Ghandi said “be the change you expect to see in the world.” His doctrine of personal responsibility and empowerment changed the world and from what I’ve read of his life, he lived that message authentically.
I’ve always aspired to that kind of enlightened being and, if I’m honest, hidden behind the excuse that I could never really be like him because my world looks so different to his. Recently I’ve come to appreciate I can’t hide anymore.
Value of conflict
I think conflict is an inevitable part of life. Often fuelled by an anger response from the limbic brain, conflict takes us back to our most basic roots.
Conflict can lead to positive outcomes. It can precipitate clarity where once there was ambiguity. It can create a healthy challenge that drives all parties to achieve more.
However destructive conflict tears away at the fabric of relationship, undermines trust and burns relationship capital. It’s ramifications often extend well beyond the initial visible impact.
If conflict is fuelled by one old part of the brain, it’s often sparked by another. Mirror brain cells were discovered by Rizzolatti, Di Pellegrino, et al in the late 90s. They give us the biological basis to inform what Jung called projection. (Well, he actually spelled it projektion because he was Swiss, but same word.)
When I encounter a behaviour in someone else that triggers a strong emotional response in me, it’s often based on a projection. If I perceive someone else as aggressive, inconsiderate or greedy, I’m often seeing some part of myself reflected back. Jung postulated that parts of ourselves that we hide, repress or deny are often only visible to us in the behaviour of others.
Them and us
Such is my unwillingness to see these shadowy parts of myself, I rage against them and by labelling them as someone else’s “problem” I can both distance myself from them and actively fight against them. Not only does my conflict serve my own denial but, now that I’ve got an external cause, it comes with a dose of righteous anger.
I no longer recognise this conflict in a balanced, distant fashion, where I can see it’s probably as much me as them. No no, now it’s all about the other person; what they’ve done, what I’ve made up about them and what message I take from their behaviour. It’s personal. It’s their fault. Let slip the dogs of war.
Choosing the alternative
It should be enough to admit partial responsibility. It should be enough to meet the other half way, to recognise that you’ve both had a part to play in the conflict and share culpability.
When my country’s Government had the honourable men of the Armed Forces engaged in the dishonourable activity of suppressing uprisings in their Indian Colony - a national shame that fades with time but haunts me still - Ghandi didn’t advocate fighting fairly or meeting British violence with only an equal and measured response. He had them lay down their bodies in surrender to the terrible beatings they received. He advocated for peaceful demonstrations and revolutionary civil disobedience. It was the innovation that fed the Indian Independence struggle, united the population and ultimately undermined British authority.
The world doesn’t change when lobbied by a proportionate response. It requires of me radical personal accountability, ruthless reintegration of all my projections, total ownership of the problems I’m a participant in.
On the scale of restoring home rule to India, the conflict in my life seems pretty unimportant, even trivial to the point of banality, but that doesn’t make my tiny contribution irrelevant.
Perhaps the hardest struggles are those fought internally?
It’s not about giving in - a point excellently articulated in Ury and Fisher’s Getting to Yes - because negotiation is fundamentally about discovery, not conflict. Inter-personal conflict stems from unresolved problems.
When I place the locus of the problem in me, I give myself a chance to solve it: it’s empowering to take ownership. When I project that problem on someone or something else, I set myself as a powerless victim, prey to a world full of problems that befall me.
That’s my experience of managing conflict. If you’d like to share yours, please comment, tweet or get in touch.