We teach conflict resolution to our children at an early age. Every preschool has its 5 steps to ‘talking out a problem’ (give or take a step). But in our experience, while we emphasize these skills as essential among our children, we adults (even the teachers) tend to flee conflict, sometimes quite literally.
We are thinking a lot about how hard it can be for we adults to stand up for ourselves in the best way when relationships turn contentious. In particular, when we find ourselves in controversial territory and conflict arises, our responses tend toward the primitive. Fight or flight is the very basic biological response to threat, catalyzed by the proverbial surge in adrenaline. We are not talking about grave physical threats: the same mechanism is in operation when the threats are emotional.
When we sense a threatening opinion or attitude, most of us, even the 97 pound weaklings among us, are able to throw down a good verbal lashing—we fight. For those of us who prefer to avoid conflict, our flight may be into silence, or isolation. In other words, just because we don’t swing clubs at each other or run for our lives into the forest, it doesn’t mean we aren’t responding in a primitive way to threats.
We don’t think conflict is bad. In fact we think that it is inevitable, and even serves to refine our thinking in a micro-evolutionary sense. Disagreements and even conflict makes us better, because when we expose ourselves to a variety of opinions we are forced to make adjustments in order to strengthen and preserve relationships, which are (usually) more important than our opinions.
But if conflict can be good for us, what do we do when it feels downright bad? Just take it? We’d say no. The skill we feel is missing, even in ourselves, is the ability when facing a threat to simply to speak up about our experience, to say when we feel unsafe or threatened. This certainly separates us from the animals: we can name our feelings and describe our experience. We don’t have to fight or flee or hide.
It’s not easy. To face a threat in relationship and admit to feeling unsafe, is to admit vulnerability, and that isn’t an inherently comforting move. We teach children who face bullies to throw up a hand and a loud, “Stop” before walking away. But we think that adults are (we hope) more empowered, and can do more to redeem a conflict by talking about their experience in the moment. It honors the humanity of an ‘opponent’ when we speak up in this way …. Try saying, “I don’t feel safe right now,” and stay put. It can be disarming, and provides an opportunity to restart a conversation. It signals our desire to remain in relationship, with just a slight adjustment to the rules of engagement. And if it doesn’t work to speak up, to make your feelings known, then you can make a run for it. Seriously, sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s always important to try.
And, finally, we suspect that the adults who learn the essential skill of standing up for themselves, and make the effort to handle conflict well for the sake of relationships, will be best able to instill these great values in children.
This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog