Once, when I was talking about conflict management in an interpersonal communication class I used to teach, one student said that if he ever had a conflict with his girlfriend of the moment, they would just break up because disagreeing indicated they weren’t meant to be together. Another young man said that when he and his girlfriend argued, he would just leave and then, when he came back, it was all resolved. Obviously these are the relationship skills of 19-year-old young men, but I don’t know that many of us have particularly better tools that we use on a regular basis. What I’m very clear about now that I’m as old as I am is that most of us have little experience successfully walking through a conflict with someone we care about and surviving it unscathed.
In my family growing up, if my mom was angry at any one of us she just refused to speak to the offender. After the target of her silence had enough of this treatment, he or she would apologize (even if they hadn't done anything) and then things were back to normal. My father was almost always just quiet, whether he was angry or not. My point here is that, at least in my family, there wasn’t a lot of training on how to handle conflict or disagreement. If this was even vaguely similar to other people’s family dynamic, it’s no wonder that most of us avoid conflict whenever we can. And yet, it’s there, whether we like it or not.
When I was young, the idea of compromising was akin to
But now that I’m out of my family, a grown-up in my own right, I realize that these disagreements are really what life is all about. It’s me seeing the world in my way and the people with whom I’m engaged seeing it in theirs. Often times it’s the result of a perceived shortage of resources—not enough money, energy, or love to go around. Other times, it’s just stubbornness that makes us hold tight to something we believe. And, even if we don’t think of it this way, it’s negotiating or compromising that brings us to some kind of manageable point. When I was young, the idea of compromising was akin to giving in. If I agreed that someone was making a pretty good point, I somehow felt like my point was wrong.
Probably my strongest feeling at this point in my life is that of gratitude—for so many things. But primary among those parts of my life for which I feel thankful is the knowledge that things aren’t nearly as clear-cut as I used to think they were or had to be. I get it now that I can be right and you can be right, too. In large part I’ve learned this from being with Jodi, the most self-contained human on earth. She can listen and hear me and, even if we have a scuffle getting to a point of understanding, we get there because we both want to get there.
Being with a person whose ego is safely in place and who doesn’t feel the need to win has given me the chance to practice being more open. It’s allowed me to relax and hear how someone else sees things and to realize the world doesn’t come to an end if I let both ideas exist simultaneously. If it’s something about which we actually have to choose one or the other, we almost always come up with a third option, a nice mix of each of our desires. And, I’ve learned that if the other person is telling the truth and playing fairly—as Jodi always is—it’s actually possible to realize that I don’t need my notion of things to be the way it is.
I know there is a right and wrong when it comes to certain subjects, but most of our lives are much greyer than that. Being able to slow down and walk through each side of whatever dispute is at hand has opened my world and my brain more than practically anything else. It’s deal-making at its finest. I will listen to you and hear what you need and you will do the same for me. And then, as a team, we will figure out a way to get as much as we can of what both people need. We’re on the same side this way, and this way it feels a lot more like cooperation than conflict.