Let’s Talk About… Conflict

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.

This is Episode 88 and this week I’m talking about conflict. In this episode I’ll cover what conflict is, why understanding conflict is important, and how to manage conflict in a healthy manner. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.

Find links to other available podcasting services here. Now also available on Amazon Music.

Watch Episode 26 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m sharing more ways to look after your mental health at work.

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This podcast episode was originally released on 18 July, 2021.

Hello and welcome to Episode 88, and thanks so much for joining me!

This week is all about dealing with conflict, which you’ll hopefully find to be one of those topics that can help you out in lots of different situations — at home, at work, with friends and family, and even just in your life generally. Conflict can take a lot out of us emotionally and it can have a lot of far-reaching consequences, so this episode is going to focus on how to manage conflict in a healthy way (you’ll notice I said ‘manage conflict’ rather than avoiding conflict, because unless you live in a bubble you are very unlikely to avoid conflict completely, so it’s up to each of us to learn skills to deal with it in a constructive way).

Before I begin with today’s content, in this week’s episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV I’m sharing more simple ideas for better mental health at work, which is a continuation from the content I covered in Episode 87 of the podcast with additional ideas for you to consider. Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV is now available on both YouTube and IGTV over on Instagram, and you’ll also find every video published at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au under the ‘YouTube’ tab. And just to make it even easier to watch, you’ll find the link in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.

So, with that covered, on with this week’s episode about conflict… 

Introduction

One of my absolute favourite bands from the 1980’s are the Thompson Twins; they were one of my earliest musical obsessions and I still listen to almost everything that they’ve ever released on a regular basis. One of their most famous songs was Hold Me Now, which is all about conflict and emotional turmoil in a relationship, and so I thought I’d start this episode off by quoting it because (a) it’s relevant to the topic and (b) it gives me an opportunity to talk about my love for the Thompson Twins. So the line I wanted to talk about is: 

“We fuss and we fight and delight in the tears that we cry until dawn”

‘Hold Me Now’ — Thompson Twins 

Now consider yourself fortunate that I didn’t sing that, because I’m tempted but I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I wanted to share that line because it speaks to a specific type of conflict that most, if not all, of us would be familiar with: conflict where there is emotional attachment involved. I’ll be exploring all types of conflict today, but that emotional piece is one that I’ll be coming back to later on.

I’m someone who is fairly assertive, so it may come as a surprise to learn that I don’t actually particularly like conflict. I think there’s a perception of assertive people as being willing and able to go into battle at a moment’s notice, and for me at least that just isn’t the case — conflict often makes me feel sick in the stomach. Having said that, as someone who is assertive I will most definitely stand up for myself and for others even if it might feel uncomfortable sometimes… and so if that leads to conflict, then so be it. 

The thing is that most of us do want to get along with people as much as possible, however the reality is that we’re not all going to agree 100% of the time. How could we, when we’re all unique individuals with our own wants, needs, values and beliefs? We’re all coming at things from our own angles, and sometimes that’s going to lead to conflict. The trick is learning how to deal with conflict, when it inevitably arises, in a way that is healthy and solution-focused, which is what I’m exploring today.

So, let’s take a look at some definitions and talk about…

What is conflict?

Conflict refers to a serious disagreement or argument, and it’s typically one that is lengthy and drawn-out. Sure, you can have conflict over fairly minor things, however most of those tend to fade into insignificance pretty quickly because there are always lots of things going on in life. In general, however, ‘conflict’ tends to be about disputes or clashes between two or more people (yes, I know it’s possible to have inner conflict as well however today I’m focusing more on your relationships with others — if you are dealing with internal conflict, you might find Episode 43 about self-esteem helpful along with Episode 62 on self-awareness and Episode 78 on self-worth).

Conflict can occur in almost any relationship, from personal to professional and even, potentially, with total strangers (I mean, that’s what half the internet’s for!), and often it comes down to a clash of values or beliefs (or both) or, especially in the case of personal relationships, feeling that your needs aren’t being met.

