Conflict can be good. No, really. Here’s an example from my own life that illustrates how. (This is shared with the permission of all involved, of course.)
My husband and I have very different ways of dealing with the flood of papers that come into our lives. He’s fine with letting them pile up on the kitchen table. I greatly prefer to have the table clear and uncluttered. For years I tried everything I could think of to get him to change how he dealt with his papers, all of which usually involved unpleasant nagging, to no avail. One day it occurred to me to ask if he would mind if I sorted his papers for him. Amazingly enough (to me), he had no problem with that! Suddenly new solutions became possible and we quickly found a system that works most of the time for us – I sort the mail every day and put the few papers that he needs to deal with in a specific place, off the table.
So how in the world was this conflict good?
It was helpful for me because I learned something I didn’t know about my husband. I’d always assumed he wouldn’t want me to touch his papers, because I wouldn’t want anyone to mess with mine. It’s clear now that assumption was wrong, but until I questioned it, I didn’t understand my husband’s feelings. In other words, as a result of our struggles over paper placement, I learned something new about him. Conflict can teach us things we didn’t know about ourselves and each other, if we’re open to it.
For most of us during arguments, we are so busy reinforcing our own opinions, we barely hear other views, let alone allow ourselves to consider other options. In my example, this took the form of me badgering and my husband resisting my efforts to change him. Once we created the solution, my husband learned that my objections to his piles of paper were not the pestering of a neat freak, but were born in a simple desire for order.
Our relationship was strengthened by constructively sticking with the conflict. Because my husband and I kept exploring, we eventually found a solution that surprised us for its simplicity. Once we understood each other better, it deepened our mutual respect.
The opportunities in the above example are not unique to my husband and me. All of us can learn from the disputes in our everyday lives. By questioning our assumptions, admitting our part in the conflict (at least to ourselves), and listening to other views, we change and grow.
Discord can be a great teacher. We are no longer the same after a conflict. Paradoxically, the more we see conflict as an opportunity for learning, the less we resist it. As we feel calmer, we can more readily envision creative solutions that relieve tensions and resolve conflict.