Many people do not recognize the benefits of conflict. Instead, they avoid it at all costs. They’ve been trained to be nice, and conflict just seems so “ugly.” Witnessing conflict wrenches their gut, and the thought of engaging in it fills them with dread and fear.
Some people jump into conflict with both feet, screaming and protesting and complaining until they find themselves at the doctor’s office with high blood pressure or the emergency room with a heart attack, maybe even finding themselves calling a friend to bail them out of jail. None of these reactions to conflict are truly helpful.
Even though conflict seems to be a painful and regrettable reality in today’s world, if we look more deeply we can see that there are several benefits to conflict that most have not considered.
You don’t really want a conflict-free life.
Let me tell you a story.
Yesterday, my alarm clock rang. I turned it off and got out of bed, walked into the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. Making my way to the kitchen table, I sat down and drank a few cups. I fixed breakfast and ate it. Finally, I got dressed, put on my makeup, and headed out the door. I arrived at work, hung up my coat, went to my desk, and did the same thing I do every day. . . . Bored yet? I am.
Now let me tell you another story.
Yesterday, my alarm clock rang. I turned it off and got out of bed, walked into the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. Making my way to the kitchen table, I sat down and and drank a few cups, mentally rehearsing the difficult conversation I planned to have with my boss the minute I got to work. I fixed breakfast but had difficulty forcing it down. Finally, I got dressed, put on my makeup, and headed out the door only to stumble over the beaten, bruised, bloody body of a stranger!
The first “story” isn’t a story at all. It’s a catalogue of actions with no real plot, no momentum, nothing of real interest. The second story begins in the same way, but as soon as conflict is introduced, the reader is “caught.” She’s intrigued and pulled into the story.
Now, I’m not advocating a life filled with fights at work and dead bodies at your doorstep. Nor am I arguing that the second story is a great story. I’m just saying that contrast and conflict is what moves a story along; it’s what makes a story worth reading. It’s also what makes a life worth living.
Stay with me . . .
Conflict adds interest and choice.
We usually think of conflict as being a serious disagreement, a strong argument, or even war. But conflict doesn’t always have to be defined so strongly. It can also be incompatible needs, interests, or philosophies. If you take away the strong emotion that usually accompanies conflict, conflict can simply become contrast.
In most areas, we welcome contrast. We like choosing what we want to eat from the vast spread at a buffet. We’re glad everyone at the party doesn’t have on the same outfit we do. We like meeting people from different geographical areas and backgrounds and occupations. However, when the contrasts are ideological, sometimes we are not as welcoming.
Conflict helps us identify preferences.
Often, it’s easier to identify what we don’t like than what we do. If I witness someone living a stressed, over-busy life, my negative reaction helps me realize that I deeply desire a life of peace and flow. When we encounter or witness conflict, in that moment it’s very simple to see the contrast between what we don’t want and what we do want. It can be something as small as seeing someone break in line at the grocery store and realizing that we’d really like everyone to wait their own turn or as serious as seeing someone discriminated against for any reason and passionately wanting all people to be treated fairly.
We don’t have to camp out in a place of anger, judgment, and conflict. The contrast that we witness can help us choose to be for the dignity of all human beings, and all our energies and actions can flow towards what we do want.
Conflict provides opportunities for growth.
Many people like to surround themselves with others who see the world just as they do, who think the same way and hold the same passionate beliefs. This conflict-free environment, however, prohibits critical thought and robs us of situations that could encourage us to grow and expand.
If we can approach other viewpoints and philosophies with interest rather than antagonism, we may find that there are some points of agreement scattered among the contrast. Alternately, we may become even more sure of our own position but develop a newfound respect for the other. Even after open-minded examination, we may sometimes find ourselves so completely against an opposing viewpoint that we find it hard to discover any common ground. However, our strong disagreement can benefit us because it stokes our passion and provides momentum to move in the opposite direction.
Conflict strengthens relationships.
If two people in a committed relationship ignore conflicts, they dance around a ticking time bomb. Rather than avoiding conflict out of fear, they should embrace it.
If the area of conflict is stated clearly, discussed openly and lovingly with the best interests of both parties honored, a mutually agreeable solution can be found and the relationship is strengthened. The parties grow closer, realizing that they care enough about each other to face difficulties and solve them. In this way, relationship conflicts become opportunities rather than liabilities.
Conflict can be difficult and unsettling. However, if we take a moment to consider the potential benefits of conflict, we can move forward with confidence. We can realize that no matter the challenges we face, conflict can add to the texture of life, help us navigate sometimes-difficult choices, benefit relationships, and provide the impetus we need to be the changes we want to see in the world. Only then can we appreciate and wisely navigate conflict rather than run from it.