Conflict Makes Me Cringe


Conflict makes me cringe. I don’t watch reality TV shows in which judges give bad news, I leave the room when people argue, I can’t watch the presidential debates, and I rarely send my steak back, even when it’s a little too red. My mantra is Can’t everyone just get along? Can’t everyone just realize that it’s never just about them?

Of course, there are good things about my peacemaker instincts, but the value of being open to criticism is well known. In the fable of the musical tiger and tortoise, the tortoise manages to perfect his musical instrument by leaving it on the road and hiding next to it when travelers passed by so he can hear their criticisms and change his instrument accordingly. And at TED Global 2012, Margaret Heffernan recounts the story of Dr. Alice Stewart’s research that uncovered the dangers of x-rays for pregnant women, something that was unthinkable at the time. Alice was able to speak with confidence about her findings because she collaborated with a statistician named George who, rather than working the data to prove her findings, did everything he could to disprove her theories. Her confidence was driven by conflict. Heffernan acknowledges that purposefully collaborating to produce conflict is difficult. She says, it takes “finding people who are very different from ourselves. We have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different experiences, and different ways of thinking, and we have to engage with them.”

I would love to be able to adopt this attitude and practice at times. I would also love to teach it to my children. But I’m kind of at loss for how to do either.

Also, I’m aware of the need for balance. As an academic, I often get tired of what Peter Elbow calls “the doubting game,” or the need to always be looking critically at others’ writings and ideas. I see the need for Elbow’s “believing game” as well—intentionally believing others so we can adopt their points of view for a time until we can better see where they’re coming from rather than immediately rejecting or criticizing their ideas.

Which do you find yourself doing more—believing or doubting? How has conflict, criticism, or difference been beneficial in your life? And how do we balance the need for being open to criticism and difference with the need for believing, both in others, as Elbow suggests, and in our own selves? How have you taught either one to your children?

About Catherine

(Prose Board) has worked as a cherry sorter, file girl, piano teacher, writer, editor, and college professor. She currently works full-time as the art director, events planner, chauffeur, and referee for her four children. She spends a good deal of her time running—be it down the supermarket aisle after an escaped child, around the living room in a heated game of flag football, or on early-morning runs/therapy sessions with her neighborhood friends. She earned her BA and MA in English from BYU and her PhD in English from UMass Amherst.

10 thoughts on “Conflict Makes Me Cringe

  1. I believe your children are at a much better advantage watching you as a peacemaker, than they ever would be learning to be the doubter. I wish I were more like you!

  2. I like to play the devil’s advocate and I love to sit in on a good discussion/debate of people with opposing views — as long as it’s not heated or mean and the topic interests me. That is one of the things I miss the most from my college days. My friends used to talk about things for hours, and while I am not qualified/knowledgeble enough to participate in such conversations, I absolutely love to sit and listen to them and think through it (with their already-thought out reasoning)to figure out what I think. I like to understand both sides of an issue/story. I naturally tend to try to figure out multiple reasons of why people may behave the way they do, so again, I naturally try to see things from more than one viewpoint.
    On the other hand, I am very much a believer type, rather than a doubter.

  3. i really dislike confrontation – which is similar to conflict. i don’t like that either. i haven’t yet found a very healthy way to deal with it, or teach about it. my mantra is kind of to avoid it at all costs!

  4. My beta personality takes over when there is any type of confrontation- I too will avoid it at all costs. However,I enjoy both hearing and participating in an discussion of view points with a respectful tone and supporting background information. The first is a prideful attempt to frighten and demean other people the second is a sincere effort to share insights and expand knowledge. There is a huge difference. To understand the difference is the key.

  5. I feel the same way about conflict, and especially contention. I like to listen to NPR, but have found myself changing the station when discussions get heated. Last week I had to attend a workshop on leadership for my job, and one of the things we talked about was managing conflict. We had to take a self-assessment of our particular style, and I ended up with the most points in the ‘avoidance’ style and the ‘winning’ style. As I thought about it, I realized that I either avoid any sort of confrontation or criticism, or if I have to correct someone or express my ideas, I’m so afraid of discussion and criticism that I just try to plow through everyone to get what I want. Neither of those things are good, either in parenting or at my job!

