We Asked a Yogi, a High School Teacher, a Marriage Counsellor, and a Mediator How to Resolve Conflict
There's no escaping it: the world is an angry place.
Illustrations by Ashley Goodall
This article is presented by V Energy as part of our Mad Skills series
There's no escaping it: the world is an angry place. Arguments with housemates who are unfamiliar with the concept of washing up, passive aggressive conversations with the dud member of your uni group project, casual conversations about politics morphing into heated debates—we're all walking around with a bunch of simmering resentments that are ready to boil over at any moment, and it sucks.
Yet some people are way better at handling conflict than others. You know the types—ultra chill, cruising through life unbothered by the inherent annoyingness of fellow humans, cultivating healthy relationships with everyone they meet. How is this even possible?
To find out, we asked some conflict resolution experts for their tips and tricks.
Michael Olabode is a yoga philosophy teacher at Krishna Village Retreat in New South Wales. He's an expert in the spirituality and dharma of relationships, having studied Vedic literature in India over a number of years. Needless to say, he is extremely wise.
"Conflicts are natural in a relationship," he tells VICE. "They're everywhere, we can't avoid them. But we can minimise the impact they have on ourselves and others."
According to Olabode, it's critical to respond appropriately to the kind of conflict you're experiencing. "Under-reacting to a conflict means that other problems come up later, while over-reacting to a conflict creates additional problems and additional conflicts," he says.
Say you've accidentally-on-purpose started a raging political argument with your uncle at a family dinner— it's important to understand what kind of outcome you're looking for. Is this actually going to benefit anybody? Or are you just letting off steam?
"The thing people get wrong the most is that they believe the only way they can win in a conflict is if the other person loses," he says. "Or, in the reverse, the only way they can resolve the conflict is if they lose. Sometimes they'll think the only way to resolve the conflict is through reaching a middle ground, a compromise, and that's wrong too."
For Olabode, the best way to resolve a conflict is to approach it with a win-win attitude. If you argue with your uncle in the way that most people argue about politics, both you and him will come out of the discussion feeling like the other person is an idiot. No one will be convinced by the other person's point of view. "Bring out the best version of you and the other person," Olabode says.
"A conflict should be approached with a mentality where the outcome is that both of you increase your self awareness and understanding, and ultimately increase your love or service for each other. This mentality of giving and assisting someone else's needs can help bring about a collaborative solution."
For those eager to learn more about the art of conflict resolution, Olabode advises that the teachings of Bhakti Tirtha Swami, a guru who mentored the likes of Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, provide a good starting point. Crucial to Swami's teachings was the idea of always viewing conflicts as our own fault, before placing the blame on others.
"As soon as you do that, the tendency to get angry and to play the victim role all goes out the window," Olabode says.
A HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER
Elisa is a public high school teacher in Perth, and she's seen her fair share of schoolyard fights. She is also the young and cool member of staff, which means teenagers frequently confide in her with tearful tales of busted friendship groups, melodramatic mean girls, and bullies. Yet she seems remarkably relaxed about it all.
With kids in the playground just as much as with friends and romantic partners, she says listening is key. Especially if you're in a position of authority, and are trying to negotiate with someone or make them see your point of view. "If someone feels they've been listened to, they're much more likely to take your advice. It's quite logical."
Dealing with teenage melodrama on a daily basis gives you a broader perspective on human relationships in general. Say you're friends with a couple who have recently broken up. One of them expects you to take their side and stop hanging out with the other. It seems ridiculous, but Elisa says it's important not to be dismissive of anyone's first world problems or complaints, even if they seem ridiculous to you.
"I now know how annoying it is for someone to tell you that your problems are small or that you're complaining," she says. "It's a sure way to make sure no one ever tells you their problems again."
Something she's learned as a teacher is that face-to-face communication is always best—but that you shouldn't intervene in violent conflicts, however tempted you are to do so.
"Don't put yourself in a situation where you might get injured. Stay out, even if your instinct is to intervene."
