(~14 minute read)
Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it. ~Mahatma Gandhi
It’s easy to mistake the surface of an interpersonal conflict for the whole challenge. But that misses the opportunity to learn by exploring what is happening inside us. My guiding principle for most things is maximizing the greatest opportunities for learning and growth.
We’ll use some practical examples to help illustrate.
I have a friend/client Ms. Y, who is in a moment of struggle in a professional partnership.
It started off rosy. They have complementary skills. And Ms. Y also felt her partner was nurturing and warm at first. She felt a sense of promise and optimism.
Yet as it unfolded, things took a marked turn for the worse. Ms. Y shared her account of events:
- The partner began to treat her more like an employee than a partner.
- She made important decisions without talking to Ms. Y.
- She would not respond to crucial messages about the direction of shared projects.
- She flirted with prominent client contacts.
- She neglected to see the value and talents that Ms. Y was bringing to the table. She one-upped Ms. Y in front of client groups.
- She refused feedback about pricing.
- She had a negative attitude and spoke badly about many people in her life.
In sum, her partner’s professionalism came into question. Communication and trust deteriorated.
So we dove into the challenge together. Here’s how we approached it, with further elaboration. I realized it’s a framework that can help others.
I’ll set aside Ms. Y’s situation for now. We’ll dive into other references as relevant to help expand our comprehension. These include everything from Bart Simpson to Sigmund Freud. At the end of the post, there are some other resources for further exploration.
II. The Five Levels
There may be many angles and levels to any specific challenge we deal with. These 5 levels offer a framework to navigate from the best in yourself. As always, I aim to provide texture for self-reflection, not substitute for self-reflection with a mechanical how-to. You'll learn from the situation about yourself and your mindset.
The levels work interdependently. They help us decide the best course of action in response to the present challenge. This is a deep investigation that will not suit everyone. I write this for people interested in or committed to a path of knowing themselves. #selfknowledge #mindfulness
A. Level 1
Here we begin to investigate the circumstances more closely.
- What is the sequence of events that led to this moment?
- What are my complaints?
- What are the issues?
- What makes this situation challenging?
This is the most basic level. It gives us a foundation. Sometimes we don't even ask ourselves these basic level 1 questions. By pausing and reflecting with the basics, we already move out of a reactive mindset.
Here we try to see the circumstances with greater clarity. We do the following:
- make sure we can articulate the challenge to ourselves.
- take a look at the trajectory of the situation or relationship and how it has unfolded over time.
- start to unjumble it in our minds to get a basic understanding of what is going on.
- we distinguish between complaints and issues. Complaints are subjective and issues are objective. By subjective, I mean applying personal interpretation. By objective, I mean focus on observable concrete facts.
Greater objectivity and self-responsibility are major drivers of this framework. We will work through this framework from the premise that we can't transform others. We all know blame is a distraction. But sometimes we don't even notice blame is motivating us in moments of challenge. When we ask ourselves the right questions, we can overcome blame and take greater responsibility. We increase our effectiveness and satisfaction.
B. Level 2
Take an additional step in distinguishing subjective interpretation and objective facts. We also begin to acknowledge how our triggers may be influencing the situation.
- What are the facts of the situation?
- What are MY judgments/assumptions/interpretations/emotional responses?
- What specifically am I frustrated by?
- Which of my old, familiar buttons are getting pushed?
We look at what is happening factually. How might my judgments and emotional responses be coloring the situation? When we make the distinction between interpretation and fact more clearly, we begin to create space to express the best of ourselves.
Useful Reference to Deepen Understanding:
A simple exercise to understand this phenomenon from Getting Real by Susan Campbell:
“Think of something that someone did or said that displeased you. Be specific about what was done or said. Now reflect back on the meaning or interpretation you attributed to that behavior.
There is the event, and then there is the narrative around the story. Which is real and what is happening inside your mind?
Continuing, with her example to illustrate:
I recall a recent interchange between two friends of mine. Marilyn asked Murray to go to a social gathering with her. When he said he didn’t want to go, she asked him about going to a different event in hopes that this second one might appeal to him more. What she actually said was, Do you want to go to the Page’s for dinner tonight?” and then, after he refused, “Well, how about the apple pressing party at Charlie’s?” What he heard was “You’re not a good partner. You don’t like to go places with me.” And so they got into a fight about whether she was judging him as being a lousy partner. Obviously one of Murray’s button’s got pushed.”
Yes this is a clear example where Murray, like many of us so frequently, distorted the actual facts. He attributed an intention to Marilyn based on his subjective predisposition.
