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Guest post: Embracing Conflict

Posted in Guest Bloggers, Life, and Polyamory

In my Ethical Slut Read-along, we recently discussed the issue of conflict and how it applies to all human relationships, not just polyamorous ones.

In keeping with this important topic, I am excited to present the following guest post by a long time friend and member of my family of choice, Gyesika Safety. Among other qualifications, she was Sanctuary Lead for Burning Flipside 2011, charged with safe-guarding the mental health of the citizens of Pyropolis. Here are her thoughts on why conflict really is “another fucking opportunity for growth:”

Gyesika Safety of Dichotomy Incarnate, Guest Blogger on Approximately 8,000 Words.

I used to be terrified of conflict and that fear came from ignorance: not knowing how to proceed with it or how to work with disagreements. Someone could get hurt. Someone was angry. Someone had to be right (which meant that someone else was wrong). These assumptions about conflict have proven not to be true, if conflict is handled in a productive manner. Now, I do not seek out conflict — but I don’t run from it either. I tend to face the inevitable head on because worrying about the inevitable leads to inevitable worry.

Not wanting to live in fear, I began to expose myself to conflict, learning about what it is and how it is a useful tool to resolve issues. This approach is referred to in Cognitive Behavior Therapy as “exposure.” CBT was popularized by David D. Burns, M.D. — the measured, slow introduction and contact with a fear stimulus. For me, this involves meeting the challenge and dealing with it (or scheduling to deal with it later). Once I let go of rectitude, of the fleeting pleasure of feeling justified, I began to see that conflict can be a motivating force for positive growth, for myself and the people I care about. How do I face conflict and meet the challenges it presents?

I gain a sense of satisfaction in being proven wrong. This may sound counter-intuitive but when someone takes the time to point out that you’re not on a positive path, that you are not living your values, or your facts are inaccurate they’ve given you a gift. They have implicitly said, “I respect you enough to think you can handle receiving this feedback and I value you enough to let you know this, so you may grow.” Even coming from a place of anger, if someone cares enough to inform me of my mistakes, then they have sent a powerful message of respect and love.

I recognized that resolving conflict can take time and space. We do not need to “Hurry up and fight!” It’s possible to get so wrapped up in attempting to “fix” the problem (or the person) that we exacerbate the feelings of resentment and anger. There are times, when emotions are high, when it is more constructive to wait until the intensity of the reaction subsides. This can take a few minutes, occasionally it can take years. I cannot know what another person’s reaction level is unless I ask and I can know what my reaction level is. If I know that I am still overly reactive, then I table the resolution phase until such a time that I am not going to “pop off” if the conversation is broached. This is a form of scheduling fights.

Handling conflict maturely means recognizing when things get too heated for effective discussion. Photo by Mindaugas Danys.

I schedule and practice fights. We get better at an activity if we practice and every person has a different conflict style. It is helpful to learn another’s style and what works for you if you practice together. When a minor conflict arises (like not wanting to have pasta for dinner, again), I will stop to think about the tools I have learned and practice them. Does it feel heavy-handed, at first? Perhaps. But when a larger conflict that I am more deeply invested in arises (like over child-rearing philosophy), I have already stretched my conflict resolution muscles.

There are many tools for dealing with conflict. The following are remedies modified from Bob & Marlene Neufeld and Mary Ann Carmichael:

  • Recognize that your feelings are valid but no one can make you feel a certain way. They are your reaction to a situation or event. Own them and express them in a manner that doesn’t attack the other person.
  • Use “I feel statements” and make precise requests and complaints. I.E., “I feel frustrated, hungry and tired when you don’t make dinner until after 9:00 pm.”
  • Work with facts: refer to things that cannot be argued and spend as much time (if not more) listening than talking.
  • Do some research on and practice active listening. Many fights can be resolved or even avoided by focusing all of your attention on what the other person is saying. When we respond in our heads to what we think the other is saying, we cannot actually hear them. I have found that there are times when myself and the person I am disagreeing with are actually saying the same thing. However, I cannot discover this if I don’t listen to them.
  • Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, validate and appreciate them. Many conflicts may be mitigated by taking a moment to realize that the person that you are fighting with also cares deeply about the issue in question, and is speaking their truth. Letting them know that you value their truth and appreciate them as a person can take the heat off when tempers begin to boil over.
  • Own your shit. Your feelings are yours, your reactions are yours and when you take ownership of those two, you are empowered to take control of your own experience. That is a personally powerful place to be and you are no longer a victim of circumstance, you are someone who is an active participant in your own encounters with the world and other people.
  • One of the key phrases I use is “What solution do you see?” The word “solution” can redirect the other person towards finding that solution instead of spinning out defensively.
  • Defensiveness kills constructive conflict. If you feel yourself getting defensive (or the other person is getting defensive), readjust your outlook. Remember that generally, in the end, everyone wants to have a happy resolution. Keeping that in mind can refocus defensiveness to working together towards that happy ending.
  • Reschedule for another time. If the tension continues to rise and there is no end in sight, step back, take some time to ground yourself, do something you enjoy and then revisit the issue in question.

Conflict can be scary but it doesn’t need to be. You will inevitably come into conflict with others. It can be an aggressive, unpleasant experience or something you can look forward to for the growth and lessons it provides.

Gyesika Safety might still occasionally avoid a fight but she doesn’t run from opportunities. Born in Montreal during the Aurora Borealis, she visited three continents by the age of 13 (North America, Asia and Europe). After realizing that Orange County, California was not meeting her needs, she finished off her degree in Philosophy in Ghana, Africa. Calling Austin, Texas home, Gyesika is a converted Roman Catholic (with neo-pagan undertones), a mother, a burner, a lover of life and consummate quester to answer “why?” You can catch her blog at Dichotomy Incarnate, where she muses on and reconciles the grey areas between opposites.