connection, whether or not there is agreement.

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This answer is fundamentally how I want to approach the Universe.

Ironically, this is how I am when I approach problems at work or on projects. “We are all in this together,” being my rallying cry. “Let’s focus on what we can do together.”

As such, it isn’t that I don’t know how to do much of this, it is I don’t do it in the most important and deeply meaningful relationships in my life.

Conflict avoidance is as much about trying to avoid my pain as it is taking on the burden of other people’s pain.

For example, recently a friend and I told some people we were dating. Her best friend, Annie Oakley, lowered her voice, and in the most menacing voice you can imagine of a well-armed, 5 foot tall, and 40-year-old mother of two threatened me with, “You better not hurt her because I own a gun.”

It wasn’t idle bravado…and the stage for conflict was set. I remember in that moment feeling ill-at-ease.

Ironically, it is almost the identical conversation I had with my xp’s Aunt L in 2012. When I first was introduced to the family, Aunt L’s warning was simple: “C is a special woman and you better not hurt her or I will hurt you.”

SIDEBAR: smh. Does anyone in her adult life adult? Everyone wants to be her Hero. We’re all simply cannon fodder.

In the situation with Aunt L, I replied, “I promise I will never hurt her. She is the love of my life.” I meant the promise too. What could possibly go wrong with those expectations? I was the Knight and she was my Queen. I zealously embraced my role and the storybook.

And at that moment, and with those intentions, we all set the stage for a zero-sum game of winners and losers. There is no nuance, understanding, or skillful way to navigate the eventual conflicts inherent in any relationship: “If you hurt her, I will hurt you.” Seems clear.

I can still see in my mind’s eye, my xp sitting proudly on her throne glowing from the attention. I sat in the hot seat being fluffed for my role as a knight, and jester, by the matriarchs of the family.

As such, when the time comes for a conversation about transforming conflict, “How will this disagreement be resolved? Whose solution will be selected as the “better” one?”

It’s obvious now in hindsight how it will be resolved. It is clear how the solution will be selected. Entirely too many people are volunteers to be my xp’s vara. Including me.

And as has since become obviously apparent, I was dating a well-armed, fortified, and conditioned team. The threat was simply a foreshadowing: Hurt people hurt people. You hurt her. You hurt us. As such, you hurt her and we will hurt you.”

This is the Associative Property of Pain: C’s Pain = Our Pain = Your Pain.

SIDEBAR: Just had a “huh” moment. I wonder how that would have been interpreted if a male family member said to my xp: “Sean is a special man and you better not hurt him or I will hurt you” all while I sat in the corner and silently watched the proceedings? Going to need to revisit this hypocrisy.

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What solutions does that leave me when I do hurt her?

I think of Brene Brown’s story of the man talking about male shame at her book signing: “My wife and daughters would rather see me die on my horse than appear weak.” This line echos throughout my relationship with C…and K.

I took my role seriously and personally. I took it into a pride-filled heart…and that is probably why my heart still reverberates with the pain. As my doctor reminds me, “Eventually, we all hurt people we love. It’s why we try so hard to hide our shames from those closest to us.”

In December when C contacted Aunt L, to tell her of my betrayal, Aunt L sent me a one-line text: “I better never find you.” That seems clear.

However, for nearly eight months afterward, whenever I was near Green Bay I would send Aunt L and Grandma A a note that read essentially: “I know I betrayed and hurt someone we all love and I understand you may have some things to say. I’d sit and listen to anything you need to say. My relationship with you matters.”

Unfortunately, as it is demonstrated over and over, both parties have to be willing to transform the conflict. I’ve tried three times. They aren’t interested. I’ll will not try again.

In the former situation, Annie was equally serious.

The woman I was dating had a long and ugly marriage to a narcissist. Annie knew my friend’s pain.

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However, something else entirely happened. Before I could even open my mouth, my friend shot back to Annie Oakley, “Of course he is going to hurt me. We’re adults, it isn’t his job to protect me and keep me safe.”

I’m still awed at the difference in skillfulness between these two conversations.

She was the first woman I’ve ever dated that took responsibility for the emotional well-being of the relationship.

She was the first to demonstrate to me there are “new possibilities that had not even been considered before.”

I love dating a Buddhist.