Because it takes two to tango, never just one, Murray’s trigger in turn activated Marilyn’s trigger. Fighting or arguing is different than working through differences. The spirit of cooperation is lost and a negative emotional charge is present. It means both parties are stuck in a loop of reactivity. My guess is they have had variations of that fight more than once. We'll see how underlying structural dynamics look in level 3.
Buttons/triggers are where our thoughts and emotions are most deceptive. They are familiar situations or behaviors which activate negative emotional responses in us. The temptation to feel indignant or annoyed seems incredibly justified.
We are already one step ahead when we notice that a negative situation somehow feels familiar. We’ve fallen in the same hole again. We remember its nooks and crannies. Our behavior connects to some habitual, defensive reaction we have. Something tempting, deceptive, and old. If we acknowledge our buttons are being pushed, then we can take a moment to breathe and get a better grip.
- Subjective Perception:
Interpersonal conflicts always somehow include our buttons/triggers. The effect of a trigger is that our judgment and emotional response blend with the facts. This creates a distorted subjective perception of what is actually happening. Yet we have no reference that this is happening. Our perception seems like reality. It is the reality of our experience. Yet it's different from what is actually happening. Subjective perception is seeing reality through a colored lens.
So it takes a lot of good will to see that what we are seeing may not be THE reality.
- The 1% Practice:
A helpful practice here is the 1% practice. Even if I have full conviction in my view of events, what happens if I allow for the 1% possibility I am somehow mistaken? Might it just be an old pattern? Is this person really disrespecting me? Does this 1% practice (of humility) allow me to show up in a better way? There is wisdom in uncertainty.
We have an added clue when we notice ourselves being reactive, not responsive. Are we able to say what we say without negative emotional charge? Are we able to communicate with calm?
- Lizard Brain:
If not, our ability to relate from our best is likely compromised. We may be coming more from our lizard brain. The lizard brain is the less evolved, fight-or-flight parts of ourselves. Most of us would prefer to come from our higher capacities of reason, wisdom, and compassion.
Taking this step in level 2, gives us the chance to see where our own interpretations are getting in the way. It’s not just the other person. That blaming narrative doesn’t suit us on our path of growth.
And while we work through the specific conflict, it behooves us to use this as study material for future reference as well. We can allow ourselves to be in a learning process of comprehending and transforming these old defensive habits.
It can hurt our pride as we become more aware of our habit. But we can choose to remember the awareness is already an expansion. The pattern was there just as much when we were unconscious of it.
This leads us to level 3.
C. Level 3
Expand awareness of the overall conflict dynamic.
- How am I contributing to this situation?
- If I place myself in the other’s shoes, how might they see it?
- What are their intentions and objectives?
- What else might I not be seeing here?
Here, we remember again it takes two to tango. And we focus on what is in OUR control rather than on the other person.
We don’t usually think of empathy this way, but here goes.
If I were the other person, I wouldn’t do differently. I’d do the exact same thing they did, because I would BE the other person.
Most of us would rather not judge. We know it usually reinforces our own self-righteousness. But sometimes we can't help it. Yet, the judgment can disappear when we make the effort to practice empathy. Empathy doesn't just happen. We need to invest in it and choose it over and over again. We need to look at the patterns that get in the way of empathy, not fight them or deceive ourselves. This means the challenge is to try to get a little bit closer to how they see things.
Useful Reference to Deepen Understanding:
Diana McClain Smith offers a wonderful framework for understanding the relational dynamic that happens in a conflict situation.
Here’s the framework as I've captured from her powerful book Elephant in the Room:
Here's another example from work I did with a client to show an example of how it might function with actual facts, using teams instead of individuals.
It's a vicious cycle, a kind of chicken-and-egg issue.
Here’s a summary of the framework, paraphrased from her work:
I am aware of my intentions and the situation as I perceive it. I am less aware of how I actually act, in an objective sense. (i.e. - A video recording of ourselves often makes us uncomfortable.) I also don’t know my impact on you.
But I do see the things in your behavior that make it difficult to achieve my objectives. I see clearly how you act. I feel your impact on me.
But I don’t see your intentions or how you see the situation. I might make assumptions here, but I am often wrong.
The upshot is, again paraphrasing:
I can see your actions, your impact on me, how I feel constrained by you, and what I’m trying to accomplish.
I can’t see my own actions, my impact on you, your objectives, and how you feel constrained by me.
Moreover, I have my own subjective perceptions. ALSO, I mistake the impact you have on me for the intention you had. An example she gives is: I feel condescended to. Therefore you intended to condescend to me. (Whoa, that one sounds familiar! Little burn marks on my arm there.) Also, Murray also mistook impact for intention in the previous Level 2 example.