Conflict can be awkward and even uncomfortable, but not all conflict is bad; we’re never going to agree with one another 100% of the time. Why? Because we human beings just aren’t wired that way — if we were, we wouldn’t still be finding new and inventive ways to go to war with one another. I’ve pointed out in previous episodes that there are nearly 8 billion of us living on this planet of ours and the one thing we all have in common is that we are unique; we each have our own values and beliefs, as well as our own individual wants and needs, combined with our unique way of looking at the world based on our individual life experiences, so there is always going to be some type of conflict because some of those beliefs and values are going to be in total disagreement with others (just to be clear here, I’m most certainly not advocating war or saying it’s inevitable — much like Boy George and Culture Club, I believe that war, war is stupid and people are stupid and love means nothing in some strange quarters… did I just turn The War Song into a philosophy piece? Yes. Yes, I did. You’re very welcome…)

So back to the point at hand. If conflict is inevitable, why not just give in to it then? Well, there is a big difference between healthy conflict versus unhealthy conflict, and if we just give in to the unhealthy stuff then we’ll be back in the dark ages running around and hitting one another over the head with clubs, which isn’t particularly good for society. And that’s kind-of the point: unhealthy conflict creates damage to the fabric of society. We’re never going to agree on things 100% of the time, but we can find some middle ground together and, where necessary, make compromises to take actions that are in the best interests of the greater good. Look, I know that often I come at things in this podcast with a strong viewpoint on individual mental health and society in general being interwoven, which is in part due to the fact that I majored in both psychology and sociology, but I do that because facts are facts: you are part of a society, and society is part of you. When there is unhealthy conflict, it causes issues for all of us collectively and each of us individually at the same time. I know, I know, philosophy again, but there you go…! So that leads me to the next piece of today’s topic, which is…

Why understanding conflict is important

And it’s important because if conflict isn’t addressed and dealt with, it can very quickly grow and become a much bigger issue than what initially sparked the conflict — I mean, every single war that has ever been fought didn’t just start because of something small. Think about times in your own life where relationships have broken down with people in the past; although there may have been one or two incidents that became the final straw it is fairly likely that issues had been occurring for a long time leading up to that ‘final straw’ (not the case in every relationship, but fairly common nonetheless). A lot of conflicts involve multiple issues building up over time until it reaches a point of no return and becomes unmanageable, whether that’s in terms of no longer being able to communicate effectively or wanting to get as far away from the person as possible. 

Like I said earlier, conflict can happen with anyone — friend, family member, partner, co-worker, neighbour — and even though there can, of course, be conflict with total strangers (there are entire social media platforms devoted to it — hello Twitter and Reddit!), a lot of conflict involves an emotional element to it, which is more something that can come from either being close to someone or being in an environment (like work) where our safety and security needs are tied up in the relationship. For example, if you have a boss who is a bit of an idiot and insists on making everything about themselves and will not take constructive criticism from others, it’s likely you’ll end up in some sort of conflict because your work is what puts food on your table, so you feel emotionally connected to it (by the way, like I said last week in Episode 87, if you work in a toxic environment then get the hell out of there!). 

Conflict can be an opportunity to state your needs in a calm and rational way (which, I know, is much easier said than done… and I’ll be coming back to this piece in more detail in the how-to section), and it’s also a chance to communicate openly with the other person if they are willing to come to the table and discuss ways to move forward. And if not? Well that’s why there’s an entire industry built up around conflict resolution; this stuff isn’t easy because we want things to go our way in life and when they don’t it can create issues. 

The other bit I want you to think about here in terms of why understanding conflict is important is that most people don’t particularly enjoy conflict; sure, there are some who seem to thrive on it and they usually wind up in senior management roles or running countries, and those people should be avoided like your life depends on it (so if you work for one of those toxic people, again get out now!)… but in general we have conflict with others because we feel threatened or insecure or not seen. Most conflicts have a strong emotional element to them, and those are the ones that are harder to walk away from if we have to because we have a lot invested in both the relationship and the conflict itself, in terms of wanting to find a positive outcome. Sometimes you’re just not going to get a happy ending, so you may have to settle for a neutral or even negative outcome as a means of preventing more damage in the future.

