Humans are social creatures, and conflicts inevitably arise in social groups. May it be in your family circles e.g. partner, parents or siblings or at work e.g. your boss and colleagues, you will inevitably need to face conflict at some point in your life. And when you do, you’ll learn a lot about yourself—and others.
When you observe people’s abilities to deal with conflict you’ll find a wide spectrum of attitudes: from total avoidance to systematic confrontation. But rarely have I met people who master that skill—despite exposure to many large organisations in the professional arena. I concluded a while ago that most of us live in societies relatively unequipped to deal with conflict. It’s a difficult skill to learn because it challenges the ego so much. It takes a lot of courage, self-honesty and compassion to confront someone and ‘clear the air’ after an incident. And those qualities not being common, I’ve found out that a lot of people just let things untouched and allow unresolved conflicts to fester till it’s unmanageable. Then they usually move on—just to meet the same situation elsewhere—or stay stuck in miserable situations.
This article explores conflict resolution strategies, the role of emotional intelligence and how we can build a better world by learning to manage conflicts at the scale of societies.
Fist I’ll talk about 2 losing strategies (the opposite ends of the spectrum) then a more balanced and winning strategy will follow later.
That one is so commonplace that it should make sense to everyone. I bet you know at least one person who gets flustered when the shadow of a conflict presents itself. They do not want to deal with that situation because it’s so uncomfortable for their ego. They will submit to whatever is requested of them, avoid the entire topic as if it never happened and move on.
There is a strong cultural bias in anglo-saxon countries to handle things that way, but I’ll get back to the cultural differences later. Basically, there is a will to brush aside any event that could lead to open conflict and unpleasant confrontation.
The problem with this strategy is that it’s a lose/lose situation. Not only the submissive person loses their willpower, integrity and possibility to stand for themselves, but the offender does not meet a boundary that would allow them to know what they’ve done has hurt another. So nobody learns from that situation and unfairness is allowed to endure.
Then there’s the radically different attitude of systematic confrontation. Someone has done something that has offended you, and you’ll make their life a misery in retaliation.
Basically you can’t let go and your anger is projected onto the—perceived—offender who will become a target of an accumulated reservoir of past hurts… That teacher at school that ridiculed you in front of the class, your parent that preferred your other sibling and always made her right, your boss that is so unfair and cannot begin to recognise your true worth etc. This time it’s no more! The offender will learn what it costs to have hurt you.
The problem with that strategy is that it’s also a losing one. It proves that you haven’t integrated past hurts, are replaying past events as a new drama and therefore have never healed some scars. The offender will learn to tread carefully with you in the future but there will be resentment. You may gain a reputation of being the one “not to mess around with” or that “takes no prisoners” and inspire fear to confront you in others, but you won’t be perceived positively.
If you work in an office with a lot of people, that is a perfect environment to experiment with handling conflict and learn the strategies that really work. Professional environments represent a sampler of society: you have power (hierarchy), money (the salary you get in exchange of your services), a lot of people to interact with and usually multiple constraints such as: dealing with change, unknown, deadlines and pressure. Conflicts are not hard to find and if you’ve been around long enough you’ll hear stories sooner or later. I’ll give an example to illustrate what you can learn about people through their attitude towards conflict.
I’ve recently come across a conflicting situation. In a division, there was historically some tension between two teams who need to work together to deliver. I need both their inputs to do my job. I found myself caught between fires and became a target for all the unaddressed anger of one of the team members. She had a rant at me in a team meeting and I immediately protested. The team manager asked for the bickering to stop, so the conversation moved on.
Now the aftermath of that incident was amazing, but it turned out to be quite different from the appearances:
The conclusion of all of that was:
There are so many situations I’ve witnessed over the years that I could probably write a book on its own. Each situation is unique but the patterns are often identical. It takes emotional intelligence (more on that later) to identify those things and I believe most people are just totally unaware of how themselves and others are impacted by conflicts and negative emotions. Any conflict in a team can compromise the overall harmony and willingness of people to collaborate, which in turn will reduce the amount and quality of work being done. It is the responsibility of the leader to make sure teams are free of conflicts, bring people together and have the difficult conversations.
Emotions play a key role in resolving conflict because it’s the emotions that take over when people are in a confrontational situation—logic simply fades away. The concept of emotional intelligence is therefore relevant here.
In a nutshell, emotional intelligence relates to someone’s ability to perceive, understand and manage their own emotions and that of others. It is a real form of intelligence in case you wonder, but in a world that glorifies the intellect above anything else, it can appear to be a minor form of intelligence. Empathy is one of the components of emotional intelligence. That is the ability to feel the other person’s emotional state and relate to it.
Emotional intelligence is developed in certain people while others lack it. The manager in my work example lacked emotional intelligence because she could not see how bad emotions among people in her team could affect badly the entire team. In fact, it’s one of the typical pitfalls in hierarchy structure: people in position of power who do not have enough emotional intelligence to relate to the people they manage. You can be a manager without emotional intelligence, but you’ll never become a leader. Emotional intelligence is something all great leaders have—among many other qualities such as… conflict resolution! In my example, I had realised that this manager was simply not a leader and could not inspire me.