A MARRIAGE COUNSELLOR
Even the most sickeningly in-love couples fight—often about stupid, avoidable stuff. You know—what to watch on Netflix, where to go to dinner. But it's actually pretty annoying when your girlfriend makes you pick the restaurant every week, or your boyfriend never wants to watch Westworld with you. Those petty resentments build, and that's where relationship counsellors come in.
Relationship counsellor and family lawyer Margie Ulbrick specialises in helping people build mindful relationships, and even co-wrote a book about them. "It's important to understand that any relationship we have is a reflection of our relationship with ourselves," she says.
"To start with, always be really clear about what your own emotions are and what you might be bringing to the situation. What kinds of projections and assumptions are you bringing?"
Take the girlfriend restaurant situation. One simple trick when you're trying to resolve a conflict, Ulbrick says, is to use 'I' statements. "I feel, rather than, 'You didn't do this, or you should have done that'—don't' attack or accuse people." Why is it so annoying that the burden is always on you to pick a place to eat? Gently explain, but don't use the discussion as an excuse to let loose with all your other resentments.
"It's also helpful to avoid crossovers, where you overstep the boundaries and tell someone what they should be thinking or doing or feeling," Ulbrick says.
"One of the biggest things I see is people making the assumption that, 'if this happened to me, I'd never act like that—so why, when it's happening to you, do you act like that?' See the other person as a separate individual with their own history and vulnerability."
She also advises for people to not sweep relationship issues under the rug and hope things will go away on their own. "They won't, and they blow up later," she says. "Often it's not the current issue that causes the fight—there are other resentments and events that occurred that weren't dealt with at the time."
On that note, she says it's important to stick to the problem at hand. "Don't bring up lots of different issues in the one argument. Try and park the other issues and focus on what is at hand."
Catherine Gillespie is the director of Workplace Conflict Resolution, a company that specialises in providing specialist mediation services and conflict management training to workplaces. She says that employees can make a bunch of simple mistakes in the workplace that create conflict and decrease happiness and productivity. The biggest of them? Trying to be BFFs with their co-workers.
Everyone just wants to be liked by everyone all the time. We are inherently lonely, anxious beings who want to be around people who relate. Unfortunately though, that desire is actually making us pretty unhappy.
"A big difficulty is that when people enter workplaces they expect to be friends with everybody," Gillespie says. "Which isn't actually necessary. We help them understand that essentially a business is not set up to develop social opportunities—you don't have to be friends, you just have to be respectful and courteous of each other."
If you really dislike a co-worker and it's making your job hell, it's definitely still worth looking at whether there are any particular instances of conflict that can be addressed and rectified. If they are taking credit for your work or insulting you during meetings, that's bad. "But if it's just a personality clash, or just the way somebody feels, then there's not always a resolution," Gillespie says.
"Friendships in workplaces are great when they're good, but as soon as they break down they're one of the biggest sources of conflict."
Another thing that people struggle with at work is negative vibes from their boss. You know—nothing you do pleases them, they seem to dislike you for no reason. Gillespie says this is extremely common, and probably their fault more than yours.
"One common theme in the workplace is that people can be very quick to make assumptions about other people, and when they do they're usually negative," she says. "Once they've made that assumption, everything that the other person does is viewed through a negative lens. The case against that person continues to build, and the divide between them continues to get wider."
On the flipside, if you think you have a problem with someone you work with, it's definitely worth considering why. Is that negativity warranted, or have you simply decided that they're incompetent because of one incident that occurred when you first started working together?
Fundamentally, we should all just be open to the fact that every single person has their own unique set of weird, potentially irritating quirks.
"We all think everyone thinks the same way as ourselves, so when people do things differently we can't comprehend it," Gillespie says. "We assume they're doing it for a negative reason. But it's important to unpack those misunderstandings."
Don't just argue with someone for the sake of it. Seriously dude. But also, it's important to realise that you can't go through life without conflict. You just can't—there are so many diverse experiences and emotions and opinions out there that disagreements are absolutely always going to happen. So don't avoid confrontation. Turn a negative into a positive: start conversations that benefit both you and the person you're having an issue with. Be honest, listen, and be respectful. You might just learn something.
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