What is your relationship with conflict? What is your habitual reaction when someone does something that you don’t like? What could our lives, and our relationships, be like if we chose another path...
Wandering along a wooded path with my sister last week, we reflected that we were both somewhat terrified of conflict with each other. We noticed that over our four-decade relationship, we had perfected the art of avoiding conflict…steering skilfully away from topics where we might disagree, cutting short conversations that could lead to tension, or withdrawing, hurt and overwhelmed, when conflict seeped uncomfortably between us.
I was startled to realise this; even with this dear, gentle human being, one of my very favourite humans in the world and one with whom I share so much love and affection, our relationship is in some peculiar way shaped by the effort of avoiding conflict. It brought tears to us both to contemplate how delicate areas of honesty, depth and meaning might have been eaten away from our relationship like the clay walls of the river we walked beside.
Whatever our relationship is like with conflict, it can be such a painful and ubiquitous part of our human experience. Some, like me, contort ourselves and our relationships to avoid it. Others lean into conflict, inviting, even courting direct confrontation – through social media interactions, interactions at work, within family relationships or daily run-ins with strangers (annoying neighbours, people pushing in line in the supermarket…).
As our walk along the river drew to an end, my sister and I reached an awareness of a new possibility in our relationship. What if we could see moments of hurt and pain arising between us as the start, rather than the end, of our dialogue? What if we could choose to hold each other’s pain together, and find the courage to explore what wisdom this pain might be pointing to? We began to wonder what our lives might be like if we could redefine our relationship with conflict so that instead of seeing it as something inherently painful and destructive, or as a way to assert ourselves and our opinions over others, we could instead see moments of tension as doorways into depth, understanding and connection.
This, for me, is the enchanting possibility offered by Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
To be clear, I do not see NVC as a set of magic words that we can use to win arguments, or as a clever sleight of hand to get ourselves out of tricky interpersonal situations. For me, it provides an entirely different lens through which to understand ourselves and others when we face interpersonal challenges. Instead of seeing the annoying, rude person who pushes in front of me at the supermarket, I open the possibility of seeing a person who is experiencing great stress and is desperately craving support and care. Instead of seeing myself as a yellow-bellied conflict avoidant idiot, I can see with tenderness my fear of hurting the people I love, my care for the feelings of those around me, and my longing for peace and acceptance in my relationships.
This compassionate lens is one that brings peace, joy and lightness into my life as well as the possibility of deep and honest dialogue with those around me. It is also a lens that offers me far more options when conflict arises. Rather than limiting my conflict repertoire to fight, flight or freeze, I now have many options: I could listen deeply and hear the life-giving needs that ripple beneath the other person’s opinions and actions; I could enquire within myself to explore what really matters to me in this moment; or I could express to the other the rich honesty of what I care most about in a way that they might actually be able to hear.
Are you moved to explore this path with us?