Seeing the best in life's challenges

The Beauty of Conflict and Disharmony – A New Paradigm

on February 11, 2013

Conflict, noun

1. A state of open, often prolonged fighting; a battle or war.

2. A state of disharmony between incompatible or antithetical persons, ideas, or interests; a clash.


Conflict seems to be the theme of the day for me lately.  And I find the first two definitions above to be very interesting when I start thinking about what conflict is about.

It’s the second definition that seems to be the root definition of conflict.  The existence of disharmony between individuals is the underlying reason that fighting and problems occur.

A basic assumption to put us on the same page: no two people act or think exactly alike.  We all have different backgrounds, different experiences, different personalities, different priorities.  Disharmony between people is inevitable, a part of life that just is.

Yes, we are all equal, but we are NOT all the SAME.

Question:  Is it a foregone conclusion that, when there is disagreement, a fight automatically results?  Is this kind of conflict inevitable?

I find that many people avoid dealing with conflict.  But this doesn’t mean that disharmony doesn’t exist for them – it just means they either don’t acknowledge it, or they avoid it altogether.

For illustration purposes, I am going to describe two ways of dealing with disharmony that are very different.  I’m not saying these are the only two approaches; rather, I’m just thinking about how people handle disagreement and how these ways affect how we all get along.

The Old Way of Conflict

A common way of thinking about disagreements is based on determining who is right and who is wrong.  Much of our world uses this model.  Our entire legal system depends on laws that tell us what is right and what is wrong.  Our practice of having authority figures, whether it is in business or in schools or in sports, is based on having certain people who are “in charge” to enforce what is right and acceptable, and to discourage or punish what is wrong.

This is a paradigm that is so pervasive, we rarely question it, especially those of us who have personalities that tend to “get along” and not make waves.  It can become such a priority to avoid conflict, that we lose our ability to have a unique perspective or differing opinion of our own.

In families, the dynamics can work the same.  Either one or both parents are “in charge” and what they say, goes.  Usually, the children are expected to obey and follow the rules.

As long as the laws and rules are agreed upon and considered reasonable by all the parties involved, the kind of conflict in the first definition usually is minimal. However, this paradigm can result in situations where certain individuals can use their personalities to overwhelm and manipulate others.   Groups can attempt to control other groups.  “Being right” is justification for wars and invasions.

We all know that, despite the best of intentions in setting rules and making laws, disagreements and disharmony still exist, even in peaceful situations.  So, then, in these situations, we see visible arguments about, guess what, WHO IS RIGHT and WHO IS WRONG.

Those entrenched in this way of thinking tend to view others with suspicion.  Those who disagree with Old Way Thinkers are assumed to be of the same mindset, which means they are going to fight to be right!  Whether intended or not, Old Way Thinkers assume others who have a different view are judging them.  A New Way Thinker could be the most tolerant, open-minded, gentle person, but if they disagree with an Old Way Thinker, they will encounter animosity anyway.

Now, if we continue with this old paradigm of handling conflict, can there be a solution that is acceptable to both sides of the argument?

Well, not really.  In a black and white world, there is no grey.


To break the cycle, we have to move beyond this paradigm.  This stalemate is the reason we have come up with such concepts as “Agreeing to Disagree” and “Win-Win Solutions.”  This is where compromise comes in.

There are many shades of grey, in fact, there are many colors in the world!

Where My Personal Experience Comes In

I grew up in a mostly harmonious, conflict-avoiding household.  From my perspective, my parents had reasonable rules and values.  If I had a different view, it really wasn’t that different, and I kept it to myself.  It was no big deal.  I did what I was supposed to do, and didn’t cause problems.  This made for a mostly conflict-free environment, which sounds great, right?

The only problem is, I didn’t get to practice handling conflict.  So when I encountered others out in the world that did not operate under the same set of assumptions, I was not prepared.  The best thing I did was to marry into a family with different viewpoints and which had a more direct method of verbal communication.  I had to learn how to speak up, explain my viewpoint, and balance conflicting ways of being.  Yes, it has been uncomfortable at times, and it has been work, but I can say that I have become very skilled at dealing with conflict.  I am NOT saying I have become skilled at proving I am right, or at convincing people to see things my way……instead, I have become a better communicator, better at clearly stating my view, and better at listening and understanding others.