I tend then to not see how my actions actually encourage the very behaviors that I find problematic. We then tend to slip into blame, and self-victimization by not seeing only our side of the system.
(This gets at the root of conflict situations the world over, including Trump and Kim Jong-un.)
Here the old adage, “There’s two sides to any story” takes on whole new meaning, richness, and texture.
This image gives us a hint why it’s so easy to sympathize with a friend when they tell us a conflict they are dealing with. We are only seeing one side of the picture, and often the other person does in fact look like a jerk through that lens. But we don't know the whole story.
How much more so when it applies to us. We often don't see that part of how the other is relating to us is because of the way we are showing up. We think it's purely about them.
This framework is a POWERFUL way to gain insight into our conflicts. It’s great for self-study. It's even better outside of a conflict situation. Then you can examine underlying structural dynamics of negative patterns together.
D. Level 4:
Dig deeper to connect elements of your story to the dynamics of the conflict. We look to understand the negative repeating patterns in our lives.
While we begin to examine self-responsibility in levels 2 and 3, we deepen here in level 4. We focus directly on the opportunity for learning and growth we have given ourselves in this situation.
- What is the best way I can interpret and relate to this situation?
- What in me might actually benefit from this conflict?
- If I saw myself as deeply responsible for everything that happens in my life, and that everything is in some way supportive of my growth, then what meaning do I choose to give to this situation?
To understand this Level, we need to review and deepen some interpretations of self-responsibility. We will also need to draw on more references here to grasp the depth of this level.
Useful Reference #1 to Deepen Understanding:
In 5 rungs, I mentioned the following.
Rung 4, Unconditional Self-responsibility, included:
After 30 years of failure after failure, a failing body, and a disappointed father, William James was depressed. He was on the brink of suicide.
He chose to conduct an experiment. For one year, he would believe he was 100% responsible for everything that showed up in his life. This choice and what he learned in that first year is what formed the foundation for the rest of his life. It led him to become one of the most famous philosophers and psychologists in American history.
When I choose to take responsibility for absolutely EVERYTHING, then my life isn't about luck or chance anymore. This situation is here, I am responsible, and I am going to do the best I possibly can given the circumstances.
What is objectively true in life is nearly impossible for us to determine. Any number of people can see a given situation, not to mention life itself, very differently. William James and countless others have shown us that it is powerful and empowering to take unconditional responsibility for ourselves. We make this choice because of the practical benefit. We work out for ourselves what leads us to live better, more meaningful lives rather than relying on the dogma of anyone else.
And Rung 5, included:
“Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” ~Rumi
Everything that happens to me is favorable, comes for my highest good, if I am willing to practice seeing things that way--even the traditionally "bad" stuff.
“My friend ended up renting his house to someone else after all and I won't be able to get the rent-free and luxurious stay in Maui. Ok, well it's hard to imagine how paying rent and getting a smaller place is more desirable from my vantage point now. But what are all the possibilities of why something else might be better for me in the long run? What if a roommate becomes a lifelong friend? What if I am in the right place at the right time for something important because I was coming from a specific location that I wouldn't have been otherwise? Simple readily believable possibilities.”
The same type of thinking can go for missing a flight. Or anything we think of as "bad".
Also, what about people who got stuck in traffic on the way to the World Trade Center on 9/11?
And aside from this, what if the occurrences that are truly challenging grant us strength, resolve, and wisdom?
Things will work out in a way in which my greater needs are served. Life is full of unpredictability. I can't possibly know all outcomes that will arise from this occurrence. I choose to believe that life is always friendly, even if my short-term outlook is skeptical.
Independent of belief systems, these are simple, practical ways to relate to life. They are empowering stances. Applying these to the conflict situation, we move past negative interpretations, embrace unconditional responsibility and even see that this situation is in our favor. (Really!) Something in us stands to benefit from this.
What in us calls for this situation? How might we actually be deeply self-responsible for this?
Let's remembering our work in Level 2. Buttons pushed means subjective interpretation. It stands to reason that this pattern originated somewhere.
Here’s a few helpful references to support our understanding of this.
Let’s start with the humorous.
Useful Reference #2 to Deepen Understanding, credit to itmindfulnessmovement:
Useful Reference #3 to Deepen Understanding:
Moving on from there, Freud coined the term Repetition Compulsion. Here’s what he said about it:
“The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, and what he cannot remember may be precisely the essential part of it. He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of remembering it as something in the past.”
