The Chinese pictogram for ‘I’ derives from a hand that wields a weapon. And, although we are sociable by nature, we’re also born ready to face others. We must fight for scarce resources: from our parents’ attention, the food on the table or the sharing toothpaste, to the material resources of the company in which we work, or the assets we split after a divorce.
Where there are two people, there’s conflict. Sometimes we even conflict with ourselves! But there’s no doubt that some people are more efficient than others in handling confrontations. Some people are able to reconcile with their opponents and can even grow and flourish from their conflicts. For those who don’t, conflicts are a constant source of questioning, frustration, anger and resentment.
That’s why it’s so important to learn to handle conflicts: because they’re inevitable, and because of them we can only emerge strengthened or weakened. Conflicts can escalate and be thrown away, or they can impel us to achieve what we’re seeking.
On many occasions, we try to get out of conflicts by yielding a little and asking for more; something like a market bargain. “Neither you nor me: let’s go 50/50”. Each brother eats half of the cake’s last piece.
The problem with this way of resolving conflicts is that we don’t really solve them. We often feel cheated because maybe we give in more than we should. Even if we’re satisfied with what we achieved in a bargain, or if we think we would have been willing to give up much more, the truth is that we will never know if our counterpart would have been willing to ask for less than what we gave them. In the end, the conflict remains.
At other times we impose or dodge the conflict. These strategies aren’t efficient either, because, like bargaining, they leave us unhappy. We’re waiting for reprisals or a new confrontation; we’re left wondering if the one looking at us from the other side of the mirror is the new bully or the new hen of the neighborhood.
But there are better ways to deal with conflicts. Taking a broader perspective, we can see common interests in any contest. We emerge strengthened from the clashes when we explore our emotions and needs and recognize those of the other; when we stop seeing our counterpart as an adversary and we begin to understand them as a possible ally in the solution of a problem.
We emerge strengthened from a conflict when we have cleared the essential elements to satisfy the interests at stake, and we work creatively to build joint solutions. In that way, we grow personally and reach lasting and efficient agreements.
In the family, at work and the condo we live in, conflicts tend to be like stairs with which we can go up or down. They’re stairs through which in the way we can even fall asleep. Escalating our conflicts – or maybe I should say escalate for our conflicts – requires emotional intelligence, creativity, and broadmindedness.
And although some people seem to have been born with those skills, the truth is that we can all learn techniques that allow us to escalate our conflicts to become a better ‘me’: hands that hold tools, instead of weapons.
If you want to learn more effective ways to resolve personal, family or work conflicts, I invite you to the workshop that I will give at Dalia Empower on February 19 and 26.