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The Anatomy of Conflict

anatomy of conflict imageConflict in relationships is pretty much unavoidable. But what causes conflict, just a difference of opinion? A whole lot of conflict runs deeper than just disagreeing. Let’s dive into the anatomy of conflict.

Inside Conflict

The main thing to recognize is that in most conflict, each person is really not reacting to the other person, they are each reacting to themselves.

When someone is having a strong emotional response to something, chances are they are responding to a past hurt. So Bob, for example, may say something that reminds Jane of her third grade teacher, and now Jane response is to her third grade teacher, who told her she would never amount to anything, while she is responding to Bob.

From Jane’s perspective, Bob appears to be the problem, but Jane’s reaction is all about what’s going on in Jane. At the same time Jane’s response might be triggering Bob, and Bob thinks Jane is the problem, but Bob’s strong response is all about what’s going on in himself. If Bob didn’t have anything on it, meaning Jane’s reaction didn’t touch on a past hurt that Bob had, Bob wouldn’t react. Instead, he would be thinking, perhaps with compassion, “Wow, Jane’s having a really hard time. I wonder what’s going on with her.”

Handling Conflict

Conflict usually starts with one person having a strong reaction to something. This is a critical point where you can dive headlong into a heated argument, or choose something much more compassionate.

If It’s You

If you are the one with the strong emotional response, a good choice would be to take time out to ask when in your past was it similar to right now. When did you first receive a message that is similar to the one you think you are hearing now? Could this be a reaction to that? If so, maybe it’s not really the other person. Chances are the other person didn’t really say what you just heard.

Depending on your relationship, you might share your past experience and how your current interaction is bringing up this old stuff – not from a place of judgement, but just to share what’s going on.

If It’s Them

If the other person is the one with the strong emotional reaction, it will probably take a really big effort to not just react to it. Take a deep breath and respond with compassion – maybe something like, “What are you feeling and what are you needing right now?”

In the moment, you may not know what the other person is really needing, so a good strategy is to talk ahead of time in a moment of non-conflict and work out a code word or a phrase that will help change the conversation to one of sharing your desires and needs rather than one of blame and judgement. Note the code word sometimes may not work. It’s a process. Have compassion for yourself and the other person.

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