We all find ourselves in conflict from time to time. Conflict with another person usually entails some inner conflict as well. We feel unsettled, upset, perhaps angry or depressed by a situation and our involvement in it. We wish it weren’t happening and that we felt some other way. We want to resolve the outer situation and with it the inner one; but sometimes professional resources are not readily available and sometimes the negotiations leave us still feeling disturbed or discontent. Apart from the outer situation, what can you do by yourself and for yourself to return to inner equilibrium?
First, let us assume that it is indeed your desire and your focus to resolve the issue within yourself. That already sets the right tone, and it is entirely different than the desire to be justified or to get your way. The goal to get one’s way is a frequent stumbling block in outer conflict resolution. I do not mean that it is wrong; sometimes it is necessary and right to seek justice, to have a certain point of view prevail, even to be uncompromising. I simply mean that we must distinguish between the goal of outer vindication and the goal of regulating one’s inner environment. This latter is the option we will explore here. The distinction is simple, but it is not so easy to make. Let’s see why.
Back up a few million years. Your mind is naturally oriented toward the outside world. You could not exist if it were not so. Natural selection has made you a creature who pays close attention to the reality outside your skin, upon which your survival depends. It has equipped you with the ability to make snap judgments in order to react quickly, and with emotions that help you do this. Indeed, “gut feelings” directly express that ability, and so does the feeling of certainty—natural confidence in perception. Our default position is to believe our eyes and intuitions, to assume that our experience is a transparent window on the world. In philosophy, this position is known as naïve realism. For the most part, it serves us well in daily life. Yet, evolution has also provided other abilities to deal with those times when naïve realism does not serve us well. For, we are not only individuals competing with other individuals; we are also highly social creatures, who must get along in order for society to function. Hence, we have communication, reason, law, empathy, morality. Underlying them all is the ability to be conscious of our own role in producing the experience of the situation we are in. It is this consciousness of an inner realm, alongside the outer one, that opens our eyes beyond the naïve state. We then no longer take for granted that the world is literally as we see it. We no longer believe that events outside our skin make us see them a certain way or make us feel the way we do. We are now in a position to acknowledge our co-responsibility even in how the world appears to us. In particular, we know that any conflict takes two.
Even if you are resolved to take responsibility for your perceptions and feelings, there will be a constant and nagging temptation to revert to the default stance of simply believing your eyes. Again, I do not mean to say that is wrong. The point is rather to hold a frame of mind in which you can question appearances and feelings without dismissing them. I call this the stance of unknowing. It’s the willing suspension of belief. It enables you to view your experience as experience instead of as reality. You can stand back from your own awareness to view it as a personal creative effort, an art form, or an investigation. Your dissatisfaction with your personal experience during conflict becomes an artist’s dissatisfaction with a brushstroke, a color, a composition. It becomes about the esthetic quality of your own consciousness instead of about settling an account in the outer world. Or it becomes the curious scientist’s dissatisfaction with the current theory, the detective’s insistence on proper evidence, “just the facts, m’am.”
That is one way to stand back. Here’s another. We are naturally concerned not only with the quality of our experience but also with the quality of our behavior. We want to be happy and also to be good. (Because we are social creatures, responsible to and for others, it is very difficult to feel happy unless we are able to feel that we are “good.”) That means to meet with the approval of society and of our own internal judge, which is usually closely aligned with the judgments of others, beginning with our parents. Much of the reason for blaming the other person, and insisting that we are right in a conflict, is to justify the belief that we are good. Much of our “self-talk” is concerned with replaying a scenario in ways that either put us in a good light or at least allow us to explore our doubts. It’s a kind of inner courtroom session, with a prosecutor and a defense—and ultimately a judge or jury. We hope to be exonerated or to get off easy, but if it’s a fair trial it may not go that way. We cannot judge others without judging ourselves. If we hope for mercy from our own inner judge, practicing on others makes perfect.
From the principle of co-responsibility, we can reasonably assume that we are not entirely innocent in any conflict. But just as there is the temptation to take experience naively at face value, there is the temptation to presume our own innocence and the guilt of the other. It takes some discipline to resist that temptation. Moral courage is not defending our innocence but embracing the prospect of guilt. To admit our complicity allows us to see more clearly the whole picture of what is going on and what to do about it.
This has the benefit that it can defuse the aggressiveness of one’s intent. But what if it is the other who is aggressive and we feel ourselves to be merely on the defense? In that case, we go back to square one and ask whether our perceptions about the other’s actions and intentions are correct. Because all experience involves both self and world, subject and object, we can never be sure what in our experience derives from the other person and what from within oneself. Human beings are always in this unenviable position of having to interpret events that are inherently ambiguous. Rather than assuming that the other person is attacking us, we can strategically give them the benefit of the doubt; we can take the stance of not presuming to know the meaning of their actions. I’m not advocating ignorance, naiveté, or even trust, but only a temporary suspension of belief, for the sake of inquiring more deeply. If it turns out the other person is unwavering in their intent to do us harm, we can still defend ourselves appropriately. As often as not, however, it turns out to be a misunderstanding.
Human beings are intuitively tuned to one another. They know how to rub salt in each other’s old wounds. People appearing to attack us may well have found our vulnerable places, even unconsciously. If we feel attacked, it may well be because someone has discovered our Achilles heel—the place where we are apt to feel guilty, blameworthy, or vulnerable—where we judge and attack ourselves. We have the choice then either to blame them for wanting to hurt us (which is secretly a defense against self-attack) or to explore the useful information thus gained about oneself. The challenge is to confront that undesirable trait within oneself rather than confronting the other person who is pointing it out. If you cease to attack yourself for this trait, then possibly the other person will also stop attacking you for it. (If not, the attacks will be more like water off the duck’s back.) This is not a matter of denying the trait nor of feeling guilty about it either. It is not about deciding who is in the wrong. Rather, one must admit it frankly to oneself in order to negotiate the conditions for self-acceptance. That may require some reparation to the world, some admission to the other, some change in one’s behavior. Yet, the question is no longer how I want the other person to behave toward me, but how I would like to see myself behaving.
To sum up, if you want to resolve conflict ask yourself two questions. First: How would I like to feel in this situation? And second: How must I behave in this situation to be the kind of person I want be? The first requires a shift of focus onto your own experience per se, to view it as an inner tableau rather than as a sequence of contentious events in the drama of the outer conflict. The shift is from getting your way to having the quality of experience you want. The second question gives priority to your self-image rather than your image of the other person. You must ask yourself what sort of person you wish to be, with what priorities and values, instead of who you want them to be. You may find that your anger, fear, sadness, desire, or judgments in regard to the situation or toward others simply do not correspond to your present goals and values. Some things may no longer really matter to you, or matter less. Sometimes we are simply caught in old habits and need to update ourselves. As human creatures, we are mercifully blessed with the ability to change our minds.