The 5 Elements of MASTERING CONFLICT
What it really takes to transform relationship conflicts (part 2 of a 3 series)
Continuing from the first part of this series — on the THREE SHAPES of CONFLICT, helping you to answer the question,
“What is your style of conflict?”
Did you miss that article and want to know the answer? If so, you can find out here.
Now, it’s time to dive in to the next obviously burning question,
“What can I do to “resolve” my relationship conflicts?”
To answer that in the most deep and satisfying way, we need to grasp what is not obvious to most of us… not all conflicts are the same.
Some are resolvable. Others, are not.
To tease out the differences, lets look at the THREE types of conflicts below…
Conflict Type #1: MISUNDERSTANDINGS
These are conflicts born of profound misunderstanding.
Remember the last time you assumed something about your partner.
ASSUMPTION = making an ASS out of YOU and ME
You got all worked up and ready to nail them to the wall of righteousness. And then, you discovered you were wrong.
Oops. Face palm.
These conflicts are easily resolved if we open ourselves up to it being possible that we may be seeing things inaccurately. If we dare to drop our righteous pride, the window of possibility is cracked just enough to bring in some fresh air and to help us see a greater truth outside.
New information and clarity dissolves these types of conflict quickly once the truth is out. We come to see things in new light and much of our frustration and annoyance evaporates. We also feel foolish about the error in our previous assumptions.
Conflict Type #2: CORE WOUNDS
These conflicts are much deeper. They are born of deep seated wounds (what some call trauma) that stay trapped in our bodies, held there through unconscious fears.
You may think, “Oh not me. I’m a pretty well adjusted and relaxed person.”
Let’s talk to your partner then. Or if the bond is still new and you are in the honeymoon phase, how about your ex?
Still not sure?
There are some pretty universal wounds, like these from my Top 5 list:
- Fear of being smothered and trapped.
- Fear of losing your loved ones to death or abandonment.
- Fear of betrayal.
- Fear of rejection.
- Fear of not being good enough.
Ugh. Right. You got at least one of those. And so does your partner.
Some people believe we even carry over these from life times ago (past lives). Science is actually beginning to confirm what we know — that the effects of the bad shit that happened to our ancestors is passed on to us in our genes (see illuminating article here).
Whether some of it is genetic, there is plenty of suffering we all experience in this life alone to give us painful issues to work through.
In case you need a nudge to screw up the courage to face your deepest fears, and finally get help to treat your trauma, learning to heal your core wounds, here’s an observation from a few thousand years ago:
“If you bring forth that which is within you, Then that which is within you Will be your salvation. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, Then that which is within you Will destroy you. “
— THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS
The stakes are high relationship wise. If we don’t learn to heal and transform negative emotions driving our conflicts, we risk destroying the love we’ve been graced to find so far.
Conflict Type #3: TEMPERAMENTAL DIFFERENCES
These are different from core wounds. They are innate differences that seem to be irreconcilable.
Example: When I ask my wife about something, I like to get the gist summary in response. She seeks details and context. When either of us give the other what we want, instead of what they need, we experience frustration. A mismatch of communication and unmet expectations.
The problem seems to be that we are sooo different, yet the conflict is not really about the difference. There is no need to be changing yourself or your partner. The pain and suffering comes from how we are relating to the differences. The way we are stubbornly refusing to accept these differences is the root of the conflict and what needs to change.
Once we learn to understand ad even appreciate the ways we are fundamentally wired differently, these differences can actually enrich our relationship — making us stronger as a team. Being with someone who is different can also help us grow personally as our partner can be a mirror to help us learn about our own strengths and weaknesses.
Now that we get the different types of conflicts, lets clearly define what we effectively can and cannot do with them.
Here are three ways of approaching conflicts that don’t entirely suck:
Approach #1: Trying to MANAGE conflicts
Managing conflicts is all about better coping and living with conflict.
It’s a tonne better than what most people do which is either: denial (there is no problem), avoidance (I can’t handle this shit! Bye!) or constant confrontation (I will make you see you are wrong and I am right!).
Notice I wrote “trying” to manage conflict in the title above. In my experience working with families for 11 years and all kinds of people for 20, trying to “manage” conflict can often become like trying to “control” the weather. All we can do is see the signs and be ready with the right gear to weather the storms. Anything more seems delusional and leads us to feel frustrated and eventually powerless.
So, managing is ok if the idea is to ride out the bad times. Maybe even developing some grace and a que sera sera (what will be will be) attitude ain’t so bad.
I’d call this the level 1 of not so bad ways to approach conflict. It doesn’t take you very far, but it’s a huge improvement on what most folks can and will do.
If you want to go much further, keep reading…
Approach #2: Aiming to RESOLVE conflicts
Resolving conflicts is about trying to get to the cause and make things better, coming from a desire for peace and harmony.
Caveat: Aiming to resolve something — anything — is somewhat fraught.
