Working Through Conflict

Conflict is hard. Many of us are averse to conflict, we would rather turn around and run the other way than face a conflict. Often, conflict can tap into our past trauma, and that can feel unsafe.

Conflict is a topic that needs mentioning in this training, as it affects all of us. Your peer support work is no exception. However, conflict is a massive topic. It has so many layers and complexities. It affects us on a global scale and on a very personal level. This section takes  a high level look at dealing with conflict, and primarily interpersonal conflict that you might face in your per support role. It’s important to note that there is much more that can be said about this topic. Do you see conflict as a bad thing? Have you ever had a good experience as a result of conflict?

Here’s the million-dollar question for all of us who avoid conflict: Can we change how we perceive and experience conflict? Can we approach conflict differently?

Perception and Conflict

It is very easy to misunderstand each other. At any given moment, we have so much information coming at us that our brains need to categorize it to help make sense of the world. When we don’t intentionally work to expand our thinking and challenge our biases, we can become lazy and rigid about the process of categorizing. That’s a breeding ground for assumptions and judgements to get stirred up.

comes to conflict. This is where it can get messy.

We can’t help but filter what we hear, see and experience through our own worldview. This can make it difficult to understand someone else’s worldview, because we tend to get stuck in our own perspective and often believe ours is the only “right one.” This can lead us to mishear and misinterpret the meaning of someone else’s words. When we’re not working to check our own biases and thinking, our communication gets all muddled.

If two people are approaching a conflict, each stuck in their own worldview, unwilling to move, wanting the other person to see their side rather than trying to understand. Well when they reach that point, it’s checkmate. Game over. And in this case, conflict wins, and the relationship suffers.

The goals of peer support are connection and building relationships, so it is essential that we check our perceptions when we communicate with others. When we are mindful of our own perceptions, we reduce the opportunity for disconnection.

Checking our Perceptions

Any time we experience feelings that tell us conflict is starting to bubble, it is helpful to pause and check our perceptions. This means examining our worldview and biases while trying to understand someone else’s. It means considering how your worldview may be influencing how you are hearing the other person’s words, realizing that their story is different from yours.

Don’t Believe Everything you Think

Thoughts and feelings come and go all the time. Sometimes we have a thought that seems to come out of left field. It’s important to realize that our thoughts aren’t always tied to our core beliefs. We don’t have to be defined by all our thoughts, just as we don’t need to be defined by all our emotions. Often, if we dig deeper, we discover that there is something else going on underneath that initial thought.

Iceberg…What is the Untold Story?

When we see an iceberg, it’s amazing to realize that though it’s huge, 90% of the iceberg is underwater. The same is true with people. We only see a small bit of other people’s lives. And even then, everything we do see is filtered through our worldview. So as much as we think we see the whole picture, we don’t. We just can’t.
Learning what is underneath the surface is the most important as we build relationships. We can make all kinds of assumptions about other people but they are just that–assumptions that are informed by our own biases and judgements.

Awareness of the fact that 90% of the iceberg is invisible to us is the first step in acceptance, tolerance, grace and connection. There is so much in life we will never know. Understanding and accepting that fact is the beginning of wisdom.

Wired to Survive, not to see Reality

In another section of this training, we covered how our brains categorize things to make sense of the world. Of course, it’s important that the main goal for our brains is survival; we remember what we need to remember so that we can have the tools we need to survive. In any given moment, our brains do not have the capacity to see true reality in all its complexity, because – for evolutionary reasons – that would be overwhelming. We are not wired to be objective. It is only with reflection, mindfulness and a lot of work that we can get past our preconceived and long-held beliefs.

We see reality filtered through our own past experiences, our emotions, our judgements and biases. The narratives we use to make sense of the world are strong, and we can really get stuck in them.

It is especially important that we challenge those narratives when we walk into conflict, because just as we are filtering the situation through our experiences, the other person is too!

Becoming curious and asking powerful questions (including questioning own assumptions) is the only way to think differently.

Have you ever had a conflict with someone where they seemed so stuck in what felt like a false story about you? Why do you think your perceptions of the situation were so completely different?

When this happens, it’s especially hard if the other person doesn’t seem open to listening to your perspective. It is frustrating. However, it can be so helpful to remember that the brain – including theirs – is wired to do that. And as much as that behaviour is infuriating, we do it too!

The result of that misunderstanding is reactive thinking and speaking. If left unaddressed, it leads to conflict and relationship breakdown. The only way around it is to:

  • Create intentional pause
  • Understand that we are in our own story/narrative, and so is the other person
  • Know that our perspective isn’t objective, it’s based on our perceptions
  • Question our assumptions
  • Seek to understand the other person

How do you feel about this?

Does it feel like there is always a right and wrong in a conflict?

How can you challenge your thinking to try to see the other person’s perspective?

“Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit. Conflict avoidance is *not* the hallmark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and of poor communication.”
~Harriet B. Braiker (Author)

Binary Thinking in Conflict

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” ~Bryan Stevenson

It is very easy to get into the binary thinking of good and bad, right and wrong, especially when dealing with conflict. However, there is so much grey, so much in-between. No one person is all good or all bad–even the worst and the best people you can think of. Human beings are all flawed, and we are all capable of greatness. We are all moving between the two poles all the time.

Getting sucked into binary thinking is the first step toward dehumanizing others. Dehumanization is when people are thought of and classed as “non-human.” Historically, every genocide has begun with simple steps of dehumanization – using language  that separates a people group from their humanity.

