The openness of conflict

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

This essay is about my journey and is very different I’m sure, from others. Its also not meant to be a statement on anything that happened here over the last several days. But as we talk about conflict and comfort, I wanted to share a bit of my experience in that area.

Perhaps like many of you, I grew up in a family that did not allow conflict. My father and mother have been married for over 50 years and to this day brag that they have only had one disagreement…yeah right. They just learned how to do it in passive aggressive ways that made everyone just as uncomfortable as open conflict would have, perhaps more so. There was one exception. That being when my father and brother would scream at one another and it always ended with my brother getting the shit beat out of him. I felt my father’s backhand across the face once…when I dared to challenge my mother. So yeah, I learned very well to keep quiet and keep my thoughts to myself. Of course, that was also good training for an authoritarian personality. My father ruled and we had no voice. And his rules came directly from God, of course.

When I almost accidentally got a job working in a residential program for kids who were chemically dependent right after college, I was ill equipped to deal with the kinds of conflict that ensued as a result of much of the rage these young people were feeling. For the most part, I failed miserably in helping them. Usually that’s because I tried to avoid dealing with conflict or used what I had learned from my father to shut them down.  

Then I went to work in a group home for troubled teens in Colorado Springs. The interesting thing was that it was a year long internship program where we lived 24/7 with the kids and other staff. Getting away from conflict in a situation that charged was pretty much impossible. But the permanent staff had learned to embrace anger and conflict. They knew how to work with it – whether the participants were staff or residents.

One day in a staff meeting, I had one of the most profound experiences of my life in terms of learning. There were perhaps 10 of us seated around a rectangular table. At either end were two male staff who got into an argument. It became very heated to the point that they both stood and raised their voices to one another. The rest of us sat silently and, as you can imagine, it terrified me. I can’t remember how long this went on – but at one point, the yelling stopped, some accommodation was reached and the two men shook hands across the table. It moved me deeply. I sat stunned as tears ran down my face. And I never forgot it. I saw, with my own eyes, two people have it out with each other. It was ugly at times and uncomfortable as hell. But it was also clear to me that, in the end it needed to happen – it was worth it. And I took one step closer to learning that speaking up and engaging in conflict was not always a bad thing – even if it was difficult.

Not long after that incident, another co-worker and I were scheduled to cook a meal for residents, staff and guests. All total about 40 people. She didn’t show up when it was time to do the preparation…and I was pissed at having to do all the work. When she finally showed up, she apologized and asked me what she could do to make it up to me. I said, “I don’t think you can do anything. I just think I’m going to be mad for awhile.” That was a real turning point for me – to claim my feelings openly and just let them be. And I might say that the co-worker involved is still one of my best friends 30 years later. We often re-count that experience as a turning point in our relationship.

These experiences laid the groundwork for me to learn to be able to embrace my feelings, other people’s feelings, and conflict. As I progressed in my career, I found that I was drawn to working with kids who are likely to get in your face with a “fuck you,” much more so than those that are passive aggressive or take their anger inward. I think that attraction was because I was learning alot from them, all while it looked like I was helping them. And I’m so grateful to those kids and their courage to fight back against the wrongs that were done to them – even if their aim was off-target many times. I’m not sure they would have survived if they didn’t lash out with it somehow.

I know that conflict is often ugly and certainly makes everyone involved, whether as a participant or an observer, uncomfortable. And we’re not usually at our best during those times (to say the least). I also know that I have a long way to go in my journey to understand how all this works and how to do it well. But for anyone who, like me, experienced the heavy hand of silence, I’ll take the openness of conflict any day.  


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  1. I’d love to learn from yours if you’re willing to share.

  2. I still struggle internally with my desire to avoid conflict.  I’m sufficiently good at suppression that most times people can’t even tell that I am furious.  I also find it rare that open and loud conflict helps.  I usually feel much worse for having “let it out” that I do “holding it in.”  Oh, well.  I’ll be reading the comments, looking for help too.

    • Robyn on July 1, 2008 at 19:34

    …it wasn’t necessarily what I would call actively aggressive (except sometimes) and wasn’t really passive aggressive (except mostly).  But there was a lot of sniping…sniper-aggressive, maybe we could call it.

  3. This:

    And I’m so grateful to those kids and their courage to fight back against the wrongs that were done to them – even if their aim was off-target many times.

    I think I can relate to that.

    I have a lot to learn about conflict, especially the resolution part.

    • Alma on July 1, 2008 at 19:53

    real problems with.  Something I really need to work on.

    I have a really hard time entering into disagreements.  I tend to be an “adjuster”.  Try to fix everything and smooth it out, without entering into the fray.  Now that doesn’t mean that I will let someone say something I strongly disagree with, without saying something.  I just say my piece on whatever and then withdraw, or get a few more snipes in, and then withdraw.

    My sister had a book about children of alcoholics several years ago.  I took the “adjuster” position from that.  It had how the kids usually ended up from the position of their birth.  Wish I could remember the title or author, but that memory is long gone.  

    • pico on July 1, 2008 at 19:57

    in my personal life (a possibly severed friendship).  I think I’ll have to write an essay, as well.  Thanks for the prompt – and I think you and I are a lot alike.

  4. The conflicts in my past were open and didn’t always end in a civil handshake & “let’s let bygones be bygones” attitude.  Members of my dad’s family havent spoken to each other in years because of certain things said in the past).  

    I believe that many people who lived in that atmosphere don’t seek out nor welcome prolonged conflict.  A certain amount of conflict is inevitable in life.  However, when a person chooses not to engage, because it’s not just “uncomfotable” it’s damn excruciating–that IMHO should be respected.

  5. it’s going to take too long, and i have to scoot.

    great essay!!  i hope to make it back and leave a ‘response’ comment instead of this nonsense im typing right here 😉

    • WSComn on July 1, 2008 at 23:03

    not feel like each the other is going to walk out forever.  It’s taken a while but we’ve finally reached a point where we respect the other’s opinion regardless as to whether or not we agree with it.  Another way to put it is:  No matter how dumb I think her opinion is, it doesn’t make her dumb as a result.  She’s still damn smart…I just don’t agree with her, is all.  And I don’t feel the least bit shy in telling her that, and why I don’t agree with her opinion.  Trust me, she is no longer shy as well!  Knowing that the argument is not about winning at all costs, which translates to hurting the other person just to win, helps.  It opens up the conversation to ‘interesting’ avenues that we might not otherwise travel down.  There are still bounderies, and we respect them as well.  Some lines should not be crossed.

    I found that when you take the need for a power-win over your ‘opponent’ out of the equation during an argument, it’s amazing who you can end up being friends with…even Republicans!!

    I’ll close my rambling by saying that I think successful waging of conflict, as well as a rewarding resolution of that conflict, has much to do with respect, both for the other ‘combatant’ and for yourself as well.

    I suppose this is one reason why armed conflict fails so miserably at whatever goal it was trying to attain to begin with.  No respect.

  6. rather than the swift slap of violence. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of the silent violence in our family, but there are numerous memories which are crystal clear right up to a certain point, and then…nothing. In our archtypical, hugely dysfunctional family, there was just about every type of conflict, and coping, that one could imagine.

    Speaking from a conflict resolution, and education, point of view, I would not have missed it. As someone that lives life as a lesson, both recieved and given, the conflicts, and resolutions, between my father and I have been character defining and building events. And this education has served me well through the years in my role as a lay-counselor, helping others through their own moments of conflict, helping others resolve conflicts not only with other people but with-in themselves also. Not as an occupation or as volunteer work, just a prediliction that is given voice as the occasion arises.

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