conflict resolution


If one would have a friend, then one must also be willing to wage war for him; and in order to wage war, one must be capable of being an enemy.


This is an unexpected piece of wisdom. On the surface, the suggestion of enemies and solidarity in warfare seems to run counter to spiritual ideals of peacefulness, unity, conflict resolution, and mutual understanding.

However, as we navigate the rich depths and practical nuance of peace as an ideal, we find some very surprising counter-currents. It turns out that the road to peace is full of virtue-cultivating battles.

There are circumstances in life when the call of justice transcends the need for quiet restraint, bringing the issue of unavoidable conflict into our lives. I’m focusing here only on the microscopic minutia of internal psychological dynamics and interpersonal relations, not large political questions or issues. What happens externally is a reflection of what’s going on within, and large political issues are often just reflections of what’s happening “at home,” so to speak. The depth of this teaching is speaking to something within ourselves and externally in our intimate relationships.

This instruction is asking us to deal with conflict avoidance, which can masquerade as peace-keeping behavior. Generally, peacekeeping is seen as “good,” but if the behavior is rooted in fear it can cause unjust harm, and is not considered virtuous. There are dysfunctional forms of peace-keeping which can be just as abusive as outright hostility. Thus this issue needs to be honestly seen and grappled with, if we are to talk about attaining real peace.

The call of justice means that sometimes we must embrace conflict, and stand in solidarity with what is right, and as an enemy to what is wrong, turning towards the conflict in order to overcome our fears and learn its lessons. This seems like an obvious concept, and yet in practice, in the reality of human relationships, this is much more difficult to do than it appears.

Fearful conflict avoidance usually manifests itself as the consummate diplomatic peacekeeper. We can think of this expression as a particular type of person, or as an attribute in each of us (if we look deeply enough). That fearful diplomat is the intended recipient of this particular wisdom; it is calling forth his fear, and is elevating it to the surface, so that it may be seen and reconciled.

We must set aside for a moment the destructive types – those who love conflict, confrontations, and chaos, the people who are constantly taking sides, creating divisions, hate-mongering, and demanding school-yard types of solidarity. They are not the audience for this wisdom, and their form of solidarity is not what’s at issue here.

This wisdom is for the “nice person,” the one who is always running around smoothing things over. His aim is always to appease everyone, and calm things down whenever conflict erupts. He is the first one to jump in with a distracting joke, a phony string of patronizing compliments, a categorical demand for compassion, or some other mechanism of invalidation, typically in order to to divert attention from the conflict-producing issue. He seeks to de-escalate at all costs, and unwilling and unable to take sides, will often unjustly silence the weaker party who is more easily oppressed. His actions, though seemingly well-intentioned, create a false moral parity between victim and aggressor, even at times when there is no moral ambiguity. This adds great harm to the victim and unfairly and prematurely absolves the wrong-doer.

This sort of diplomacy, though lauded in our social consciousness, is not a virtue. This person suffers from blurry moral vision on account of tremendous fear, often leaving him unable to distinguish right from wrong, nor stand firmly on the side of justice when that’s required of him. This kind of peacekeeper is deeply traumatized by dysfunctional conflict, and is therefore very viscerally conflict avoidant. He doesn’t have the capacity to actually consciously take sides. He can’t. Being embroiled in conflict, being an enemy to someone, being hated by someone, runs counter to his dire people-pleasing needs. Being a proper enemy, not in the heat of reaction, but in a considered and tempered way, is internally an untenable position.

And because he can’t stand to be hated, because he is so blinded by his own fear and urgent need to silence the discomfort of conflict, he cannot see what morality dictates in any given situation. He unwittingly ends up siding with the bully/aggressor. We know him sometimes as the abuser’s enabler. He cannot consciously discern the bully from the victim, and even if he could, standing up to the bully isn’t “nice,” and will escalate conflict, so he won’t be doing that anyway. He is incapable of being an enemy, really, even when justice requires him to stand strongly in solidarity with the victim.

This person is easy to identify within any small social group, and is pretty obvious externally, but he exists first and foremost inside the mind. We see him outside because he exists inside. Finding him within is the primary focus here, because learning how to “take sides” internally with what is right and true, and standing in solidarity with that (with the inner victim, the small true self) against the bullying egoic voice is the real battle. To be a loyal friend to our inner child, to be a friend to the heart and the soul, we must become an enemy to the ego. We must take sides, and go to war when necessary, and stand in integrated solidarity with what is true within, even when that means we will be hated by others.

This wisdom is calling out this pattern in all of us. It’s asking us for courage and discernment. It’s asking for moral fortitude, rather than people pleasing fear. It’s asking for solidarity with our inner victim, our inner truths, against the bullying force of the ego, and its external reflections in our lives.

Conflict and defensiveness


In every relationship, romantic or otherwise, feelings get hurt. They just do. On one side, or the other, or both, occasionally. Knowing how to handle these situations properly, makes or breaks most relationships. (I’ve written about my problems with conflict before. Here, I’m sharing some new healthier approaches to conflict management). 

To me, one of the hallmarks of love, is the capacity to lovingly honor someone’s feelings in the course of a conflict.

Learning to honor someone’s feelings means cultivating the ability to listen, open-heartedly, non-defensively, when someone comes to you and says “hey, this thing you did… it really hurt me.” And then learning how to respond properly, lovingly, by validating the other person’s feelings, taking responsibility when appropriate, being accountable, and demonstrating that you care about them. 