After adding three children to the mix, the lessons in conflict management have only multiplied.  I live in a family of five, with five unique and strong personalities, five sets of goals, five…ideas of what is right (?).  Hmmm…

What I have noticed is that if individuals are too entrenched in the Old Way of Conflict, they will not compromise or be able to accept another view, a conflicting opinion, an alternative way of being or doing.  The Old Paradigm of Conflict can provide so much emphasis on being “right” that individuals are compelled to IMPOSE their own views or ways on others.  They see the world in absolutes, so they cannot and will not compromise.

Others who are not comfortable dealing with conflict, may just clam up and say nothing.  The person may be so sure that others will try to convince them that they are wrong or judge them, they will not even engage.  The thought of facing conflict may be so scary or unfamiliar that it is impossible to have a conversation about a disagreement or misunderstanding.  The disharmony remains indefinitely.

I would say that all people have personal absolutes, lines that they will not cross, things they would never do, situations they would not accept.  But I think it is important to differentiate this fact from the need to impose these absolutes on others, or to find it unacceptable for others to disagree.

For me, this is the primary difference between the Old Way and New Way of Conflict – whether it is acceptable or not to IMPOSE one’s views on others.

General agreement on a rule or law, for example, that is for the benefit of all is fine, but a rule or law that imposes the views of one group on another is a different matter.  I’m avoiding using specific examples here, because we tend to have such strong attachments and emotional responses to specific issues and I don’t want to distract from the basic principle.  But let’s not fool ourselves that these things are easy to determine or generally agreed upon.

The New Way of Conflict

As a result of my personal life experience, I have embraced a New Paradigm of Conflict, and I see a similar approach emerging with others I know.

There is a basic acceptance that each person is unique.  Instead of having a focus on the right way and the wrong way, each individual attempts to remain true to a personal way of being, thinking or doing, along with a respect for others to have their own.

Instead of seeing differences as “disharmonious” they are viewed as, well, different.  And, even better, complementary.

Each personal point of view is developed with thoughtfulness and a focus on the “greater good”.  A person is always open to reevaluating their conclusions, based on new information and experiences.  No one “digs in their heels.”

No one imposes their own view on others.  When viewpoints are shared, the goal is about understanding, rather than convincing.

Because there is mutual respect, there is no reason to be defensive or offended when listening to another point of view.

When there is misunderstanding or unintended consequences, what results is direct communication, questions and answers, all with the goal of clarifying meaning, intent, emotional reactions and what was experienced.  There’s no drama.

As individuals become comfortable having their own unique perspective, and respecting other’s views, it becomes easier to share.  Without the threat of being labeled “wrong” and knowing that others will not become defensive, it actually becomes very interesting to get to know how others think and why.  It becomes fun to share ourselves and come to understand others.  What a relief!

One gets to the point where, instead of having automatic fear responses to differences, there is only curiosity.

We don’t have to automatically fight when there is a disagreement.  Instead, we can celebrate our diversity and be enriched by the views of others who have experienced things we have not.  We can learn from each other.

Imagine having the benefit of wisdom gained by a diverse group of people who have had experiences completely different than your own, to expand your scope of wisdom beyond your own life experiences.  Imagine feeling safe in being authentically YOU, in being celebrated for your own unique perspective, rather than being made to feel wrong because you are different.

So, next time you encounter a conflict, notice which is more important to you:

Is it to be RIGHT or is it to UNDERSTAND?

Some questions to think about:

Are you comfortable disagreeing with others?

Are there certain individuals that you aren’t allowed to or think you shouldn’t disagree with?

Who makes you feel “wrong” if you speak up to them?  About what issues?

Do you respect the opinions of others?

Are your personal opinions based on what you have been told you SHOULD think, or have you come to these conclusions based on personal experience and thoughtful reflection?

When someone says something you don’t agree with, do you automatically argue?  Do you feel that you must defend your opinions and actions?

When someone tells you a story, can you just think, “hmm…interesting” without jumping to a conclusion?

What are your personal “non-negotiable” items?  Do you think everyone should have these same principles?

When faced with a conflicting opinion, is your first thought “That is WRONG!” or is it, “Geez, I do not UNDERSTAND that!”

One response to “The Beauty of Conflict and Disharmony – A New Paradigm

  1. […] Our world is SO entrenched in determining what is right and what is wrong – this is such a deep-seated assumption – that to move beyond this assumption can be really, really tough for people.  See my post on Conflict. […]

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