For one, it sets you up to struggle with the thing you wish to resolve: conflict. So, now instead of simply fighting with your partner (which sucks) you are also struggling with try to stop fighting and resolve the apparent cause of your fights.
Think about the perils…
What if you mis-read the cause?
That’s where the 3 types of conflict (above) give you some insights as to how you can avoid this pitfall. But then…
What if you invest a lot of hope, money and energy in trying to resolve something that can not actually be resolved. Doesn’t that even make it worse?
Right? It begs the deeper question…
Is anything really able to be fully resolved?
Life does not come packaged with a red bow.
No good story is without conflict.
And no good story ever really ends… Even horror movies — especially those — where the evil monster is killed, always remind us… Dum… Dum… Dum… that the evil lurks near (often within) and always comes back in some way.
The deeper insight here is that we are not really able to get rid of conflict. Even when it is banished or suppressed, it comes back!
So what can we do if not resolve conflicts?
Lots actually! We can dissolve fears. We can stop acting out harmful patterns of arguing stupidly with our partner. We can also learn to drop criticism and blame. There is a lot more we can do (see the 5 elements below )to make our conflicts lead to deeper connection and growth.
But, lets leave the unrealistic hope of resolution to someone who wants to spend a lot of energy in trying to make bad feelings go away and escape conflicts.
Since you are still here, reading further down, I suspect you are looking for deeper answers.
Path #3: Training to MASTER conflicts
Training to master conflicts is entirely different from trying to manage them or resolve them.
First, the framework of training to master itself is never ending. We are always growing and learning and getting better. There is no end point to mastery — especially when it comes to relationships and conflict. Both are endlessly complex and ever challenging.
Second, the expectations are grounded and attainable.
What are we training in?
The mastery of conflict, by which I mean:
- An accurate way to analyze and understand complex relationships and conflicts.
- Concrete strategies and actions to become more skillful in responding to brewing tension and disagreement.
Is this something we can study and learn somewhere?
Yes. More on where we can do that in part 3 of this series.
Can we get better at mastering conflicts with guidance and practice over time?
Certainly! In fact, you don’t need a gym membership or to rent out a space for this training.
Your relationship is the “dojo” = the place of training and enlightenment.
The only question left is…
Do YOU want to learn to MASTER conflicts?
Below this point there is no advice on managing, coping or trying to resolve the unresolvable. Instead, lets dive in to answer…
So, how do we actually MASTER CONFLICT?
Glad you finally asked.
You already know that learning to master conflict is an essential skill critical to the survival of any relationship. It’s vital to soldiers banding together in a fox hole to survive a war. It is critical to whether families grow stronger or fall apart.
But, what you don’t know is that mastering conflict is not just about ONE thing, like many experts want you to believe.
What most Relationship “Experts” don’t tell you and you need to know…
To stand out in the marketplace, most experts position themselves and their work as having the potential to quickly fix your relationship struggle with a singular approach. This is very appealing and seductive, especially if you’ve been fighting for a while and are desperate for relief.
The pitfall here is spend a lot of time, money and scarce hope only to discover that your ongoing conflicts are deeper, more messy and persistent than you were told.
To avoid failing at conflicts further, BEWARE of seductive silver bullets and if only’s such as:
- …I read that relationship book.
- …I go to therapy for once!
- …I learn this one skill.
- …I stop doing this one thing.
- … I heal this one issue!
- …We start having sex again!
…Then, everything will change!
Breakthroughs in each of those areas are possible, and can be wonderful, but one shot wonders don’t go deep enough and they do not keep the momentum going.
The Good news — to avoid taking a narrow approach to conflict, and to start training in the art of mastering conflict, you just need to become competent — good enough — in these five areas, which I call…
The 5 Elements of MASTERING CONFLICT:
Each of them is doable and will seem familiar once you read them. All together, they give you a deeper and more complete approach to transforming your conflicts.
~ KNOW THYSELF and THY PARTNER
This first element of conflict is all about asking the right questions and being a seeker of knowledge and truth. Sometimes you need to be a detective, but often there are many clues as you seek answers to these 3 key questions:
Why are we fighting in the first place?
This question can evoke shame and blame — example: because I suck — but what you are looking for is what needs are not being met. For me, about half the time I am fighting with my wife because I am lacking a sense of freedom and space. Knowing that about myself is often half the journey to getting my needs met without continuing to fight!
What are we each doing to sabotage the love?
Let yourself be brutally honest with this one. Forget about nailing your partner for what they are doing. It’s enough to take note. More powerful is for you to own your own sabotaging pattern. Knowing that I would become a Lone Wolf, pulling away from my wife, was a game changer for me learning to stay connected and present.
What do we need to start to feel better together?
This question is also deceptively simple yet powerful. Often the answers come to me through my felt sense (emotions from my heart and other bodily sensations). Last time I fought with my wife, the answer was to step towards her and hug her. We both needed contact. I needed to show up in my body and let my anger flow through me. She needed reassurance. The answer was simple and it worked.
