Do you ever wonder what it is exactly you are fighting over? When you are argy but deep down nothing make complete sense? This is why we call it conflict, because it’s messy, confusing and it’s about two people not being able to agree, sometimes even with what the exact conflict is over.
During a girl’s dinner recently, I was asked why I thought my friend was still angry at her boyfriend and we sat there trying to work it out. I always over analyse, this time looking and explaining the ice berg structure of arguments to my friend where you are arguing about something on the surface but are not aware of what’s going on underneath. But even the iceberg theory (drawn on a napkin) was not enough to solve my friend’s anger and confusion.
Conflict very quickly got simplified for me when watching a 3 year throw a tantrum over getting into trouble and not getting what they wanted. It made me realise that when it comes to conflict, many of us are just like small children. We get angry if we don’t get our own way which can be about someone not agreeing with our train of thought. But then we also use emotion to get that someone to give us attention and soothe the uneasiness of the emotion of not getting what we want. But when we are seeking that smoothing from the same person we are also in conflict with, it feels messy and confusing. When it comes to conflict, maybe we are internally just all like small children, throwing more sophisticated and adult tantrums in the hope of either getting what we want or getting back to a level of comfort by using the attention of the person we are in conflict with. (You might have to read that a few times before it makes clear sense). The irony is that we are angry at the same person we are needing something from at that time.
But what happens when you don’t get what you want and there is no attention, affection of soothing? Even more conflict in the hope to get the same response? Now if the person on the other side avoids conflict as most people do when being faced with the adult version of a screaming toddler, they avoid or even react defensively which in turn doesn’t allow the other person to either get what they want or be soothed. No wonder we feel like sometimes conflict and arguments have no end and we forget how they got so big in the first place.
The one thing I have learnt about conflict is it fuelled by what’s underneath. Yes, I’m going to go back to the ice berg because I feel that it’s not only simple but so true. The person we are in conflict with is not in our heads. They are not in our thoughts and they don’t read minds. They don’t know where our triggers are and what statements set us off. It’s under the surface, so when we do react, how are they supposed to know why we are reacting for?
There is a great image that comes from burning man in 2015 that I feel sums up a lot of what conflict sometimes might be. It’s an art piece of two adults arguing sitting back to back to one another with their heads in their hands. Inside the wire structure of these two adult is another two smaller structures, children who are facing each other. Inside every adult when there is conflict is two children who are wanting to connect. Sometimes we are so angry and filled with emotion and confusion that we are not able to recognise this. Sometimes in order to get that connection, we fight, wanting the other person to consul us or react, just like a child does. I don’t’ think like with children discipline is the answer, but smoothing and connection just might be, no matter how angry that person is. It’s not about teaching them a lesson at that time but trying to smooth them enough back to a somewhat comfortable state to discuss and work out what the real problem might be.
Discuss the issues when you have both calmed down and can start to unpick the problem or have a look at what’s under the surface. But you might need to also help the other person to calm down. But when there is conflict, know that it might be something completely different than what’s really going on.
Whilst conflict is complex, it’s also very normal in relationships to have, and the real growth happens during these times. When you are faced with complexities, it’s how you resolve these that really matter, not necessarily why they occurred in the first place.