Our ability to deal with conflict is strongly inherited from the way we’ve seen our parents dealing with it. And the skill not being common, and not taught at school, it’s unsurprising that most people handle conflicts poorly.
In households there can be violence: verbal and physical; there can be toxic environments of domination/submission between parents (one parent dominating the other) and between parents and kids. Kids growing up in an environment where conflicts are resolved with violence may conclude that it’s the only way to handle conflicts… or be totally disempowered whenever they face a conflict themselves. Everyone adopts different coping strategies, but it leaves scars to have witnessed poor conflict resolution as a child.
Another aspect is how kids deal with conflicts with their own parents. Being dependent upon their parents for so many years, kids who have difficult relationship with their parents usually carry that into their adult life. Of there’s the cliché of the teenager that is rebellious and does everything to ascertain his authority in the process of growing up. But the teenager lacks maturity and life experience to see what the real conflicts within him are, something that will come only in adulthood.
Handling conflict with your parents is particularly difficult because they represent the archetypal authority figure that you’ve typically known all your life. But observe how people deal with conflicts with their parents and it will tell a lot about their personal limitations and how they deal with conflicts in general elsewhere.
I touched on the anglo-saxon culture earlier. For those people, confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. It’s reflected in the use of language where any criticism is so sugar-coated that for foreigners—even with a good level of English—a criticism can go unnoticed. I should know, I was born in France and my first years in the UK have been educative… The UK is all about being politically correct and does not encourage people being upfront.
Note—Beware, the culture in which you were born is so ingrained in your psyche that unless you’ve travelled extensively, lived overseas or have a partner or close friends from a different culture, you may be unaware of how your own culture is affecting you!
Let’s talk about another culture I know well: the French culture. The French are more upfront than the British and confrontations can be heated with a lot of shouting and sometimes even violence which clearly crosses the line. The good in that is that people are less willing to let a situation rot, the bad is that sometimes behaviours are just degrading. Even in the workplace in the 2020s, even in large companies, you can have people shouting at each other in business meetings! But you can also meet the attitude of “don’t talk about it, pretend it’s never happened” and that’s just not OK either.
I’ll mention South-America and in particular Brazil where I was for work some time ago. I’ve witnessed something really interesting once. I was visiting a local office in the capital with mostly local staff and sat quietly in a corner. Suddenly, I’ve seen people congregating with clearly 2 camps facing each other and I started reading body language showing people were really tensed. The next thing I know is those people get in an adjacent room, literally start yelling at each other with lots of hand gestures, but within minutes start speaking softly again, the faces and bodies relieved of tension, smiles starting to form and people gently touching each other shoulder in an amicable way. By the time they had left the meeting room they had literally cleared the air and whatever conflict had been stagnant was resolved, forgotten! I’ve never seen something quite like that.
Finally I’ll mention Asia because that I know quite well. In the Asian culture, open confrontation is in general also not acceptable like with the British. In the workplace the element of hierarchy has a lot more weight that in the West and people older than you are not to be contradicted; a deference pervades society towards the elder whereas in the West I’ve never felt the same. I also found out that any shouting was a big no-no especially in front of a group, that would lead to serious humiliation and create deep resentment. Asian culture is a lot about not losing face in front of the collective.
I don’t think there’s any perfect culture out there about the way we express our emotions or deal with conflict. My personal bias is that I’d rather have people calling out what bothers them—even if it’s a bit harsh in the moment—rather than bottling up their feelings and resent you. I am an empath and I can literally feel people’s states of mind and emotions which means that any unaddressed conflict disturbs me and does not go unnoticed.
After looking at so many ways to deal poorly with conflict, it’s time to look at what I believe works. We’ll have to start at the origins.
Why is it that people are in conflict? Well, it’s because they have different views about the same topic and cannot reconcile their differences. It’s because they do not like each other (emotional territory) and develop judgement against each other. It’s because they feel: hurt, unloved, unappreciated, unrecognised, ignored, damaged by the other party. It’s because they do not take time to listen to each other and stay stuck in their own mind. It’s because they feel righteous about their own point of view and are rigid. Basically, it all stems from misunderstanding, ignorance and division. And when unattended, conflicts degenerate and create visceral and exaggerated emotional reactions. The energy becomes so strong that we lose the ability to use our best judgement.
In any conflict there’s an opportunity to face a different point of view on the world, a different value system and the different choices and preferences that make another who he is. When we are so entrenched in our own ego and the way we perceive the world, we tend to forget that what we consider ‘right’ is only our own judgement. It may well be shared with the majority of people but nevertheless it’s never an absolute, because we have choice and anyone can choose differently than us. This universe of duality is based on oppositions and at the human level it creates endless dramas until we understand that we all have the right not to agree, and that it should be respected.
Coming from a place of acceptance is required to meet the other and their point of view. Then there’s the expression of what is important to us and how we feel about a particular situation or topic. It’s personal expression. And that should never be suppressed like our societies told us. The only reason we tend to suppress our expression of disapproval is because of the fear of its consequences: retaliation, violence, negative consequences for the one who dares to speak up. In a primitive society where violence is rife, it has its place. But such a world is no more and we can’t afford to cling on to it. We live in the remains of that old brutal world, but it’s dead already; only the memories of those still alive to remember it still exist. So, non expression of our truth creates inner conflict and that gives rise to an emotional load that will torment the one who stays silent.