So how do you do all of that in a constructive way? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode and talk about…

How to manage conflict in a healthy manner

OK so let’s start with the biggest point which is to accept that conflict is not always avoidable and that’s not an entirely bad thing — the difference in healthy versus unhealthy conflict is how you deal with it. Conflict can either lead to arguments or it can lead to growth, depending on how you approach it. 

So, let’s explore that idea a bit further with a few points to consider before we get into the really nitty-gritty detail of what to do in a conflict, beginning with…

Know that there are three sides to every argument: yours, theirs, and the truth — OK, so when we’re in any type of situation with another person you have full knowledge of yourself and your intentions, but you can only really judge the other person on their actions and behaviours since you can never fully know what their intentions are. The same applies for them in dealing with you, and so that’s why I say that the truth of the situation lies somewhere in the middle — it’s very rare that anybody is ever 100% right or 100% wrong because the way we define ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is tied up in our wants and needs (which is something I explored in Episode 72 about truth). Rather than trying to be right, focus on finding a solution (and I’ll come back to that in a minute). First, let me talk about my next thing to consider which is…

Understand that most, if not all, reactions are rooted in something deeper than just the situation itself — we all have reactions to people and situations that are grounded in learned behaviours that have developed over time based on our experiences. Knowing what yours are is a big part of self-awareness, which I talked about in Episode 62. For example, I get really annoyed when my partner interrupts me (and I mean really annoyed) and I know it’s often a part of general conversation where discussion overlaps, but there are times where I’m trying to express a specific point and then if I’m cut off it can be really frustrating. The thing there is that the frustration comes from not feeling able to express my point, but that actually stems backs to childhood where my mother was notorious for doing that and she would often fly into a rage at anything that she didn’t want to hear — and she still does it; she literally just did it to me earlier today on the day I’m recording this because I had to discuss some stuff related to her health situation with her and she refused to accept any of it, and instead told me off then hung up on me. Bear in mind that I went seven and a half years without talking to her and we’ve only been in touch again for a year, and so this was actually the first time I’ve been yelled at like that in many years… so when it happened, I actually found myself shaking with anger and frustration afterwards. Now because I know what triggered that response in me, I’m not going to do or say anything else for a little while so that I can let those emotions fade and then take more rational action later. Like I said earlier, when there are emotional attachments involved it can heighten the situation so it’s important to be aware of that and to take time to come up with a more considered approach — it’s that old saying that hurt people hurt people, so do what you can to minimise the collateral damage if you’re feeling some type of way. When you know yourself and where your reactions come from, you’re better able to understand why particular feelings are surfacing. Which leads me to my next thing…

You are not always right — I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re not. Sometimes you will say or do things that hurt other people’s feelings, and all you can do is accept accountability (which I explored in Episode 16). That doesn’t mean that the other person involved in the conflict is right either; it just means that there is conflict and trying to prove who is right is a recipe for disaster. Instead, focus on accepting the situation as is (which I explored in Episode 36) and taking accountability where you need to.

OK so now let’s talk about some tactical steps for dealing with conflict if and when it happens, beginning with… 

Pause for 10 seconds and then reflect before you do anything — when your emotions are triggered, you go into autopilot mode; I talked about emotional reactions in Episode 57 and I recommend checking that out for more on the subject, but the main thing I want to say here is that if you react on those initial emotions you will likely create a big old mess that requires more than just a mop and bucket to clean up. When you pause for at least 10 seconds, you allow your rational mind time to catch up with your emotional reactions — so rather than just getting into a heated argument with someone because you’re running on pure instinct, you can instead pause and take a much more thoughtful approach to the situation once your emotions have simmered down a little. And be mindful that we all have emotional reactions, so this also gives the other person an opportunity to simmer down as well.