~ SKILLS to RESOLVE CONFLICT
The fire element is all about WHAT TO DO when the shit hits the fan. HOW to respond in ways that help transform the situation and dynamics quickly, helping you both more away from further hostility and towards greater harmony and understanding.
There are 4 skills in the fire element that every one of us need to know and get better at.
They are so essential and “kindergarten-ish”, yet we did not learn them in school or anywhere else. So, I guess that makes us developmentally stunted. All the more reason to catch up!
Here they are:
1. De-escalate a heated exchange?
2. Disarm the criticism and blame (in self and partner)?
3. Get your power and freedom back when you feel threatened and defeated?
4. Quickly repair the hurt emotions and shift into positive ones?
Learning these skills is a game changer for most people I work with.
~ EMOTIONAL HEALING
Skills and knowledge are great, but not quite enough when we lose our minds and get flooded with negative emotions (like hurt, fear, rage).
In a hyper aroused state, our emotions become the boss, making us their slave. They over ride our best intentions and revert us back to our primitive survival responses (think back to the immature version of your conflict shape in part 1).
The water element is all about the inner skill set of how do I let go of certain emotions that I know are hurting my relationship?
But, trying to let go, as you may have found, is a double edge sword. The attempt to distance ourselves from our “bad” emotions can become a way of emotionally bypassing — or floating above the fray — as a way to try and escape conflict and personal accountability (which only triggers our partner’s insecurities more). Or, trying to let go, can actually make the feeling grow stronger, leading us to feel a sense of failure and frustration.
To actually shift out of negative emotions, we need to do something paradoxical.
We need to dive in deeper into those emotions and embrace them more fully.
Doing so in a way that does not flood us and keep us stuck is the art and science of emotional healing.
Once you learn how to transform negative emotions more easily and quickly, the game gets even more exciting as you discover how to create positive emotions with your partner, like the LOVE, the JOY and PASSION you seemed to have previously lost.
~ HABITS for NURTURING the relationship
The earth element is often forgotten by experts who promise breakthroughs and big results quickly.
But, relationships are more like gardens than need constant attention and care, rather than walls that need breaking through.
Instilling micro habits and simple rituals (something you know to do and do it without thinking) into moments of conflict is another essential key and an under-estimated game changer.
Imagine not having to re-invent the wheel each time you and your partner fight. You both know what to do in the worst moments. And you are ready to make adjustments after the heat of battle, where the next steps are so critical.
Just like how we have set grooves for conflict increasing behaviour like snarky comments, eye rolls and implying blame, we can develop new habits that start to take over like:
- Using deep knowledge as shorthand to avert and prevent conflicts in ways that address the root cause.
- Prior agreements that cut conflict time down from hours to minutes and seconds.
- Rituals that help you sooth and process after tensions have flared and hurt feelings have been triggered.
This element is distinct from all the others — knowledge, skill, healing or habits — but also essential to mastering conflicts. It involves discernment.
Knowing whether to stay in the fire or step out and cool down together.
Deciding when to set a boundary with your partner and when to open your arms and just let them spew it all out (even when it is messy and critical).
Evaluating clearly and wisely if and who to trust as a third person with knowledge of your most intimate dance of conflict.
This metal element is also needed to discern the ultimate question: to stay or go? And doing so not just in reaction! Discerning when and how to either commit more deeply and fully to our relationships or to bow out as gracefully, respectfully and lovingly as possible.
How does this hit home for you?
As you read above, did you come to see any of the 5 elements that stand out as potentially powerful for you to engage with?
Looking at conflicts and relationships in this holistic way has helped me to identify my own strengths and my blind spots.
My strengths have always been to engage with air (knowledge) and water (healing). I was always prone and good at analyzing the dynamics (though not as effectively and clearly as I can now) and in licking my own wounds after a fight.
But, I wasn’t good in the moments of confrontation (fire), not aware of or committed to making longer term changes (earth). I would also struggle with discerning what to do next (metal) as I often felt like leaving the relationship when the conflicts increased.
When I finally put all these pieces together and stared training in every one of the 5 elements, I saw my conflicts becoming quicker and easier to navigate. Even better, I started to feel pride in how I was getting better and to actually enjoy the ways that my relationships started to deepen and become far more satisfying.
How to take this new awareness further than insight…
Now, you may be left wondering…
WHERE does one go to study and master the art of transforming conflicts?
The answers to this great question lay in part 3 of this series on Mastering Intimate Conflicts. There are a lot of couples therapists and relationship coaches out there waiting to hear from you. There are also a few powerful places you would not expect but which teach and train in one or more of the 5 elements.
If you feel ready to start looking for a place to train to mastery intimate conflicts, see part 3 → To be released on Dec. 10, 2018
While you wait, you can go back and read part 1 — The 3 Shapes of Conflict→ here on Medium
Also, any comments, questions, or links to related works are encouraged below.
I am here to not only share valuable info I find life changing, but to also engage with my readers in deep and rich conversations.