One of the best cartoons of my era was “Garfield and Friends” (it still holds up well). On the show, Garfield sometimes ran into a group called “The Buddy Bears.” Three bears, dressed alike who had their own theme song. It went like this: “Oh we are the Buddy Bears, we always get along…we stay, we do a little dance, we sing a little song…if you ever disagree, it means that you are wrong…” This super positive group functioned pretty well until Garfield got involved. Their “always agree” attitude descended into petty bickering and arguments. One could argue that Garfield didn’t really cause the conflict as much as challenging them in a way that exposed what was really going on deep down.
The idea that conflict is always a bad thing and that we must agree 100% of the time is actually not healthy. While maybe this is counterintuitive, there are actually some positive things that can come out of conflict. If we avoid it (because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do) at all costs, we find this often creates other problems. What good can come out of conflict?
1. It can bring to the surface deeper issues needing to be addressed
For many reasons, we can “bury” things that should really be out in the light of day. Maybe our spouse does something we really don’t like but we don’t speak up. Maybe somebody did something that hurt us but we care more about keeping the peace then being honest with them about how their behavior impacted us. If we don’t speak up, none of these things have the chance of being resolved. The relationship will now be limited because it isn’t rooted in honesty. Also, by having some minor conflict now, we can possibly avoid an even more intense conflict later.
2. It forces us to improve how we communicate
When you work through conflict, you become aware that you aren’t always as skilled at communicating your thoughts and feelings as you thought you were. The other person (or people) may not understand you at first or just have a very different perspective. In the ensuing back/forth, you come to understand the power of listening to understand and then responding. You learn how to challenge your own assumptions and also share your perspective in a way that isn’t insulting or rude. Consider dealing with conflict to be the “boot camp” of communication.
3. It helps us identify the important stuff
While I do see value in safe, resolved conflict, I’m not advocating that you live your life walking around waiting to throw down at the least provocation. That’s no good either. Maturity allows us to absorb some slights or challenging behavior from others. However, often our gut will tell us the things we really should bring up even if it means conflict. Those things we “can’t let go” or come with a side of physical symptoms (ex. headaches, nervousness, sweaty palms etc.). When we approach conflict to attempt resolution, we’re finding out those things important enough to us that we’re willing to address it (even if it’s unpleasant).
4. Conflict can create opportunity for improvement
Ever experienced one of those hot, humid summer days when a raging thunderstorm pops up? While the storm itself can be pretty intimidating, the result is often that the weather changes to become cooler and much more pleasant. Conflict can work like that too. Through the discomfort of dealing with conflict comes real growth and improvement. This might be the most important point on this list because if we don’t have occasional conflict, we’re actually very limited in terms of growth. We don’t improve if we always get our way or we let someone else walk all over us. Some of the positive things that come out of conflict include better boundaries, making it clear to those close to us what we like and don’t like, improvement with how we relate to others and increased mutual respect.
5. It might end unhealthy, toxic relationships
I live in reality and because of this, I’m under no illusion that with a little healthy conflict all relationships will improve. Some conflicts will in fact shine light on relationships that should end because the other person has zero interest in improving things or adjusting their behavior. If the relationship continues reliant on us walking on eggshells and pushing down our true feelings…this isn’t really a relationship as much as you being held an emotional hostage. Conflict can illustrate how invested the other person is in their own growth, their own level of empathy and their dedication to understanding your perspective. Seeing this for what it is might lead you to reconsider the future of the relationship.
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