As part of my last semester at my degree-granting institution, one of my 400-level senior seminars is a class on conflict intervention. Our final paper is a twelve-page dissemination of a conflict we've experienced or witnessed in the context of the theories we're learning, and heeding the advice of the professor I want to please, I'm thinking about what to write on. The trouble is, I have experienced very few conflicts in my short life. I attribute this to three different factors:
1) I am oblivious. There was this one time one of my friends felt incredibly hurt and neglected by me, and years passed before I realized how she felt. I'm sure I've actually been in the middle of countless conflicts, but was too obtuse to realize it.
2) I am a conflict avoider. It makes me feel physically ill to confront others, and I am squeamish about bad feelings. I often see conflict as a lose-lose, where all parties involve wallow in bad feelings and nobody comes out whole.
3) I mostly know mature and awesome people who are easy to put up with and who put up with a lot from me. With quality friends like these, you won't encounter too many blow-up, drag-out fights. Sure, conflict is inevitable and unavoidable, but with the right group of people conflict can often be less frequent.
When I was the administrator of the NCFCA Region 10 forum, I got my first exposure at mediating conflict. The arguments we had were an interesting mix of behavioral and ideological. It was a forensics forum, and so of course, debate was bound to happen. And as young people are wont to do, there was plenty of pontification on tension points that escalated into idealistic frustration. While I would frequently rebuke other members for what I perceived to be their uncompassionate and imprudent views (you have no idea how deep the self-righteous streak runs, folks!), there was also plenty of peacekeeping to be done in terms of "playing nice." The key was always never being above admitting fault, and the solution was nearly always compromise.
Resolution is a bit cloudier these days. A particular conflict I see illustrated up-close and personal inside the walls of my house follows a pattern that seems to obscure a silver-bullet solution. Outlawed behavior causes confrontation, which often escalates with rebuttal and analysis. These conflicts reach a kind of resolution, but it's a hollow one because no one holds naive expectations that the outlawed behavior will cease to occur. The cycle persists, sometimes altered on the content level but usually consistent in its subterranean qualities. We all know the conflict's not hopeless, but when change is so imperceptible it's hard to keep up the expectation that the cycle will cease.
Similarly, these past few months I've been burdened over a conflict that I can't seem to shake. And unlike the conflicts of my strident days on the forum, or the arguments that happen out in the open in my house, this tension is subversive and full of question marks. All that is unspoken fuels my anger and hurt, and yet, talking about it seems to do no good either. I can't understand it, I can't fix it, but I'm having trouble coping with it, too. "Get over it," is what I tell myself, but I often counter with "how?" There's so much I just don't understand.
So through these three examples is where my conflict intervention class comes into play. We just finished up psychological theories of conflict, which focus on individual mental processes that play into conflict. Two theories in particular, verbal aggression & argumentativeness theory and trained incapacities theory, seek to explain patterns of and consistent responses to conflict. And that's where I get hope from. Knowing why people do what they do. When the angry forum private messages ended up in my inbox I remembered dual perspective. When my sister's words cut at my heart I remember her desire to know her value. And when my car rides are consumed with analyzing this recent conflict, I think that maybe, if I devote all my brain power and all these theories to explaining the broken thing weighing on me, maybe I can understand it, and maybe I can stop feeling miserable.
I love Anne Shirley. "But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla? I never make the same mistake twice." And how badly I want that to be true of me! Nothing frustrates me more than cycles, of hitting the same wall over and over. I get so tired of being the same, of feeling the same feelings and talking about the same topics. This is what makes me a bit of a cynic, because I know ours is a world of systems and circles, that we are beings of order and often we sign away our own freedom, unwittingly chaining ourselves to these cycles that make us miserable. That's the whole idea behind verbal aggression, that it's a personality trait that challenging to tame. Or trained incapacities, which are ingrained maladaptive responses that are difficult to uproot.
Breaking the cycle is not easy. But staying in the cycle is exhausting. I want out.