We must be mindful that binary thinking in conflict is dangerous.

There is a tendency to see ourselves as complex beings while viewing others in very simple terms. We don’t see them as being as complex or having many layers, because we simply don’t know them as well as we know ourselves. This is problematic. We can be less apt to offer empathy and compassion when we see someone as “just a jerk.”

This isn’t to say that people should not be accountable for hurting others, or their complexity used as an excuse for poor behaviour. Accountability is important. We just need to remember that no person is all good or all bad, and there is so much freedom and opportunity for forgiveness there.

For Reflection

  • Have you ever been put in a box like that (either all good or all bad)? How did that feel?
  • Consider that it’s just as problematic when we put someone in an “all good” category and put them up on a pedestal. One day they will disappoint us, because no one is perfect. When that day comes, how does that affect the relationship?

Reframing the Idea that all Conflict is bad

There are some situations when conflict has disastrous consequences. Some conflict moves into physical or psychological violence. However, is the problem the conflict itself? Or, is the problem the way we choose to enter conflict (with the need to win) and the way we react to it (anger)? Is it the fact that we don’t see eye to eye on a particular issue , or is it because we have lost capacity for perspective taking, empathy and compassion?

What if we challenge ourselves to reframe the way we think about conflict? Let’s begin by acknowledging that conflict is a given. It will happen. No community of people is immune to conflict. Conflict comes with being human and it has an important role to play in connection and communication.

Stephen Pocklington, a leader in the peer support movement in the US, once said in a workshop: “If you and I think the same way about something, one of us is redundant.”

Consider any book you have ever read, or movie you have ever watched. There wouldn’t be a story if there wasn’t conflict. It would be as boring as watching a yule log recording on TV. It might get a wee bit interesting when the guy stokes the fire, but without conflict there is no growth or transformation.

“There’s no story if there isn’t some conflict. The memorable things are usually not how pulled together everybody is. I think everybody feels lonely and trapped sometimes. I would think it’s more or less the norm.” ~Wes Anderson (filmmaker)

If everyone always thinks the same way, that is a recipe to stay stuck. Growth requires us to seek out other thoughts and opinions. The brain only expands when there is movement. We will not learn and grow if we stand still. Consider confirmation bias, when people are constantly only exposing themselves to things they already believe – it keeps people stuck inside echo chambers. The only way to break out of that is to move and choose to expand our thinking and beliefs, and that will involve some conflict (both internal and external).

In the video A Better Way to Deal with Conflict, neuroscientist Beau Lotto says that we tend to enter conflict with the aim of shifting the other person towards us. We want to prove that the other person is wrong. If both people approach a conflict this way, they are stuck because no one is willing to move. Lotto suggests that instead, we approach conflict with a question instead of an answer. If we approach conflict with the goal of learning rather than convincing, we are less apt to have it escalate to a place of harm.. Like we talked about at the beginning of this module, what if we challenge ourselves to understand the other person when we are in conflict, rather than trying to convince them that we are right?

Doing this does not mean we will necessarily move to the other person’s way of thinking, but we will expand our own. We will develop deeper empathy for the other person, because we will have a better understanding of where they are coming from.

It is also important to respect our boundaries and practice self-care. That may mean walking away from a conversation or conflict, or even walking away from a relationship that feels toxic.

Dr. Michelle Buck, who is Clinical Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, teaches that conflict transformation is a better goal than conflict resolution. She shared the following during an interview for the book Braving the Wilderness:

“[Conflict resolution] suggests going back to a previous state of affairs, and has a connotation that there may be a winner or a loser. How will this disagreement be resolved? Whose solution will be selected as the “better” one? In contrast, I choose to focus on “conflict transformation,” suggesting that by creatively navigating the conversational landscape of differences and disagreements, we have the opportunity to create something new. At a minimum, we learn more about each other than before. Ideally, we may find new possibilities that had not even been considered before. Conflict transformation is about creating deeper understanding. It requires perspective-taking. As a result, it enables greater connection, whether or not there is agreement.

For Reflection

  • Have you ever thought to reframe conflict as a positive?
  • How do you think you would do that?
  • What will you do next time you are in a conflict if the other person is stuck in their perspective? How will you support yourself in that case?

Generosity of Assumption

From the BC Peer Support Standards of Practice Glossary of Terms:

Assumptions happen when we don’t know the whole story and allow our brains to fill in the blanks. Often, we make negative assumptions about people or situations. Generosity of assumption means that we extend someone the most generous interpretation of their intent, actions, or words. (2019)

How do you think generosity of assumption fits with managing conflict?

Inquiry and Curiosity

This comes with approaching conflict as a learning experience. When we approach conflict with a question rather than an answer, we are more apt to transform that conflict. That requires some self-examination and sleuthing work. We can put on our Sherlock hat and start exploring.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves:

  • What is the history of this conflict?
  • Is there more going on with this conflict than meets the eye?
  • Do I have some unresolved resentment that I haven’t worked through?
  • What is underneath my need to be right in this conflict?
  • Is it about              , or is there something else? What is the emotion underneath my point? (For example, is this conflict really about this particular policy, or for me is the reason really about the fear of being unheard, not valued, and tossed aside?
  • What can we learn in this conflict?
  • What is the desired outcome for this conflict?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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