Navigating Conflict

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I should be a master of dealing with conflict. So much of it has been part and parcel of my life. Whenever my mother’s bipolar disorder overtook her beautiful mind I had to confront her to insist that she visit her doctor and take her medications. There was never anything easy about those encounters because she was a terribly noncompliant patient who so frustrated everyone that even her doctors would eventually refuse to keep her as a patient. They were consistently unable to convince her to to follow their directions and felt that they were therefore of no use to her. It always fell to me and my brothers to closely monitor her mental health and ultimately to check on her every single day to be certain that she swallowed her medication and made regular visits to whomever her latest doctor was. In the last years of her life she took turns living with me and one of my brothers. 

To say that caring for my mom resulted in conflicts with her would be an understatement, and no matter how often I thought that we had finally succeeded in getting her to a good place, I would find myself cajoling, begging, pleading and arguing with her to just take her pills and talk honestly with her doctors. I was not always the best or calmest negotiator. There were times when I felt as though I had become as dictatorial as she accused me of being. I disliked the whole situation and thoughts of just walking or running away often ran through my head whenever things got particularly confrontational. Somehow I always managed to steel myself for more combat by understanding that my mother was only difficult because the bipolar disorder had taken hold of her otherwise sweet and gentle brain. 

Ironically I found that my chosen occupation as a teacher was also fraught with conflict. Over the course of my time as an educator I encountered difficult students in my classroom, angry parents, disgruntled teachers, demanding principals, dissatisfied school boards. It seemed as though there was no escaping disagreements no matter where I went. Conflict seems to be an integral and inescapable part of our human destiny. Ironically we often get very little guidance regarding how to deal with it, other than our studies in the school of hard knocks. There are few mentors who show us how to properly deescalate the misunderstandings and challenges that we so often encounter.  

We certainly have self-help books that make suggestions about how to handle childcare, relationships, and work/life difficulties, but they are often so generic that we struggle to apply the ideas when we become involved in the heat and emotion of real life problems. Group dynamics tell us that it is quite normal for people with disparate backgrounds or beliefs to begin interactions by storming in sometimes fierce disagreements with one another. Such research also demonstrates that until we can come to some kind of consensus that allows us to work together the system, whether it be a one on one relationship or the running of a government, is doomed to failure. Things and people do fall apart when nobody is willing to give an inch. Force feeding ideas or policies works no better than my insistence that my mother take her medication whether she wanted it or not. 

It feels to me as though we are in one of the most dangerous epochs of my lifetime. It has become the norm for us to steadfastly stand rigidly for our beliefs without consideration of other people’s ideas. We seem to have at least temporarily lost the will to compromise and work together toward commonly created goals. Even friendships are dissolving over an insistence that we either think alike or go our separate ways. There is a kind of sick evangelical adherence to foisting our personal ideas on everyone, even if it is not something that they want. We seem to have lost the will and the tools for compromise. 

I suppose that in admitting how forceful my brothers and I had to be to keep our mother from descending into madness, I sound quite hypocritical in suggesting that we have to become less rigid in the enforcement of our pet beliefs on others. Instead I would suggest that we need to learn the difference between pushing personal philosophies and safeguarding the common good. Obviously we need laws and order in a functioning society, but we should not be force feeding religious or cultural beliefs on others. Nor should we make our laws so inequitable that swathes of people are hurt by them. There has to be a fine balance between progress and tradition. Our freedoms require many voices, not just one, in order to survive and thrive. We have to be able to sit down, air our differences in a peaceful and meaningful way knowing that the outcomes have not already been predetermined by allegiances. If there is no hope that we can respect each other, there is no hope for families or businesses or institutions. Being locked inside a bubble of thought has rarely ever been healthy anywhere. 

Conflict is indeed inevitable. How we are willing to deal with it determines how strong our relationships will be. Running away from a crisis is never the answer no matter how tempting it may be. We can’t just pretend that we are good and the other guys are bad. We have to develop dialog without animus and then show a willingness to compromise and adapt to a variety of ideas. Anyone who has ever had a successful relationship with another human being should understand this. A winning team is one that is not about an individual person or philosophy. It is always about a willingness to draw from the strengths of one another no matter how different they may be. Families dissolve, businesses fail, teams lose, governments collapse, civilizations disappear when we are not longer able to get past our storming and begin the work of norming.  

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