Existential Psychology

Productive Conflict

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For most of us conflict situations lead to destructive consequences. Our words or actions are violent as we seek not to understand the other but to win the fight. And in putting our own unhealthy need to dominate front and center while leaving the healthy desire to reduce suffering behind we end up damaging ourselves and those around us in the long run, regardless of whether we believe we’ve come out of the fray victorious or defeated.

But conflict doesn’t have to be destructive. Productive conflict starts with the insight that the other is suffering, even if this other can’t or won’t see the source of that suffering. Destructive words and actions are a manifestation of suffering, they are the transfer of those painful internal feelings onto some external source in the misguided attempt to find some relief.

When we see that conflict is the result of suffering we see that the way to make that conflict go away is not to produce more suffering by saying and doing hurtful things in the attempt to destroy our supposed foe but rather to search out and help reduce the sources of suffering. 

This is best achieved through compassionate listening, where we commit to really trying to understand the other’s experience without censure or judgment, without getting defensive or blaming, without instantly rebutting what we believe to be wrong beliefs and perceptions. Instead we think to ourselves and maybe even say “I want to understand what’s wrong. I want to help you. I want you to suffer less.”

What we find when we stop worrying about winning or losing and start worrying about reducing suffering is that conflict becomes productive, it helps us understand the other’s existential experience better and leads to greater intimacy and camaraderie rather than divisiveness and combativeness. And when we find, address, and reduce the sources of suffering conflict actually does go away rather than simply going underground for awhile as it does with the winner/loser attitude in place.