He’s giving us a strong clue to why we repeat negative patterns. The key lies in our unconscious mental content and hidden childhood memories. Many of us don’t want to go back there. But it holds the keys to many of the biggest difficulties in our lives, especially our conflict situations.
Useful Reference #4 to Deepen Understanding:
Offering a little further interpretation, Stephen Diamond from Psychology Today says about it:
A repetition compulsion is a neurotic defense mechanism. Here's how it works: The repetition compulsion is an attempt to rewrite history. The history we try to rewrite is typically the troubled relationship with our parents…
Naturally, no parents are perfect, and so we all go through this in one way or another. [emphasis added] Just as our parents did.
Christine Langley Obaugh adds, “We repeat what we do not repair.”
Some people might find it hard to believe that this is a psychological law of human existence. Some have an aversion to opening up the book of their childhood. I understand that. It depends on how well we want to know ourselves and get at the root causes of our difficult repeating patterns.
This law is true in my experience, my research, and of others I know on a path of wisdom and compassion. Nature has geared us towards growth, especially through challenging situations. Karma can also be thought of in these terms. It comes around and around again, until we decide to face the situation in a healthier way and learn from it. It is a debt of learning, not of punishment.
Working to deeply comprehend our own patterns is a crucial tool of self-development. Diving into our own stories and mindsets is a part of being serious about true forms of growth and learning. We continuously move from intellectual knowledge towards embodied wisdom as comprehension deepens.
Our own negative patterns call out for resolution in the very act of their repetition. One of my mindfulness clients recently told me about an adjustment he made. He went from being a yeller and constantly suffering a pain in his gut to becoming a more understanding boss. The subjective perception of disrespect where it wasn't played a role in his story. The repetition finally caught his attention. We integrate something outdated in the personality with this kind of change. And we become more skillful, pleasant, and more content.
Change requires our awareness, goodwill, effort, and patience. The reward is worth it. As we become more skillful, situations which used to bother us become more manageable. We show up more as our better selves. His body gave him a clue, a strong incentive to change this repeating pattern. This example is very obvious. Sometimes the patterns can be much more subtle and hard to detect of course.
E. Level 5
Who am I relative to this situation?
Once you have studied the situation through the other four levels, you make a conscious decision. There’s some delicate balancing to do.
If you end the partnership, it could be that you unconsciously repeat the situation again. It could also be that you have learned and understood enough to try something new and different. If you feel fearful about any aspect of it, how much courage can you muster? And if the fear is too strong, can you let yourself make a gentle decision without harsh self-criticism?
If you decide to communicate with the other, can you do it without implicit blame? And can you do it as an act of self-expression bringing honesty, self-responsibility and kindness? Are you willing to accept that you have no control or say over how they choose to react? Can you allow them to not like you if necessary?
In Ms. Y’s case, she decided she wanted to end the partnership. She also decided not to side-step communicating about it. She decided to challenge herself. She would use her formidable communication talents to share why she was ending the partnership. She decided to accept she could not control how distasteful the partner might choose to be. She also accepted the price that the partner might even gossip about her. She was willing see her own character and integrity to be more important. It was awesome to be a witness and support in her working through to that decision.
Useful Reference to Deepen Understanding:
I repeat from Anatomy of a Good, Tough Decision:
Deciding who you choose to be relative to this particular situation is an act of self-creation. It’s an act of declaration to yourself, to others, to life, to the universe. Its best when it comes from the inside out.
There’s not a right or wrong answer. There’s your choice and your freedom. And whether it goes well or not, and which road you choose, there’s the question of which experiment feels more valuable to you. What furthers your learning and growth most?
I see Learning and Growth as a lifelong process, especially for those of us on a path of personal spiritual development. Human relationships are a great vehicle for mirroring back to us our blindspots. Practical spirituality happens in relationship. Commitment to our path entails soaking up opportunities to learn and grow for all they are worth.
Our egos can find a lifelong process insulting. It demands to be somewhere already. Lack of acceptance and lack of humility keep us from enjoying the present moment. Health of relationship to our own imperfection makes a great impact on the passage of our lives.
Parker Palmer, a respected elder, once said,
We arrive in this world with birthright gifts—then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.
We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then—if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss—we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.
Sometimes you don’t know how great life truly can be until you are there.
PS- Additional Resources include:
- Ted: Ladder of Inference Video (Go a bit deeper into breaking down objective fact vs subjective interpretation in this fun, short, informative video)
- Elephant in the Room, by Diana McClain Smith
- Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton
- Just Listen, by Mark Goulston
- Getting Real, by Susan Campbell
- Byron Katie’s Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet (Use further practical guidance to understand the situation and take greater self-responsibility.)