Most of us want to avoid conflict like the plague. At worst, it is as if conflict could be the death of us, and at best, as if it’s the too-talkative neighbor we want to evade at the grocery store. It’s uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking, and takes a lot of emotional energy, not to mention the always-present fear that the situation could get worse through confrontation. Therefore, avoiding conflict at all costs makes sense, right? The survival part of our brain would quickly agree to that, and, typically wins out in the battle of our wills to either approach or sidestep conflict. Our survival brain reminds us of the last time we were involved in a conflict with a spouse or teenager that ended poorly, or witnessed a conflictual encounter at work that made us grateful we weren’t involved, and entices us to avoid those uncomfortable feelings. But what if our brains were being overprotective, (as is their job), and by avoiding conflict, or even the potential for it, we miss out on opportunities for growth and the chance to lean into relationships in deeper, more meaningful ways?
We have all heard people say, or have said about ourselves, “I don’t do conflict,” “I’m a conflict-avoider, that’s just who I am,” “I avoid conflict at all costs,” or, “I don’t know how to confront so I just let it go.” However, these statements imply that we can’t learn how to positively handle conflict and that it’s a trait within us that can’t be changed. It leaves us powerless and helpless. On the flip side, we all know those people that seem to like conflict, seek it out, and aren’t afraid of it. We either want to steer clear of these folks if our perception of them is that they’re aggressive, or if they handle it well, we admire them but feel we could never be like that. We assume it’s “just who they are” as opposed to it being a skillset that can be learned. And that’s the difference between a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset tells you that how you are now is how you’ve always been and always will be. There’s no room in your brain to consider other alternatives, access creativity, or challenge yourself. A growth mindset tells you that even if you don’t possess the skill right now, with hard work and perseverance, you can develop it. A growth mindset lends itself to trying, practicing, and gathering evidence that you can engage in healthy conflict and be successful. For more reading on the research behind the two mindsets and how one holds you back, while the other helps you stretch, check out Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The Psychology Behind Success (2007).
Researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown has a mantra that she subscribes to that is extremely helpful when choosing to brave conflict and has been instrumental in my ability to lean into tough situations. She states that in the face of being triggered emotionally or pulled into a conflict, whether by choice or not, she repeats to herself, “Don’t shrink. Don’t puff up. Stand your sacred ground.” What does this mean and how does it look? When we shrink back, we are trying to hide, avoid being seen, and hoping to sweep the uncomfortableness under the rug. Yet, nothing gets solved and we lose the opportunity to have our voice be heard. When we “puff up,” we can become aggressive, defensive, stuck in our emotions, often throwing gasoline on a fire where the risk of damaging the relationship further becomes high. Standing our sacred ground is the middle path. It is honoring our self and the other person(s). It may look like taking a deep breath before responding, asking for time to reflect before resuming the conversation, or validating the other person’s position while staying in your values. No matter what the outcome of the situation, it leaves you feeling like you did your best, which is an empowering position to be in.
Recently, I had the opportunity to either lean into conflict or avoid it. In both situations, one in a group setting and o
ne in a personal relationship, the risk to face it and stand my sacred ground proved beneficial, deepening both relationships and increasing my confidence in my ability to be a part of engaging in healthy conflict. Is it always going to work out and go smoothly? Is the other person(s) always going to agree and respond appropriately? Unfortunately, this is not a guarantee. There will be times that leaning into conflict will still end negatively and the relationship may remain strained. That’s always the risk in life, with anything. However, my motivation remains that I want to be a person that is continually growing and pursuing strengthening my relationships, whether with a colleague at work, a sibling, or a significant other. In every situation, I learn something and grow, which is the purpose of life. Am I sometimes left hurting and wishing I’d shrunk back instead of standing my sacred ground? In the immediate aftermath,
sometimes, yes. But over time, I never regret standing my sacred ground. And with each situation comes the opportunity to engage my growth mindset. I sharpen my skills and gain the confidence to handle the next hard situation. So, the next time even a hint of dissension presents itself, or a full-blown dispute erupts, decide what your sacred ground is and stand there. Show your brain that you can take on conflict and come out stronger on the other side of it, no matter what happens.
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