Ask questions and really listen — communication is two-way, and it’s vital if you’re going to make any progress. You don’t have to like what the other person is saying or even agree with them, but simply listening can sometimes help you to better understand where they’re coming from and that can give you a lot of information about what is really happening here, because conflict is very often about much more than just the specific situation that you might be arguing over. If it’s not clear why they’re acting a certain way, ask them why in a non-confrontational manner — for example, you could say, “Can you help me to understand where you’re coming from?”. Not only will you gather more information to help you approach the situation thoughtfully, but it also shows the person that you are ready and willing to listen… and frankly most people just want to feel seen and heard. I mean, some are irrational idiots, but most people just want to be seen and heard! So, speaking of ‘why’, my next point is…

Explain your why — other people cannot read your mind and they may not know where you’re coming from, so tell them (again, in a rational and non-confrontational way). Yes this might require you to be a little vulnerable, and that’s OK — it might feel uncomfortable, but we tend to respond much better to people that are authentic than we do those who are in pure hard-nosed fight mode. Be open and transparent about what’s behind your side of the conflict; you may need to take some time to yourself first to think it through so that you can fully understand your own reactions. Next…

State your needs in a calm, rational and fair way — once you’ve explained your why, explain your needs calmly and in a way that is fair; what I mean there is that trying to change another person or bend them to your will isn’t particularly fair and will likely lead to more conflict when they inevitably fail to meet your expectations. You cannot control what another person does or doesn’t do; all you can do is explain your needs and ask them to work with you, and then it’s up to them. Some people will come to the party, and some people won’t. This is very much about being respectful and mindful, and knowing that it’s not about winning but instead it’s about resolving a conflict. Next…

Be willing to negotiate and compromise — you are not going to get your way all the time. Sorry about it! That means that you will need to be open to compromise from time to time and work with others to reach a middle ground that you are both willing to accept, even if it’s not your preferred outcome… and that might mean one or both of you need to concede a little in order to gain an agreement. That doesn’t mean that you just roll over and let yourself be treated like a doormat, but let’s be very clear here that negotiation and compromising are foundations of both peace of mind and peace in general. And if you’re not convinced, asked yourself what’s more important: winning, or being able to move on with your life with peace of mind? Because you cannot have both.

Next, take a break if you need to before you deal with conflict — so you know that 10 second thing I talked about just before? You might need a bit longer — or a lot longer — and if that’s the case, take a break. Step away from the person or situation for a little while and give yourself time and space to sort through your thoughts. This allows you to think about things more constructively and to come back with a rational response, rather than just reacting. Next…

Pick your battles — I’m a firm believer in addressing small issues before they become big issues, but sometimes you have to pick your battles. There are some people you will never see eye to eye with and so if that’s the case, modify your approach and decide what is worth standing your ground over versus what you’re willing to let go of. My next point is…

Find a third party to mediate if necessary — if the situation is really bad, find someone neutral to mediate; there are plenty of dispute resolution services out there, and the piece here is having someone completely neutral (so please don’t drag family or friends into it!). And my final point is…

Be prepared to walk away if you need to (and actually do it if it gets to that) — sometimes the only way to deal with conflict is to remove yourself from the situation. If it comes to that, do it; your peace of mind is far more important than any other consideration.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to conflict and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: You’re not going to agree with everybody all of the time, just as they are not going to agree with you all of the time — and that’s fine. The piece here is to handle conflict in a dignified and healthy way; instead of screaming matches and ultimatums, focus on communication and negotiation. Regardless of the situation and whether it’s something happening at work or at home, unresolved conflict leads to negativity and stress and often it will cause relationships to break down entirely, and so the best approach is to deal with things as early and as quickly as possible and choose to focus on finding a middle ground in order to identify potential solutions.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Wayne Dyer, and it is:

“Conflict cannot survive without your participation.”

Wayne Dyer

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about difficult choices. Sometimes in life we have to make tough decisions, the type of choices that can feel painful to make or which can have long-term consequences for ourselves and the people around us, and when we’re faced with those types of decisions it can be challenging to manage all of the feelings that may come with them, like fear or guilt. So how do you handle these types of situations while still looking after your mental health and wellbeing? Well, next week I’ll be talking about what difficult choices are, why approaching them thoughtfully matters, and how to manage difficult choices in a healthy way.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 25th of July. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday. 

Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for my weekly newsletter. You can also find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.

Follow Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest at @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content daily.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with someone who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworkerbecause word of mouth helps other people to find Let’s Talk About Mental Health! Thank you 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.

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