Working through Conflict
When I was 9 years old, I was on holiday with my sister who had married a boy when she was in matric. (another story…..) my sister had to get married as she was from a very catholic family and at the time, the shame of being pregnant in matric forced her into this marriage. We were on holiday with her in-laws and her 2 children aged 2 and a newborn. This is my first memory of conflict.
Photograph from Unsplash Richard Lee
Dave’s parents had the habit of drinking every night at 5 pm. They would have a tray with glasses, ice and whiskey brought into the lounge, and then they would drink. As a child, I can’t tell you how much they drank because this was not on my radar at the time. I do know however that as the evening progressed, they would get louder and louder. I was put to bed along with my niece and nephew at an early hour. This did not however stop me from hearing what was going on. As the voices were raised so were the contentious issues and soon, they would be shouting. This was something that I was totally unfamiliar with as my parents, in true catholic tradition did not raise their voices or argue in public and this was my introduction to conflict.
I remember lying in bed thinking that they were going to kill someone, they were so angry. My sister would come in later to check on the kids and she was crying. I had no idea why, but I felt scared, bewildered, and wanted to leave. Unfortunately, we were on a 2-week holiday.
Our family had always followed “de rigueur du jour” of hiding your emotions, keeping a stiff upper lip and we were taught to shut up and get on with it. This did not stop the questions milling through my head. It certainly did not help me with coping skills in the situation I found myself in. I must also mention that Dave was my hero. I always said that if he had not married my sister, I would marry him as soon as I was old enough. He was in the army when we met him, and he looked so gallant in his uniform. I was head over heels in love with him. He taught me to eat salt on an orange to bring out the flavor. He taught me to put spit on my mosquito bites to stop the itch. It was totally inconceivable that he was not a nice person, but I had already formed an opinion about his parents, and I was afraid of them.
Later I was to discover that the arguments were regarding my sister’s desire to continue her education even though she had what his parents called a full-time job looking after her 2 kids. Dave never earned well, and this left their little family precariously dependant on family for financial help. My sister wanted to get out of the poverty cycle and help with maintaining financial independence.
As I grew older, conflict became something that I did not know how to handle. Whenever it raised its scary head, I would withdraw and pretend it was just my imagination. There were so many times that I wondered why it was necessary and why people reacted to it so badly. Things were said that would never have made it into daylight under normal circumstances. Things were swept under the carpet that should have been ironed out and discussed amicably. I was afraid of conflict and my whole body would collapse into a miserable, debilitating, shivering heap when I was confronted with conflict. I had no tools and coped by heading for the hills every time I encountered it.
So, by the time I became an adult, conflict was something I avoided at all costs. This meant that I often conceded, rather than argue a point. I capitulated instead of standing up for what I believed in. I was scared of the consequences of having my own ideas about things. I became a person who had no sense of self and no gumption to follow my own values. I tended to pacify rather than stand up.
Conflict is all around us. I needed to get through the school of hard knocks and face conflict head-on. I remember particular mergers within my corporate environment where I sat with my jaw on the ground, listening to the spitting and venomous talk around who would be “let go” and who would stay on in the merged organization. It was time to find my voice. This, funnily enough, happened on my parenting journey more than anywhere else.
At the time when my kids were smaller, they needed to explore their environment whilst I as the parent needed to provide safety. So instead of letting them jump from the wall, I needed to stop them. Instead of watching them riding their bicycles into the traffic, I needed to show them the rules of the road and instead of kicking the coach in the shins, I needed to explain to them the power a coach can wield over the team! The stronger their desire to test the boundaries the more I needed to divert, coax, and talk them out of the imminent danger. Sibling rivalry became my teaching ground and I become a conflict resolver!
Photograph from Unsplash Austin Pichioo
As my confidence grew, I took my newly found skills into the business world and learned that there are many ways of addressing conflict but that raised voices and shouting, as well as scything personal attacks, were not part of the solution. Avoiding conflict in the hope that the conflict will dissipate is like sweeping things under the carpet. It just breeds and grows bigger until it is resolved. To address conflict both in personal relationships and in the business world the first thing we need is a clear mind and an empathetic attitude. I always recommend putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and breathing deeply. Work from a sense of empathy, inclusion and collaboration, rather than who is right and who wrong.
A change in perspective can move mountains.