Thursday, September 03, 2020

"Conflict Averse"

Nearly 30 years ago, my wife and I were moving out of a house we had been renting in a village not too far from Hannover, Germany. During the year leading up to the move, our landlord had been harassing us. Nothing too terrible, but there were accusations about things we had or hadn't done, aspersions upon our character, and a general vibe of nick-pickiness that made every interaction with her uncomfortable. For months we tried to write it off as her having a bad day or insecurity or simply an aspect of her personality. We paid our rent on time, but otherwise tried to avoid interacting with her beyond the bare minimum. In the weeks leading up to our move date, however, things got worse, culminating with a kind of tirade on her part when I met with her for a walk through inspection of the house as a precursor to having our deposit refunded.

This time, instead of trying to assuage her, I engaged, fully. I raised my voice, I aired my own grievances, I even used some language I shouldn't have used. This lead to a long, intense, and honest conversation right there in the kitchen of that rental house that ended with her in tears of remorse and shame, and me, frankly, feeling pretty good about myself. I suppose at one level it was simply because I'd stood up to a bully, but more fundamentally it was the incredible emotional release of having directly confronted a problem, engaging in a conflict that I'd been dodging for too long. There continued to be tensions in the coming weeks as we wrapped up our business, but I was now empowered to speak my mind with her, directly, and without reservation. The best part was that I no longer felt I had to hide. What an incredible feeling of freedom that gave me.

Maybe it's just a function of living in Seattle, a place noted for passive aggression, but I seem to come across a lot of people today who call themselves "conflict averse." At one time, I suppose I would have applied that label to myself, and I certainly don't enjoy or seek out conflict, but the older I get, the more I've come to embrace conflict in the way one can embrace hard physical labor. It might not be how I would chose to spend my time on the planet, but the reward of getting to the other side makes it worthwhile.

Conflict can be horrible, of course, especially when the parties involved resort to violence, threats, name calling, and insults, but it is at the same time a necessary aspect of living in a world with other people. Being conflict averse is, of course, a natural response to having all those strong emotions stirred up, but the alternative is low grade, teeth-grinding tension that acts like a small pebble in your shoe: maybe it doesn't hurt so much with any given step, but if you don't stop and shake it out right away, the cumulative effect of that pinpoint of pain will diminish your life until you finally, inevitably, have no choice but to stop and shake it out anyway. You might as well get it over with and get on with your life one way or another.

Learning to productively engage in conflict is something we begin working on from the time we first encounter other people. In preschool, there is liable to be some form of conflict in any given moment as children vie over resources and space, and unlike conflict averse adults, most children, most of the time, are inclined to deal with their conflict as it emerges. They don't hide from their landlords or decide to wait until later to shake the pebble from their shoe. In our role as adults, we are there to first and foremost stop any violence, and to otherwise create a space in which the children can engage in their conflict: to talk with one another, to raise their voices, to air their grievances, to listen, and while we would prefer civilized language, sometimes uncivil language the only way to fully express ourselves, especially as we are feeling strong emotions.

Too often, however, we conflict averse adults are inclined to rob children of this opportunity. With the best of intentions we leap in to solve the problem, to impose a solution, to evoke a rule, or to insist upon a tone of voice or choice of words, standards that most adults cannot live up to in their own moments of conflict. When we do these things in the name of a peaceful classroom, we teach children to rely on authority figures to resolve their problems with other people, rather than allowing them to develop their own skills. When we don't permit them to gain competence through experience, we miss the opportunity for them to develop their ability to confront and resolve the conflicts in their lives. The goal should not be to manage the children through to a quick and tidy resolution, but rather to create a safe place in which children can engage in their own conflicts, no matter how long it takes or how messy the resolution. 

No life is conflict free and I don't believe that any of us are ever fully competent or confident when it comes to handling it, but avoidance just pushes the conflict off into the future while still creating pain in the present. Giving young children the opportunity to practice their conflict skills is one of the greatest gifts we have to offer. It's never pleasant, but on the other side is freedom.


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