Mental Health: Resolving Conflict
As Published in the February 2007 Honor Cord(non-working link); as published by Phi Theta Kappa; contact the publisher for information on how to locate the archives and revised in 2018.
By: Kurt D. LaRose
Recently the folks of NPR identified a “mingling expert,” labeled as someone who “helps people enter conversations, take control of them, and make an escape [generally paraphrased; see the December 8th Morning Edition story].” The suggestion was (and is) that an escape is a good thing even in the innocuous matters of life. Admittedly, the NPR story addresses a minor conflict related to overcoming a monopolizing conversationalist, but its approach in resolving conflict – is exactly what most people do; they either try to overcome or they try to escape.
When an escape is made too soon (assuming it will ultimately be necessary for conflict resolution), it may very well be dysfunctional rather than goal oriented. Escapism as a normative practice (in matters that are not somehow life threatening that is) may be an overreaction. The same is true when the norm becomes one of frequent and ongoing attack (verbal or physical).
At times, safety risks are a part of conflict. When safety and harm are in question, conflict resolution generally and independently will not be sufficient to resolve the difficulties. Batterers, whether they are male, female, straight, or LGBTQ batterers, often need specialty counseling services which are generally outside the scope of simple conflict resolution, assertiveness matters, boundary confusion, couples counseling, and basic improved communication tools. Batterers usually should first be seen individually to assess what type of treatment is needed (a 1980’s Duluth based model or a more contemporary Wexler based model which includes research and literature that addresses non-conventional batterers, such as women and LGBT populations).
When patterns of escape and/or attack become the norm to address most conflicts – either response is an extreme, and in the extremes (where most mental health problems exist) conflicts are enabled and fostered rather than resolved. Ultimately in the extremes the world becomes a lonely, lonely place from which human relationships (internal and external) suffer.
When conflict becomes mentally, emotionally, physically (and some would argue spiritually) exhaustive – circular, unending, and ultimately injurious to the well-being and health of those involved, outside help is probably the next best consideration. So why don’t more people get help in the midst of what is obviously “exhaustive and injurious?” A part of the answer is in a person’s definition of conflict.
Conflict is that which occurs when any two (or more) perspectives are not in agreement with one another. Merriam-Webster uses terms such as “irreconcilability, war,” and “clash” to define what happens when “opposing elements, ideas or forces” meet one another. It doesn’t take much to imagine that “conflict” is unpleasant, difficult, intense, and at some level dangerous.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to understand why many people exert a great deal of time and energy to avoid matters that involve terms as strong as those used by today’s dictionary. Likewise, it’s not hard to imagine why it is that so many people blunder along in the midst of conflict; war is not easy (just ask George W. Bush) and irreconcilability doesn’t sound like connection or communication (just ask one out of every two married couples).
The reality is that everyone faces conflict at some level, from some perspective, internally or externally – all of the time. And without delving into specific examples, it is sometimes true fighting is the only option and it is also sometimes true that running is the best solution. But most conflicts include an emotional and a physical exertion of energy – whether the conflict is resolved or not – and even when the conflict is as innocuous as how to address an over zealous socialite. The reason that many conflicts go horribly wrong, is that the principle of fight or flight is present in the human condition anytime a real or imagined threat exists; even in the mildest of conflicts this principle can be identified – anecdotally and statistically. A common question is this: is there any “middle ground?”
The problem in failing to resolve conflict is that many people become consumed in debate and discourse over various (and almost universally known) details in a state of crisis at the awareness of problem identification. But in order for details to be effectively addressed most decisions of finality (instigating a war or running away with clever articulation) need to be a last resort in conflict resolution, rather than the first one (excluding situations of immediate and life threatening problems).
Some people appear to avoid and hide from conflict “at all costs” and others appear to thrive in the midst of them – it’s an ongoing example of the fight/flight mentality. Conflicts can be (and often are) destructive and havoc forming – but they don’t have to be, particularly when carefully navigated with a degree of sensitivity, direction, and purpose. Finding the middle ground – simply being aware of sensitivities, direction, and purpose – in the process of conflict, is easiest when done outside of either ends of extreme attempts to overcome or escape.
Sometimes resolution does not always mean an agreement of the elements, but rather it means accepting that the differences are not necessarily resolvable (for whatever reason) – and in so far as such irreconcilability does not hinder growth – such differences can co-exist – even if they must do so separate one from the other.
In looking at the process of human development to be “separate one from the other” is full of conflict – which can be healthy and necessary to thrive. Here’s a list of life scenarios to consider: the baby that is born must be separated from the mother in order to do just that (the conflict began in the process of birth); the adolescent must be encouraged to reach independence while simultaneously following a set of rules (the conflict is knowing when to speak and when to be quiet – for both the child and the guardian); the abused and beaten wife who eventually leaves the batterer to find that not all people beat those they espouse to love (the conflict is the process by which both parties remain in such a relationship); the alcoholic who puts down the bottle and substitutes it with a different kind of help (the conflict may have been the loss of a job, a spouse, or jail time – or even that which it takes to walk in to a twelve step meeting for the first time).
As a mental health professional, a counselor and a therapist, in every scenario case after case after case – conflict is a key culprit that must be addressed. The conflict almost always begins as an internal one. The urge to fight and/or the urge to run is usually strong before the first words are spoken related to the problem itself. At some point an acceptance of the idea of conflict as a simple part of life, and our responses to it, must be labeled. It starts with an important question that requires the enunciation of a war (or an escape from it) and the productive enunciation often goes something like this: do I need help or not so that my initial reactions and responses are fitting to the situation at hand (this stress and anxiety summary discusses how the body works when it is upset)?
It’s a great question, that can only be answered when and if the opposing and differing elements are looked at from all perspectives and the clash of settlement is undertaken given that conflict will be what it is – a conflict. The key ingredients in resolving conflict are in sensitivity, direction and purpose – outside of the extremes. Consensus, cooperation, agreement, and respect for the health and well-being of others is seldom resolved in the stance of battle or in position of running away. Even so, sometimes both responses are appropriate in some conflicts – but not usually.