When expressing our disapproval, we can be neutral, factual and to the point without adding drama or emotions to the lot. And that’s difficult too because none of us is a blank slate and we all have a history of painful emotions and past hurts. When someone has done the work on their own emotions and shadow, they can speak in such a neutral way. Until we get there, we need to be self-aware of our own inner states and emotions and seek not to let our emotions blind us and blow things out of proportion.
There’s also the danger of targeting someone who makes us feel uncomfortable because it reminds us of… us. That’s why it’s called the shadow: it’s our own disavowed shadow that we see on the wall and are afraid of. So, unconsciously, we do not like something about that other person because we see a disowned part of ourselves in them. A ghost of the past may be haunting us, and we believe that by stigmatising that person we will find relief, but that’s a fallacy. Only the inner work can do that.
It’s also important to be genuine in the exchange. That requires to admit our past shortcomings and where we have made mistakes—we all make mistakes. In this act of showing our vulnerability and share how we feel, we are not making ourselves weaker contrary to popular belief. We are, instead, showing our humanity and come from a position of strength. True leaders are people who demonstrate that sort of quality: they inspire us because we can identify with them. Conversely, those who try so hard to show how perfect they are—and nobody’s perfect—sound fake and will never bond with their audience as much as the one who is humble. That is also why our media keep us in the illusion of the perfect world with perfect characters. People are idolised and perceived as flawless and rise to fame. But the day something comes to tarnish that perfect reputation they are vilified and the cancel culture turns them into outcasts and undesirable people.
Once each party has expressed themselves and their point of view, and acknowledge the conflict, most of the journey is done—but most people never start that journey. Then, a constructive solution can be worked out to close the disagreement. That will naturally occur as long as there is sincerity in the communications, and a desire to bring harmony to the relationship and any negative emotion has been lifted. Often, all it takes is an honest and respectful conversation. People will often come up themselves with solutions and nothing will need to be forced onto anyone. And no violence was required either.
In the end, conflicting situations bring so much to the surface that it takes a lot of personal development to be able to handle them in an honourable way. No wonder we still have some large scales unresolved conflicts that escalate to what is known as war.
We need a shift in human consciousness if we want our species to survive on this planet. And a major shift is about how we relate to each other: coming from a place of acceptance of the diversity of our opinions, seeing our differences as a strength instead of a weakness, and stop forcing a particular dogma onto the collective. We’ve seen how for centuries control has been applied and created collective misery. Now we know better. We need to come from a place of unity instead of separation. All the modern dramas of the 2020s (e.g. Covid-19, War in Ukraine) should act as an eye opener. That divide and conquer strategy is living its last days!
When we see ourselves in others, when we understand that the choices they’ve made has led them to where they are now—and that it could have been our path—it brings peace to our heart and we do not seek confrontation. Instead, we seek to work out our differences and find solutions that honour each one of us, are fair and sustainable.
It will take time before things truly change on Earth. And that is because the passing of time is required for the old ways to disappear—as the old people die—and new ways to become the norm. The day all kids learn from a young age how to connect with their emotions and deal with conflict honourably, by the time they reach adulthood and later when they are in positions of power, behaviours like violence and war will be virtually impossible on Earth. We are getting there no matter what now, only the speed is unpredictable.
Conflict is a role play between an offender and an offended person. So much untold and silent conflicts take place in this world. Conflicts WILL arise in groups of any kind and size: a family cluster with parents and kids, a sport association, a company, a village or an entire nation. The right way to approach the topic is about addressing conflicts and keeping harmony in the group, not plain avoidance. It’s by avoiding problems that we keep them alive! At the extreme, wars come from conflict between nations. It’s the same patterns than 2 people in conflict but at a larger scale. As long as people will not learn how to resolve conflicts and deal with their emotions honourably, we will keep having wars on Earth.
Managing conflicts effectively is very rewarding: it bonds people together and the relationship can be stronger than ever. By the way, you only truly know someone after you’ve experienced conflict with them. In organisations, a true leader deals with conflict and does not allow it to fester. It is a powerful skill to be able to resolve conflict in a team.
The toolbox to deal with conflicts is made of: self-awareness, respect, emotional intelligence, empathy, open-mindedness, humility, courage, self-honesty, listening skills, vulnerability and compassion. Besides, the attitude of honesty and integrity can also be brought to our most intimate relationships: our partners, our close friends, our family. What a gift it is to have relationships clear of untold hurts, past traumas, unaddressed problems and repressed emotions. It’s rare today, I know, but it should be the norm!
So, how do we avoid future conflicts once we’ve seen how painful it is to recover from old and rotten ones? Some simple steps make the difference. For example, when someone says or does something that hurts you, say something! It does not have to be on the spot, but it should not be ignored. Speak your truth, don’t stay silent. Just by doing that, you will nip in the bud many potential conflicts. And above all, don’t be afraid.