I recently led a workshop on using spiritual principles for conflict resolution.
(Spoiler alert: Spiritual principles for conflict resolution are all about self-awareness and self-regulation!)
One of the main concepts we explored was keeping in mind that the conflict is never about the other party. It is always about us—not about us in a way that we feel we must win or lose, but rather about what we can learn about ourselves, and how we can grow from the conflict.
The room was full, and I have been hearing positive comments all week about the nuggets attendees got there. After all, handling conflict is an almost universal challenge.
Similarly, this week I was reading a stellar article from Sam Horn, about how we can agree to disagree, and the approach of fighting fire with water, when conflicts arise—to not engage in a race for dominance or power, or to deny and avoid the conflict. But Sam spoke about how to be empathetic, curious, and detach from the energy of conflict itself. And that is the key for creating a successful resolution—detachment. This is even more true when the stakes are high, regardless how paradoxical that might seem at first.
Embracing the Power of Detachment
Let’s suppose someone is suing you.
Detaching from the conflict and allowing each party to agree to disagree (for the moment) recognizes that not all conflicts can be resolved to everyone's satisfaction, and in some cases, it may be more beneficial to acknowledge and accept differing opinions or perspectives. That is the heart of negotiation.
You’re kidding, right? They’re suing me! Read on.
There will be a time and place to make your case, of course. However, making it continuously in your head, or in an unending dialog with others who are involved, only becomes an echo-chamber of anxiety and is exhausting.
If detaching feels like an unsafe approach, and the pressure to righteously assert your side is too tempting, then try detaching in short incremental time bursts to give yourself the emotional distance and rest which detachment helps create.
When the stakes feel very high in a conflict, it can be especially challenging to apply detachment practices, as emotions also run high, and the pressure to find a resolution intensifies. However, practicing detachment in high-stakes conflicts is crucial to maintaining rationality, preserving relationships, and avoiding hasty decisions that may lead to regret later on.
Sometimes we actually need to detach from ourselves – or at least from the sometimes unexpectedly powerful feelings (thoughts and judgements) that arise from our emotions on high-stakes issues. When it comes to conflict, it is critically important to recognize and manage your emotions. Take a moment (as often as you need to!) to breathe and center yourself before engaging in any discussion. Having feelings isn’t a sign of weakness. Acting on them without self-awareness, however, is typically self-defeating. Feelings that spring from our emotions can cloud judgment and make it difficult to detach, so it's essential to manage them effectively.
When emotions are running high, it's time to give yourself a chance to process those feelings and thoughts that arise from the emotions. Step away from the conflict, if possible, and engage in activities that help you relax and clear your mind. Returning to the discussion with a calmer mindset can lead to more constructive communication. Needless to say, if you have an almost irresistible desire to send a sharply worded email, text or voicemail—don’t. At least don’t until you have restored your own sense of calm reasonability. And when the other person does those inappropriate behaviors, put space between yourself and their invitation to engage. You’ll be glad you did.
Do More Than Detach
To be clear, detachment alone is not a conflict-ender. It gives perspective, certainly. But there’s much more to do. Before deciding to agree to disagree, each party should identify their non-negotiables—the aspects they are not willing to compromise on. This helps clarify boundaries and ensure that core principles are respected, even if other aspects of the conflict remain unresolved.
Before the fight reaches legal action status, consider diffusing it by seeking common ground. Shift the focus to the main goals you do have in common. Even if it has escalated to actual or metaphorical legal combat, you can still invoke the shared objective approach, although it is harder to do the longer into the conflict escalation you wait.
While parties may have different ways of achieving objectives, they often share aligned goals. By refocusing on these intersecting objectives, parties can find areas of collaboration and cooperation, reducing the significance of the areas where they disagree.
Allowing each party to agree to disagree respects their autonomy and individuality. People have the right to hold their own beliefs and values, and imposing agreement can be counter-productive and lead to further resentment. The caveat to this is that allowing someone to think and believe differently than you is in no way agreeing to think or believe similarly yourself. What it does do is take the focus off the unresolvable idea so you can assess where you might have a better shot at compromise.
If you cannot identify shared goals in the area of conflict, then try to seek common ground in other areas. While the specific topic of the conflict may be unresolved, there might be other areas of agreement or mutual interests where collaboration is possible. Building on these shared areas can help strengthen relationships despite the existing disagreement.
You Don’t Need to Be Right
There are plenty of gurus who will tell you how to convince anyone of anything. You are welcome to try. However, do so with a keen understanding of the limits of persuasion. Not all conflicts can be resolved through persuasion or negotiation. Some deeply rooted beliefs or fundamental differences may be resistant to change. Accepting this reality can be liberating and reduce frustration. Then you are free to choose the best resolution for yourself, and move forward with it, without trying to drag another unwilling party along.
My shorthand for this is: Not all relationships need to be saved.
The corollary is this: And you don’t need to be angry or resentful at the other person when you accept the relationship is no longer mutually beneficial. Let it go.
Choose Your Battles
By the same token, everyone is well served to choose their battles wisely. Not every disagreement is worth pursuing to the fullest extent. To try is a personally depleting effort. Instead, try to prioritize conflicts based on their significance and potential impact on your well-being or the well-being of others.
Focus on the bigger picture. Step back and look at the larger context of the conflict. Ask yourself whether the issue at hand will matter in the long term or if it's just a temporary concern. Shifting the focus to the bigger picture can help you prioritize what truly matters and avoid getting caught up in minor details.
Similarly, assess potential consequences of entering into conflict. High-stakes conflicts often involve significant implications to finance, business viability, our health and family stability. And reactive decisions can have lasting effects.
Personal Growth Through Conflict
In some circles I travel in we refer to some of life’s more challenging moments as an AFGO. In polite language, that stands for Another Freaking Growth Opportunity. And conflict, even the most intense forms of it, can be an opportunity for personal growth and introspection. It allows us to question our own assumptions, biases, and beliefs, leading to greater self-awareness and empathy, if we are willing to do so. While those things feel unalterable and set in stone, they are not. We learn them and choose them. We can also unlearn them and choose differently if we prefer to have a different experience.
Recall the importance of self-awareness and self-focused practices, such as detachment, in promoting understanding and preserving relationships. Keep in mind that agreeing to disagree doesn't mean conceding defeat, but rather, it can lead to a more respectful and peaceful resolution.
If the stakes are exceptionally high, it might be necessary to reassess the situation periodically. New information or changing circumstances could alter the dynamics of the conflict, so remaining open to reassessment is vital. No solution is ever final, as much as we may sometimes wish it were.
Remember that practicing detachment doesn't mean being indifferent or uninvolved. It is about maintaining a balance between emotional investment and rational decision-making. By using these detachment practices, you can navigate high-stakes conflicts with greater clarity, empathy, and resilience.