Seeing the best in life's challenges

The Beauty of Conflict and Disharmony – A New Paradigm

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!”

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To Whom It May Concern:

To Whom It May Concern:

Before I begin, I want to be very, very clear to you about my perspective.  I want you to know that I totally respect you for who you are.  I have absolutely no interest in changing you, in telling you what you should do or think, or in judging your actions.  I realize that you may take what I say in that way, but that is not something I can control.  I can only express my intent – and how you interpret what I say is up to you.

I feel compelled to share my observations because the dynamics of our interactions make me extremely uncomfortable, and it is my impression that you have no idea that this is the case.  If I were in your shoes, this is something I would want to be aware of.  I don’t want you to say, someday, “why didn’t you ever tell me?”

From observation, I know that you have a very strong paradigm of how the world works, and the things people should do.  You have very clear likes and dislikes.  That is fine with me.  I just want you to know and understand that my view of the world is very different from yours.  Just because I am tolerant of your view of the world and don’t argue with you, doesn’t mean that I have the same view.  I am not interested in getting into arguments about which is “right” and which is “wrong.”  I am happy to agree to disagree.  But do understand that when one of your strong opinions condemns someone who thinks differently, well, sometimes that means you are condemning ME.  And that doesn’t feel so great.

I would just ask that you acknowledge that there are other viewpoints and offer me the same tolerance and respect that I offer you.

The truth is, when I spend time with you, I feel invisible.  You never ask me anything about me.   When I speak up and share, you don’t show much interest in listening.  Maybe you assume that I agree with you on everything.  Maybe you have no interest in understanding me.  Maybe you never even thought about it.  I don’t know.

You speak about the same topics every time I see you, and you seem to want to convince me that I should do, think and be the way you are.  You speak about what you think as if you must convert everyone else to your way of thinking.

I am not interested in competing.  It’s perfectly ok with me that you love doing certain things, that you have certain goals and priorities, that you find humor in your own way.  All of these things are cause for celebration, and I love that you are clear about who you are.

But I am not you.  My kids are not you.  I am only asking that you please allow me to be me.  And please allow my kids to be who they are and respect their right to make their own decisions, have their own life experiences, and learn their own lessons.

Last night you threatened one of my kids with never speaking to him again, if he didn’t make a certain decision in the way you would make it.  I know, the first thing you will say is, “it was only a joke, don’t be so sensitive.” You repeated your statement several times – it was not an off-hand, flippant remark.  And you habitually push your opinions of what he should do in this way.  You must realize that you are a powerful influence on him.  You are a model for his behavior. And I know from experience, that he turns around and uses this kind of strong-arm tactic on others, specifically on me and his siblings.  Then, when you hear about him doing this, you don’t understand why he does it.

It’s very hard to know how to communicate this to you.  I usually don’t speak up.  I realize that’s my own personal challenge to work on, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that.  I do have the impression that you are not interested in what I think.  So, more and more, I tend to avoid interacting with you.  I honestly don’t know if that is the best solution or not.

Last night, I did speak up.  I said that I thought my son should be able to make his own decisions.  I am not really sure how that went over.

I guess I want you to know that I am struggling with how to handle this and with how to communicate with you.  Which is why I am writing this down in this way.  I don’t know what the “solution” is.  I will continue to work on this.

I feel stuck.

Note to the Reader:  This is a very personal, very specific challenge I am working on.  I wonder if others have similar struggles, and I would be very interested in your thoughts.  This is not a situation that involves just one comment that made me uncomfortable.  This is a strong pattern of behavior that is getting increasingly difficult to watch and experience, particularly because I see the behavior showing up in my kids.   Of course, I talk to my kids about it and am clear with them about what I think.  But how much does one speak up to others about it?   Is avoidance the best tactic?  What if you can’t avoid being in the situation?  What if kind, gentle feedback doesn’t have any effect?  What if speaking up just feels like getting sucked into the drama?

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Always Be Nice!

Everybody likes nice people.

But what does it mean to be “nice,” anyway?  We know it when we see it, but how would you describe a nice person?

Here’s my list of what “nice” meant to me growing up:

Be kind.

Don’t cause problems or conflict.

Don’t criticize.  If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.

Don’t hurt another’s feelings.

Do what you can to get along with others.

Don’t complain if it’s not really important.

Be grateful for what you have.

Have a positive attitude.  Smile.

Be encouraging of others.

Put others before yourself.  Don’t be selfish.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

My mom’s mantra was “Always Be Nice.”  We would roll our eyes when she said it, but if you ask me, I would say that I agree with what she was saying.  It’s a good thing to be nice.

I was a nice kid.  I did get along with everyone.  I didn’t make waves or question authority or cause any trouble or stir anything up. I grew up in a nice family, with nice parents and grandparents, and nice sisters.  My extended family growing up was nice, too.  Nice, nice, nice.  I was lucky to have a happy childhood, free of almost any conflict.

