What If Interpersonal Conflict Was Actually Healthy For You?


The following is a guest post by Consulting and Coaching firm, Thrive! inc.  

I know, I know – how can conflict be healthy?!

Let’s start by defining conflict

Conflict is when there are differing opinions, strong emotions, and varying intentions or desires. It’s natural whenever one or more of us living, breathing beings joins together.

Conflict is simply a build-up of energy, chi, vitality, life-force between us. These are all qualities most of us want more of in our life. However, most of us are uncomfortable when that energy or tension builds between you and I, between what you think, feel and want, and what I think, feel and want.

What you may not be aware of is: tension within and between us is our collective creative potential. It’s our creative resource. However, we have been misinformed and have learned to avoid, dampen, or bully our way through those conflict moments.

Yes, this defuses the tension, which momentarily may make you feel like you dodged a bullet. But it also defuses that chi, vitality, life-force and collective creative potential.

Hmm, that’s too bad, huh?

Why We Avoid Conflict

The way we evolved made conforming versus disagreeing a smarter choice. Back when saber-toothed tigers roamed the earth, the way we stayed alive was to belong to the tribe. If you were too opinionated, you were kicked out of the tribe and died.

Plus, early in this life we needed to rely on others to survive. We learned to please and conform in order to get our needs met. It was a healthy choice back then. But most of us got stuck making that choice to the point where we lost our connection to what we really wanted, thought or felt.

We lose our internal connection to that greater universal energy flow, some call it soul, within us.

Why Dogs Keep That Connection

Nature gives us plenty of evidence that conflict is not only healthy, but necessary.

Just travel to your nearby dog park, and watch the interchange of the pack. You can track all sorts of non-verbal communication – signs and signals of play, fight, might, and flight. A dog’s ability to read and respond to those signs and signals is critical.

Just watch an older dog give a firm reminder to a pup that enough is enough. It’s strong and clear. It’s conflict. Each dog is expressing its own opinion, and most of the time all of that happens quickly and without harm. It creates an environment where conflict is healthy and an important part of the communication chain so that each dog can play and engage fully. They invent games, stay entertained, and seem to have a grand time.

Why is it so easy for dogs to work with conflict? Well, dogs don’t get all caught up in stories and interpretations. They simply pick up the energy, and go from there!

Vibrational Energy

As living beings, we pop out into this physical experience as unique vibrational expressions from the universal energy. Our life-force or soul is our own signature of vibrational, raw energy. The life force of any infant is palpable and distinct. Just ask any parent, who has more than one child, how different each child was when they held them.

As we said earlier we arrive helpless and need to survive by relying on those around us. This initial survival need soon becomes something else. As we grow up, in order to fit in and be considered a part of family, community, society we learn to conform and please the world around us. We make ourselves fit into our culture, our family, our school system, or our business.

Relationship Template

What we may not realize is that the initial relationship template of – pleasing and conforming in order to be taken care of – becomes our template for how we show up in all relationships.

We begin to define ourselves as how well we’re playing our role in our many relationships. We then become identified with our role, we start to live in a box, and aspire to be a good student, spouse, employee or boss. We define what is good by our “shoulds” of how well we are pleasing those around us. We are focused on the outside, not the inside of us.

When we get caught here, our connection to our chi, vitality, universal energy is all but lost. Of course there are exceptions to this path. However, often those are the misfits – not the normal.

Taking Back Our Life Force

As we grow and mature, we do have an alternative choice. The path back to vitality, aliveness and health is one that demands that we ‘clash’ with another. This means that we start to identify what is happening inside us and are willing to share that in our relationships. This inevitably causes a clash. This is the opportunity to reconnect to universal energy.

Too often it comes from a crisis – a health crisis, relationship crisis, or career crisis.

Wake Up Call

We were working with a senior executive in an international telecommunications company. He was a rising star in his business. However, he was dealing with increasing anxiety and heart palpations. Having had a physical, it was clear there wasn’t an identifiable physical issue – yet! However, the anxiety and the discomfort were building enough so he agreed to seek coaching.

In our coaching sessions, it quickly became clear that there were many areas of his work and life that showed signs of his tendency to conform, please, and deny his own expression of what he really thought, felt, or wanted.

He believed saying “no” to the long hours at work threatened his career path. To maintain 24/7 commitment to his job, he was creating conflict at home. His solution was to just suck it up and try to meet everyone’s expectations. Clearly, that wasn’t working for him any longer, thus anxiety and heart palpitations.

The first stage of our work was simply finding some outlet for the building energy within. It took a bit of encouraging to help him consider other options than just going to the gym more or running mile after mile. Those strategies would just be another thing he was trying to conquer. Instead, we suggested he do something to shake things up.

For him, it was ten minutes of listening and moving to the Grateful Dead, followed by five minutes of still meditation – yes, in his office – in the middle of the day with all the curtains drawn! This completely shifted his stress level, and also began to help him identify where he needed to speak up and allow the inner conflict to surface.

Then he started to do just that with both his boss and his team. Instead of taking all of his frustration home, he started to have frank, honest conversations at work. In the early stages these conversations were messy and the conflict intense. We worked with both him and his team to support these honest conversations. We also supported him speaking more directly and honestly with his boss.

Within two weeks his heart palpitations settled. Then, over the next three months he became better at engaging in conflict, asking for what he wanted, and the anxiety decreased. While he became better at listening to himself, he also could hear others different points of view more easily, too.

The externalization of the conflict allowed him a path for being curious and finding alternative creative solutions for himself, his team and even at home.

Conflict Is Healthy

When conflict is identified and expressed as a natural, healthy, and vital part of being alive and in relationship, creativity naturally follows. The opposite is also true. When we ignore ourselves, and dampen our expression of our unique energetic vibrations to conform and fit in – our vitality is lost.

Learning to be present and create the space for each of us to fully express our opinions, feelings and desires without having to be right or find one truth – is not only viable as adults, it is enlivening as well.

Frankly it is the only viable path to whole-ness, whole-heartedness, and health.

Don’t avoid conflict – use it – wake up and engage in meeting the world fully.

Clash, be willing to share your own unique expression in this world, and you too can discover the vitality and aliveness that comes from interpersonal conflict!

Susan Clarke and CrisMarie Campbell are Coaches, Consultants, and Speakers at thrive! inc. They help business leaders and their teams use their conflict to get to creative, innovative, profitable business results. You can see their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! on YouTube. They would be happy to coach you, consult with your team, or to speak at your next event. Contact them at thrive@thriveinc.com.