In recent years, Dr. John Gottman has become one of the leading authorities on making marriages work. One of the most famous findings of his decades of research is something he calls the Four Horsemen (as in “… of the apocalypse”).

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.

These Horsemen are four behaviors, four qualities of relating, that his research identifies as spelling almost-certain disaster for a marriage. I would take it further and say not just marriage, but any close relationship.

These behaviors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. You can read much more about them hereThere are many many articles available on this subject. I won’t go into complete detail in this post. I trust that you can google it if you’d like to learn more.

I do want to just address one of these, though, because it is so close to my heart – defensiveness. Here is Gottman’s definition: Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.

It is something I used to do a lot (more so internally, than in actual expression, but the results were the same.). It is something I had to unlearn through lots and lots of painful self-reflection. Defensiveness, always defending yourself whenever you feel criticized, comes from low self-esteem. It happens when people are insecure, when their sense of self is fragile, and any form of blame, or responsibility for wrong-doing, cannot be tolerated. At the deepest level, it is when any sort of criticism is incorrectly taken to be a reflection of self-worth. (“If what he says about me is true, then that makes me a bad person” or “If I am to blame for this mistake, then I’m completely worthless.“). That’s when shame is triggered, and defensiveness kicks in to counter the shame. It tries to deny the truth of the criticism, deflecting blame and responsibility, in order to prevent a collapse of the fragile sense of self. 

When you deal with someone who is consistently defensive, no matter what the circumstance, whenever you try to bring something to their attention, they immediately respond with “It’s not me. It’s you. This is not my fault. It is your mistake. I’m innocent.” They don’t say it quite so directly most of the time, but that’s the message you receive.

You know people like this. It is incredibly frustrating to deal with these people. It is impossible to raise any sort of relationship issues. It is impossible to air out or resolve conflict. It is impossible to come to them vulnerably with your hurt feelings, because they will only pour salt on your wounds – invalidating your perceptions, and making you feel wrong for feeling hurt in the first place.

You say: “Ouch, you just stepped on my foot! That really hurt.” And their response is: “No I didn’t. Don’t be such a baby. You shouldn’t have put your foot there in the first place. What are you doing standing so close to me anyway?

(Actual example from a real life experience).

Defensiveness destroys relationships. It really really does. It is a slow painful death by a thousand cuts. Being in a relationship with a person who is constantly defensive and never takes responsibility means that you will always be to blame, no matter what happens. Everything will always be your fault, never theirs. They will never learn from their mistakes. They will never change or grow. They will never take steps to avoid hurting you, they don’t seem to care if you get hurt. And if you believe and internalize their opinions, then your own self worth begins to diminish.

With them, there can be no vulnerability. There can be no authenticity. No emotional intimacy. No healthy repair. And the relationship becomes entirely fake until it withers away and goes to dysfunctional relationship heaven.

It took me a loooong time to learn that there is another way. It came with the recognition that of course, sometimes my words or actions will hurt other people. I can try and try to be perfect, never wanting to cause anyone harm, but I’m not perfect. No one is. We all cause each other pain all the time; it’s practically unavoidable. But that doesn’t make someone a bad person, just a flawed imperfect human.

And I don’t need to get defensive when someone tells me I’ve done something wrong. I can take that on and own it. Then we can calmly sort out both sides of what happened, and I can take complete responsibility for the consequences of my actions, navigating guilt when I screw up, apologizing when appropriate, without feeling bad about myself as a person. 

When someone I care about comes to me with his hurt feelings, he needs me to honor what he feels. He needs me to compassionately recognize that is hurt or in pain, and for me to demonstrate that I genuinely care about how he feels; how my words or actions made him feel. I caused him pain, and if we are to be in some kind of relationship together, he needs to know that I care about that. That I want and need to know when that happens, so that I can apologize, correct my behavior, and learn not to do that again. 

If instead I become defensive, if I see his hurt feelings as an attack, if I immediately need to make him wrong, or convince him that he shouldn’t be upset, or defend my innocence, or I get angry and retaliate – forget it. That doesn’t work. This kind of response lets him know that I don’t care that he’s upset, I don’t want to hear about his hurt feelings, and I’m going to continue doing whatever I want, regardless of the pain it causes him. 

People always ask for step by step instructions on things like this. So here are some steps to follow if you tend to get defensive in your relationships:

First, you allow the person to express himself completely. You listen without interruption. You don’t cut him off. You don’t get angry. You don’t huff and puff and throw a tantrum. You don’t retaliate with nasty words trying to destroy him. 

Second, you acknowledge what the person is saying (“Yes. I understand.”). If you don’t understand, ask for an explanation or further clarification. 

Third, internally, you allow for the possibility that they are absolutely right to feel what they feel. Their interpretations of the situation are valid (even if you don’t agree, even if they are based on false assumptions or mistaken intentions). Everyone has a right to feel what they feel, and to interpret the world through their own point of view. 

Fourth, is learning to respond with love: “I’m so sorry that my actions hurt you. I see why you feel this way. I understand why you feel hurt. I understand how my words sounded, or how my actions made you feel. Please know that it wasn’t my intention to upset you; I feel bad that I have. Let’s talk about what happened. I want to learn how to do it better in the future, so you don’t get hurt.

When you respond to someone this way, it lets them know that their feelings matter to you. It lets them know that you are sensitive to their pain. It lets them know that you care about them. This is how you honor their feelings without defensiveness. 

This is love in action.