For as long as I can remember, I always thought, why doesn’t everyone see that if we were all just kind and nice to each other, the world would be so much better for everyone?  If we just put the Golden Rule into practice?

Nice people tend to give others the benefit of the doubt, and assume that others are nice, too.  But that’s not always the case.  And therein lies the problem.

I will always make it a priority to be nice.  But I have learned, through living life, that not everyone in the world has this approach.

Being nice works really, really well when you are surrounded by other nice people.

And isn’t that true about any homogenous group of people?  It’s easy to get along with people that are all the same.  If you surround yourself with people that are “like you” then you don’t have to think too much, you can assume that everyone has the same values and opinions, likes to do the same kinds of things, etc.  It’s safe to stay within your own group and not have to question much of anything.

The challenge is to get along or even just to co-exist with people that are different.  Our world is full of diversity, and getting along with all kinds of people is a necessity if you are going to thrive in the real world.

Can you be too nice?  I think the answer is yes.  This subject area is a primary life lesson that I have worked on and learned a lot about.

Learning to Just Say No.  Nice people tend to be tolerant and submissive.  They tend to go along and get along.  They are “pleasers.”  Avoidance of conflict can get to the point where nice people find themselves in situations with other people that are uncomfortable.  These situations tend to develop over time, and nice people can find themselves dug into a hole because they never set limits.

I know I had to learn not to over-commit to activities.  I have always been involved in “causes” and organizations, from being involved in student government, sports and other activities in high school, to my sorority in college, to Junior League, to volunteering at my kids’ schools, to political campaigns.  Because I had a hard time saying “no”, at times I would find myself without enough time in the day to do everything, something would slip, and I would disappoint others.  Since I didn’t set limits, I made things worse, because I might leave someone else in a bind.  I still hate saying no, but I make myself be realistic about what I can handle, and I don’t end up disappointing others.

Learning to Speak Up or Disagree. Marrying into a family of very straightforward, sometimes brutally honest people has been a very good thing for me.  There is a fine line between being Too Nice and being Dishonest.  If you don’t speak up, how can you blame the other person for not understanding where you’re coming from?  You can’t fault others for not being empathetic (or reading your mind).

Being around people who are strong self-advocates, who are clear about what they want, can sometimes be overwhelming for a “nice” person.  I have developed the ability to disagree with others who have strong opinions, without getting nasty about it.  Interestingly, my 3 kids are born self-advocates, so they have helped me with this lesson as well.

Learning to Deal with Conflict.  If nice means “avoid conflict” then there will be problems.  Life is full of conflict.  You can pretend the conflicts don’t exist, but we all know they will only get worse unless you face them and deal with them.  Developing communication skills is a huge help with this.  Being clear and making myself understood are “nice” strategies to deal with conflict.  Learning how to “agree to disagree” is an invaluable skill.

Learning to be a Self-Advocate. One problem is that nice people can become targets.  The extreme examples are the kids who get molested, who are targeted because they are weak and needy and unlikely to speak up.  But nice people also get taken advantage of by friends, co-workers, and significant others.  Sometimes nice people can get lost when immersed in the “real world”.  This might be at work, in social situations, or with extended family.  They end up doing more work, taking on more responsibility, and fixing more problems than their fair share.

I had to learn to speak up and advocate for myself in situations where my interests were not being considered.  This used to be very uncomfortable for me, because I didn’t have experience dealing with conflict growing up.  Practice has made me much better at this.

Nice people can tend to get very agitated when other people aren’t being nice.  They think that nice people are good and people that aren’t nice, well, they aren’t so nice and they are hard to understand.  Nice people can have a hard time dealing with others who take a different approach and just wish everyone was nice like them.

The thing is, everyone is different, and there are lots of approaches to life.  I can’t expect everyone to make “being nice” their highest priority.  Others may see “being honest” as the greatest virtue.  There are as many approaches to life as there are people.

So it all comes down to balance.  As I’ve grown from my own life experience, I’ve developed my own style of interacting with others.  I still make “being nice” a priority, but I am much more straightforward and honest, in a gentle way.  I am much more thoughtful about my own limitations and careful not to just say yes or agree to do something because I am trying to avoid conflict or just be nice.  I pay attention to whether I am being over-asked to take on responsibilities by others who aren’t doing their part.  I don’t get involved in situations I don’t agree with.

Now that I have developed a more “blended” style of being, I notice how uncomfortable direct honesty can be for some very nice people, even when that honesty is presented gently.  They can assume that there is an agenda behind the directness, or they may just not be used to what feels like conflict.  It can be very hard to communicate directly with some nice people I know.

And a strong nice person can be very frustrating for those who are used to pushing nice people around.  I just smile and stand my ground.

For me personally, this is what my Garden of Power and Love looks like.  I needed to embrace Strength as well as Niceness and blend the two in a way that uses the best of both.  It’s something I continue to work on and refine.