How to manage conflict

Materialism has always been worrying — inner human values eclipsed by a fixation upon external goods and wealth.

Consider the latest form of materialism, bio-intelligence, a technology that merges human flesh with machine to create people augmented by technological capacities. Defence research is working at creating a soldier with an impenetrable exoskeleton, computerised vision and chemically enhanced brain functioning.

This blending of humans with machines sounds like hyper-materialism, a literal hardening of the world. Unfortunately, much modern technological development is driven by a need for power, control and wealth at the expense of equality and compassion.

Not everyone is happy to ride the slippery dip into an über-material world. For every corporate bully there is an innovator attempting to bring ethics into the workplace. For every politician ignoring global warming there are hundreds of people working at rehabilitating the environment. Greed-driven entrepreneurs are offset by those attempting to redress the inequity between rich and poor. There is cause for hope.

However, effecting change can be a slow and disheartening process and we need to know how to manage conflict as we face opposition along the way.


Your “warrior self”

A client, Rosemary*, came to see me in the early 90s suffering from anxiety attacks and back pain. She was exhausted from dealing with the treatment she was receiving from a new manager brought into her workplace. This manager’s brief was to cull as many people as possible while still keeping the organisation running. The manager treated people rudely and coerced them into overwork via the threat of retrenchment.

I worked with Rosemary as she developed the courage to insist on being treated decently. She managed to find a dignity and self-respect, even in the face of outright bullying, as well as earn the respect and admiration of her co-workers. They watched her grow in spiritual stature as she dealt with this manager who, despite having organisational clout, seemed small and tawdry in comparison.

I was particularly struck by another client, Kelly, who was working for a big corporation when she first came to see me. She felt out of place in this particular industry where integrity and compassion had little currency.

Over time Kelly made her way out of this field into the environmental work that was really her passion. What this meant, however, was that she would now sometimes be in direct opposition to the corporate types of people she’d previously worked with. Their ideals were not hers. Their attitudes were not hers. As she tried to push for positive change for environment she inevitably had to handle conflict with these people.

Many of us are unprepared for managing conflict. It can hurt us personally and diminish our effectiveness at work. It takes courage to handle difficult scenarios.

But it’s not simply about having the courage to speak up or to face opposition. Even more challenging is the confrontation it brings with our own selves; we have to confront our own weaknesses as we do so. This is the true art of the warrior: to know ourselves as much as our enemy and to have internal strength, not just external power.

The following steps are suggestions for developing your own warrior self, whether you’re working for the environment, for social justice and equality or for re-souling our culture. They are not in any particular order and each step may be revisited multiple times.


Democratic listening

When we feel strongly about a cause it can be easy to demonise the opposition. We may believe they are completely deluded; that only we have truth on our side.

This is rarely the case and such an attitude can lead to arrogance, intolerance and an inability to truly engage with the other side. Constructive dialogue then becomes difficult because other people sense that we’ve already judged them and that we’re not even going to listen. This then generates a defensive and even aggressive posture from them as they try to state their case even more strongly. We are actually setting ourselves up for more opposition.

Kelly discovered this as she returned from a troubling encounter with someone who disagreed with her stance on the environment during a fact-finding mission. This person had criticised Kelly for not giving them a fair listening. Kelly believed she had listened, giving as evidence the fact that she’d sat for half an hour while the person had their say.

As we discussed the encounter further, however, it became apparent that Kelly hadn’t really listened to the person at all. She’d gone in with her mind made up about the person’s opinions. Of course, the other person sensed this so, regardless of how long they were able to talk, the person knew they were never really being heard.

I also asked Kelly what was the truth within the other person’s stand and she was unable to find this. The issue here is that truth is very rarely one-sided. On any issue, most voices at the table will have some essential truth to them.

We need to be democratic as opposed to fundamentalist in our approach to the world even while still believing in our position. Every voice needs to be heard and acknowledged before there can be real movement on an issue. When people are fully heard, they are more likely to give you a listening.


Clearing emotions

Regardless of how well we manage ourselves, other people can still become aggressive or even abusive towards us at times. After an angry encounter or some sort of conflict it’s important to have some sort of debriefing so we can let go of any debilitating energy we may be holding onto.

For example, Ron, a client working in a financial corporation, wanted to bring new innovations into his field. It was tough going as the industry was essentially conservative and did not welcome creativity and change. At one stage Ron was getting close to his goal only to be stymied at the last minute after an altercation with a superior.

It was important for Ron to purge himself of the anger and frustration that he felt. If he was to deny it or bury it, the energy of this anger would just go underground and wear him down. Over the long term this can adversely affect both our physical and emotional health.

Often in an angry encounter it’s not appropriate to say what we really feel. This might be because we’re talking to a superior or because we’re so angry it would actually be abusive to speak it. Nevertheless, the energy is there and needs a safe outlet. Depending on what suits you, try the following options to clear the anger from your system. You may need more than one go if it was a particularly difficult encounter:

  1. Write an uncensored letter to the person (that you don’t send!). It takes the form of, “What I really wanted to say to you was …” Be as rude and offensive as you want. Really go for it. Write until it’s all out. Keep the letter and re-read it a few times until its sting is gone. Then destroy it. Burning it can be particularly satisfying.
  2. Get the energy of the anger out by some physical exertion. I know people who go for mammoth jogs; others who use a punching bag and others who hit mattresses and cushions. Make sure it feels physically satisfying. This is not about violence; it’s about the safe expression of strong emotion. It has to have an outlet. Best to do it in a way that’s safe for yourself and others.
  3. Use your voice to shout or scream your frustration. This can be a challenge in an urban environment where walls are close together and not particularly soundproof, so try doing it in your car on the freeway. There, no one can hear you scream!



