Why we struggle with conflict

Most leaders laud norms of moral courage, speaking truth to power, and a variety of other forms of “telling it like it is.” Most also, if they're really honest, will confess that such norms are sometimes more aspirational than actualized.

Why? Because acting on these norms with assertiveness is not without practical, emotional, and social risks. Even quite confident and assertive persons, if they have a modicum of emotional intelligence, will act cautiously, even hesitantly, in situations of emotionally-charged conflict. They’ll seek to mitigate these risks.

It's not so easy

I have been a consulting psychologist for over 20 years. Before that, I had extensive experience in clinical settings with individuals, couples, and families. And across the hundreds of clients that I have worked with, most cases involved themes of conflict and hopes of coping more effectively with conflict. It’s fair to say that most of us struggle to some degree, at least in certain situations and relationships, with acute levels of discomfort when facing conflict – let’s call it inhibition, even fear.  

One reason for this struggle is that we’re “wired” to be relational creatures. We want to be loved, cared about and cared for, even if we're not so comfortable expressing these needs explicitly. So, conflict that puts valued relationships at risk can feel threatening.

To complicate things further, some of the inhibitions we feel in interpersonally tense moments actually reflect positive, prosocial sensitivities and aspects personality. It is both functional and appropriate to be concerned that our actions not hurt or alienate others. So, dealing with conflict, let alone mastering it, is neither quite so simple nor quite so easy as are readiness to talk about dealing with issues head-on!

We form natural patterns of approach/avoidance. Sometimes these habits of mind and social emotion are helpful and appropriate. Other times they may err in being either too excitedly reactive or too excitedly avoidant. These extremes reveal a brittleness often governed by fear. Both the too-much and too-little paths lack a moderation we acquire from fully conscious awareness, rational appraisal, and from mature judgment. 

What does good look like then?

Let’s begin with emphasizing that our emotions are vital, immediate, and often very telling sources of data. The lower brain (limbic system) processes affective experience, i.e., immediate felt impressions, twice as fast as our upper brain (prefrontal cortex), which contributes reflective, rational thought. So, what “good” looks like in processing felt reactions to perceived fear and threat is the capacity to first notice these sensations and feelings, recognizing them as data - a metacognitive state of mind. 

This attitude is less one of automatic and declarative rational processing, and more one of curiosity and openness. In involves dialectical interaction between prefrontal cortex and limbic system . The upper brain can be governed by patterns of interpretation and attribution of meaning that are habitual, or it can be trained to prompt reflection, declare moments of “not knowing.” This a virtuous ignorance.

In these moments we recognize the need to ask, “what am I feeling, and what’s this about?” This is a mode of metacognition. It’s a self-directed intervention. It involves problematizing felt reactions, making their meaning a matter of explicit, critical inquiry.

This good or virtuous mode of responding to our emotional experience is called for when the experience in questions has become a source of frustration or a trigger of ineffective reactivity. As metacognition, it is being called out as a situation-specific exception, a situation in which we cannot afford to indulge our action biases.

Such biases are guided by habitual patterns of thought, interpretation, and action. These ways of functioning are usually reliable - that's why they've become habits - but they are not unerringly so. Tagging certain emotional experiences as exceptions helps us notice them, self-monitor in the situation, inhibit immediate reactions, prompt reflection, and gain freedom to choose how we wish to respond.   

It causes us to treat our emotional experience as a valuable source of data and meaning. It's an act of restraint, holding back. And as we make use of this intervention, we come to see restraint as a powerful kind of action in its own right. We recognize it as creating time and space (literally creating lived time and space for reflection). When it registers in that way, reflective restraint becomes an attractive, go-to modality of functioning. 

How to get started

We all form patterned (habitual) ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others. They’re largely shaped by early life experience in our family of origin and social-cultural context. Then, as we enter the larger world, broaden our affiliations, complete our education, and enter the adult world of work and family, our role-taking presents us with new requirements for adaptively functioning. They often imply different ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. 

As indicated, reflection is a critical resource in navigating these moments of adaptive change. But the leading thread of change could stem from and be motivated by: 1) insight (fresh perspectives, ways of thinking); 2) emotion (a significant instance of emotional meaning); or 3) action (new or novel options for action). Some combination of all these factors inevitably characterize viable change, but we may each be activated by one factor more than another as a "hook" based on our personality.

In any case, no matter what get's you started, action and risk-taking will be required. We must face the difficult conflict situation, and we must initiate action in a noticeably different way. After repeated trials of initiating a changed course of action, we become more competent, confident, and capable of dealing with conflict. Felt levels of struggle becomes less daunting, our confidence and competence grows, and we are able to generalize these capacities to handle more situations with greater ease.   

I hope this analysis of the experience of conflict and how we acquire greater freedom to self-manage our response to conflict helps you recognize your personal opportunities to grow in this regard.