    I grew up in a home where I didn’t learn good conflict management skills, and I realized as an adult that I had no idea what the differences are between conflict and contention or healthy and unhealthy criticism. I also never learned how to state my opinions with confidence in a way that still gives people the right to their own opinions. I’m still figuring all this out–but instead of avoiding the issue, I try and learn more. I attend seminars like the one I mentioned when I have the chance at work, I read books and articles, and I practice. Because I want to do better and I want my kids to learn how to be confident in their own opinions, how to accept criticism, how to properly debate and discuss, and how to deal with contention.

    Like I said, I try and practice these things when I get a chance. Little things like speaking up when my food isn’t right at a restaurant, not changing the dial when people are strident on the radio (and listening to their arguments even when I don’t agree), and discussing things with my kids rather than trying to just convince them that my opinions are best.

  6. I too avoid conflict like the plague! It is such an interesting idea to have someone work hard to disprove your theory or to try and disprove it. It reminds me of an idea I recently heard in a professional development class on teaching argument writing. After the kids write a solid thesis with great claims they have to trash it. Write criticisms and counter-claims against the very thing they worked hard to develop. I think if we do this for our own perspectives it can make us more empathetic and see the story from many sides.

  7. If we all avoided conflict or confrontation, Hitler would have taken over the world. I know that I need to seek for a more peaceful way to live; grew up in a world of ugly fighting, which became normal to me. But I also believe that many of the great things in the world happened because somebody stood up and confronted the status quo. Sometimes there isn’t a middle ground.

  8. Grandma Honey, I think you’re right–we definitely need more examples of peacekeeping than we do of doubting.

    Strollerblader, what a great practice–to try to think about the multiple possibilities for why people behave the way they do!

    jennifer, great distinction. I would love to be able to teach my children the latter. Teaching by example would be a great way, but I don’t typically experience a lot of that in my life anymore. Family dinners growing up had some of this.

    Jessie, I need to take more opportunities to discuss things with my children. My dad did a great job of this when I was growing up–he always asked our opinions and listened as though they mattered.

    Jennie, that’s a great idea! I’m going to file it away for when I teach composition again.

    annegb, excellent point. Margaret Heffernan emphasized that in her TED talk too. She said that studies show that when someone stands up to confront unjustice, others tend to emerge as well. They thought the same thing but didn’t care step forward.

  9. We are working on making our home a safe place for expressing ideas and feelings. We still have a ways to go, but I have a strong testimony of the power of the family council. We often don’t hold formal councils…we just talk repeatedly about the principles associated with good councils and try to be conscious about when family dynamics are violating those principles so we can try again.

    My husband and I were raised in homes that handled conflict differently so it’s quite a challenge to both try to identify and try to break free from family patterns while also wanting to ‘be good examples.’ It’s messy as anything but I think simply by caring and trying and trying again and being real about where we fall short can help.

    I also think when it comes to children, they have to know they are loved before they can be ready for ‘constructive criticism’ dynamics. And I don’t think we as parents alone can provide that foundation for them with our love alone. I think they have to come to know and feel the truth of the doctrine of God’s love for themselves through the Spirit. I say that because I lean on that a lot. I can see how and where our weakness fails my kids at times so I could very easily lose hope, which only exacerbates bad coping and communication strategies. It’s that whole ‘true doctrine understood, changes attitudes and behavior’ thing.

  10. Conflict avoidance is truth avoidance, not to put to fine a point on it. Avoiding conflict is not necessarily the same thing as being a peacemaker. The truth is still inside you, the conflict still exists but you create a schism within yourself which leads to resentment and anger if you don’t speak your truth. It doesn’t mean that you go down in a fiery battle to preserve your belief that the pot roast was dry, but simply putting it out there and doing what you reasonably can to find a solution (offering up a new pot roast recipe).

    When we are in a position of power, be that church leadership, parent or mentor, we should be very careful that we are not exercising any type of unrighteousness dominion that doesn’t allow dissenting views to be expressed without ugly contention. Which can be as simple as asking if anyone feels differently and modeling how to disagree without being contentious (there is a difference).

    Personally, I have found the amount of contention and anger in my life decreases when I allow conflict. Expressing how I feel and believe is a proper use of my agency while keeping quiet feels like abdication of my agency, which was Satan’s plan.

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