The Hierarchy of Conflict

April 17, 2019

I’ve talked before about how negativity and criticism are crucial to growth and should be preserved. This time, I want to talk about conflict.

I’ve found that I have pretty differing reactions when I see or participate in conflict, depending on the situation.

If I see a couple bickering about whether or not they’re going to go out for dinner, I generally don’t have a good reaction. It tends to be a shallow argument, they’re probably hungry and in a bad emotional state, and ultimately one day eating in or out (usually) doesn’t matter.

There’s a more constructive version of this though.

Consider a couple discussing whether they should go out to eat as often as they do. A discussion like that might involve talking about the expense of eating out, how much they actually like going out to eat, whether they like to cook at home, and so on. It’s not perfect—it can still sometimes end up in a pointless entrenched argument—but at least something like this can be more productive.

But you can go deeper. What if that couple starts talking not about whether they should go out to eat as often, but the reasons why they like to go out to eat or not? Then you start getting into a discussion about what each person values and how they prefer to live their life.

This can be especially productive if you get people who are good at being introspective. Maybe one of them realizes that they like to go out to eat not because they like the food, but because they like to feel like they’re the kind of person that can eat out at nice restaurants. And maybe the other doesn’t feel that, because they don’t care for that kind of social validation and would rather spend the time and money on a more private hobby. Or maybe the one that likes to go out likes it because it’s the only time in which the two of them talk without interruption or distraction.

When you start getting to the core of things like this, you start realizing it’s not about eating out, or even about the concrete things like budget and preference. It’s about the people involved, the core reasons behind their emotions, and what they really care about deep down inside. It can even start going into their life philosophies, talking what, to them, is worthwhile to do, and what, to them, is considered a life well lived.

This can be really productive and meaningful, but this is still conflict! The two of them have opposing perspectives, and one way or another they’ll have to come to a compromise.

And while I find the first kind of conflict borderline intolerable, the latter kind of conflict is what I live for.

Deep conflict can expand your horizons. It can lead you to learn a lot about other people and other modes of thinking, and that might even leave you with some new tools in your toolbox to tackle new and different situations.

Not only that, once you get to the the core of the issue, you might be able to find other avenues to achieve that compromise. For our couple, maybe they just need to sit down and have more uninterrupted quality time, just talking, regardless of whether they eat out. Maybe the person who likes their hobby can cut back on spending in another area of their life to fund it. And maybe the person who needs social validation can satisfy that with a nicely-curated Instagram account where they get love and adoration from fans.

The problem is that getting to this kind of deep conflict can be hard.

First off, it actually takes deep knowledge of yourself. You need to be able to introspect, and find the core reason not just for what you want but why you want it, and that can sometimes be hard to come to terms with. The good news is that discussions like this, especially when done with someone you trust, can help you work through that. The bad news is that it’s not always easy to come to terms with.

Second, it takes a deep understanding of the other person, or at least a willingness to acquire that deep understanding. A lot of times, there’s a knowledge or experience gap between the two of you. You can’t have a discussion like this unless you acknowledge and address that gap, and addressing that can be very difficult.

Third, it actually takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable to someone. You’re opening up to them, and if you’re not comfortable with who you are, your values, and your choices, then you’re going to have trouble letting them take you to that kind of depth.

And lastly, because of the vulnerability required, it also takes tolerance and charity. If the other person sees you as a threat, they’re not going to be able to open up to you, and the conflict will quickly become shallow and adversarial again. Rather than actually working towards a deep shared understanding of each other, you’ll just be looking for opportunities to take potshots at their ideas, and that’s not productive.

This, by the way, includes people you find intolerable or disgusting. If you find you disagree vehemently with somebody on something fundamental, that’s all the more opportunity you have to expand both of your horizons.

That’s the hardest part of all this. The best way to convince someone else of something is to earn their trust, get down to the root of the conflict, and expose them to a different viewpoint, chipping away at their notion that their viewpoint is the only correct one. You can only really do that if you’re both engaging in good faith, but if you are, it can be powerful.

But to get to that, it takes patience, it takes tolerance, it takes an effort to be understanding instead of dismissive, and it takes persistence in the face of frustration.

The reward, though? Better relationships, better understanding, and a better, stronger way of changing people’s minds.