A conflictual situation?

Hmm, that’s unpleasant… Is it partly my fault?

In challenging situations or relationships we naturally focus on the way others have hurt us. But there’s one more thing – our part, the way we contributed to the situation.

This is the part we have most difficulty looking at. But it is the most useful, because it allows us to identify those things over which we have most influence – our own thoughts, words and actions. It also brings us the peace emerging from assuming responsibility.

In difficult situations or relationships – involving tensions, conflicts, mismatches of desires, in which we feel hurt – it is natural to focus on what others have done and how they’ve caused problems. At the moment it might be useful: we feel energised, we are reminded what our true priorities are and we more clearly see what changes we would like others to make. But all of these have a cost: getting fixated on prejudices (real or imaginary) makes it more difficult to recognise the qualities of those we don’t get along with, to identify influences of other external factors and recognizing our own contribution to the situation.

For example, let’s say that you work with someone that unjustly criticises you. It may be that this individual makes uncalled for observations or has a superiority complex. But maybe sometimes he does good too. There is also the influence of external factors to consider – for example a very busy boss that hasn’t given you much interest in some while, or colleagues that like gossip. What’s more, you have a role yourself: what you think, say and do.

Usually, we have a reduced influence over people that bother us or third parties – and that’s looking past macro factors, like the economy, the organizational culture, etc. In the external world we do what we can, but the opportunities to manage our reactions and improve our relationships are inside us.

It seems almost impossible to make peace with what bothers us as long as we don’t assume the responsibility for our own share of the situation. That doesn’t mean blaming ourselves and being excessively apologetic or letting our morale to drop. It means only assuming our share of responsibility over creating the situation and the way we reacted to it. Paradoxically, this will make us feel better.

Practically, how do we do this?

It’s not easy coming face to face with your share of a situation, so we’ll start with a positive “energy burst”. Remember how you felt when someone took care of you. Think of your best qualities. And remind yourself of all the benefits that could result for yourself and others from recognising your part.

Then, choose a situation or relationship. We will take three parts into consideration next: the individual you have a conflict with, you and other factors (including other people).

Identify five aspects:

  1. The way the other person hurt, disappointed or affected you in some way.
  2. The good thing that person has done, the qualities that you appreciate in them
  3. The way in which other people, social factors and past experiences made you feel unsatisfied, disappointed, etc… regarding that subject
  4. The way in which other people, social factors and other past experiences have brought you benefits or things you appreciate regarding that subject
  5. The benefits and contributions that you brought in this situation or relationship

Discern the difference between intention and impact. The intentions of someone, even if they are positive or neutral, could have negative consequences.

Now comes the sixth step, the most difficult one. Think about the way you’ve caused displeasure, disappointment and maybe how you’ve hurt the other person in that situation or relationship. Your contribution to the conflictual situation can be:

  • Innocent, for example:
    • you were in a certain place when something happened (for example, you were crossing the street on the crosswalk when a drunk driver hit you)
    • you wound up working in a collective with a very critical individual
    • you’re different from the others (younger, older, man, woman, etc.)
  • An opportunity to improve certain behaviors, attitudes, etc., like becoming aware of the fact that:
    • a particular word can be displeasing or considered offensive by others
    • you’ve had an exaggerated reaction to a minor issue
    • you need to become more involved in raising children
    • your husband/wife needs more attention from you
    • you need to organize better at the office
    • you talked/ dominated/ advised/ pressed too much
  • Moral mistakes (when we break our own principles and then we regret it
    • You were unjust
    • You raised your voice
    • You hit someone
    • You held grudges
    • You treated others like they wouldn’t matter
    • You used your power abusively
    • You didn’t care how it made them feel
    • You used being cold as a weapon
    • You neglected your responsibilities

The distinction between opportunity to improve and moral mistakes is a very important, both for ourselves, and for the ones we are in conflict with. We often miss the opportunity to improve because it seems to us that it would mean admitting a moral mistake and that would make us feel guilty. There are situations when for one person something is an opportunity to improve and for another is a moral mistake. Only you can decide what it means for you.

When you assume the responsibility for your contribution, do it with compassion for your own self. Remember that beside the things you’ve done that may have caused displeasure, you have a lot of qualities. Recognizing your own role in generating a conflictual situation is such a quality.

When we recognize our own share in a conflict, it doesn’t mean that the other person’s is reduced. We all have a contribution. The fact that we recognize our own encourages others to recognize their own.

Assuming your own role in generating or escalating a difficult situation is one of the hardest, but most honorable things someone can do.

Carmen Copindean

Senior consultant

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