Ron was passionate about his ideas and furious at people who seemed to block him. He would feel put down and inferior after their critical comments. In return he would counter with harsh judgement of the other person. This then led to his feeling bitter and resentful. It wasn’t getting him anywhere and was earning him a bad name at the company.

Ron was lacking something important in his armament. Weighed down by his own feelings of inferiority, he failed to notice the same things in his opposition. He didn’t realise that people who have to resort to the backstabbing or power games he’d encountered were themselves filled with insecurities and weakness. Healthy, competent people do not have to hide behind aggression or the abuse of power to get by in the world.

When we see such strategies it’s a sure sign the person is compensating for some personal weakness. They may lack confidence in their own abilities, may be jealous of others’ talent or may have been abused themselves in the past.

When we can see past the bluster or power persona we detect the wobbly insecure person who stands behind. Then we aren’t so intimidated by such people. We also come to realise that their attacks aren’t personal. Even though their spite may be directed towards us, it’s not about us. It is their ‘damaged self’ speaking.

What they’re really saying to us is: “I have to be manipulative and controlling because it’s my defence against having to feel the rejection, hurt and vulnerability that lies within me. I am actually very scared and using you at this moment to try to make myself feel better.”

When we ‘hear’ behind their attack we may even develop compassion for them. This puts us in a far more powerful position — not the power of domination but the power of insight and awareness.


Process your own issues

As we work against opposition it can be tempting to think it’s the other people who have all the issues. We take the moral high ground and forget we also have to look at ourselves. Kelly, for example, found she’d get furious with opposition and become aggressive. She was the one who came away from an encounter looking bad. She did her cause no service and people weren’t likely to listen to her when she was in this mode.

Kelly had come from a family where she felt left out and ignored, especially by her emotionally distant father. He was intelligent but cold and never treated her inquiries or interests seriously. Kelly realised that anyone in authority and anyone who opposed her triggered memories of not being listened to by her father.

The experience from the past had been so painful it generated an aggressive desire to make the present person pay her attention. When they didn’t she was left with depression or despair. She had to sort out the feelings related to her father so that she could encounter other father figures from a clearer space. Then her damaged self wouldn’t have to keep bursting past her passionate, ethical self and spoiling the delivery of her message.


Actual encounters

When it comes to actual encounters with your opposition it’s important to be prepared. This does not just mean in terms of the content of your position but, just as importantly, concerns your inner self. If we go in naively we can return bruised and battered. Better to be protected.

Following are some suggestions for the protection of your warrior self.

  1. Rather than pretending to be invincible it’s better to face your own fear and vulnerability about the upcoming meeting. Your scared self will be there as you face your opposition, so it’s important that it is protected. Wear clothing that makes you feel confident or a strengthening talisman that has some symbol that brings strength to you. Maybe imagine your mentor at your side as you walk into the room. Such symbols are saying to the fearful self: “I know you are there and I am looking after you.”
  2. Have realistic expectations. If you are a greenie in dialogue with an economic rationalist it would be foolish to expect them to embrace your views. Expect disagreement. Expect them not to understand. If you can generate an energy and environment where you’re given a legitimate hearing then you’ve done well. You can’t change the world in a single encounter.
  3. Make sure you feel supported. Don’t go it alone. This doesn’t mean you have to take someone with you literally, although sometimes this is necessary if you know the person you’re going to meet is a bully. It does mean however you have other people in your life who understand your position and are supportive of it. Talk to such people beforehand, then make sure they’re available afterwards for debriefing. Don’t be a martyr or a lone hero. It isn’t best for yourself or the cause.


Finding perspective

Kelly burst into tears in my office one day after a particular damaging encounter. She felt disheartened and on the verge of giving it all up. It was understandable. We all go through times where our goals seem too difficult or too overwhelming. This is when we need to take a break.

Refresh yourself, pace yourself. Inspire yourself by remembering mentors or role models who have gone before. Then go back to the bigger picture. Remind yourself why you’re doing it in the first place. Coach yourself not to collapse. You are needed.

It takes courage to stay strong. It takes commitment, endurance and robustness to stay working for a difficult cause. Yet your own self benefits as you develop such capacities within. You can enjoy cultivating the dignity of your warrior self.

Finally, you need to keep perspective. You will lose many battles; but there are lots of battles and lots of fronts to work on. The Eastern teaching of the Tao is relevant here. The Tao is like water. Water is strong enough to wear away rocks but doesn’t do it by aggressive encounter. It goes under, around and over. Wearing down resistance, making new paths, it gets to the ocean in the end.

*Client names have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Cynthia is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. Ph 0417 103 018


Recommended Reading:

Thick Face, Black Heart by Chin-Ning Chu
Tao Te Ching translated by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English
The Leader as a Martial Artist by Arnold Mindell
Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa

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