How to Have Hard Conversations—Without Conflict
Disagreements are an inevitable part of life—common among lovers, friends, strangers, coworkers, Twitter followers—and not inherently bad. But sometimes the divide between individuals’ beliefs/thoughts/actions can feel oppressively large, a gap too wide to bridge—or ignore. For seemingly-impossible-to-navigate conflicts of every kind, we’ve long turned toward co-founders of the remarkable integrative health center Be Hive of Healing, Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherri Sami—who never fail to produce unparalleled, level-headed guidance, regardless of the quagmires we throw at them.
If confrontation without conflict sounds like an oxymoron—Sami and Sadeghi explain that often the people who do the best job at pissing us off are the same people who present us with the best opportunities to learn something unexpected about ourselves. The answer to why someone irritates us to no end, it turns out, could be remarkably enlightening with a slight perspective shift, whereas trying to force someone to change, or just out-and-out hating them, is rarely (if ever) effective (never mind far from enlightening). While this doesn’t mean we should put up with someone else’s sh*t, Sadeghi and Sami’s advice changes the way we approach confrontation (or as we’ve come to fondly call it, carefrontation) in order to resolve many of the universal hang-ups surrounding perennially fraught relationships and difficult conversations.
Tough Conversations Don’t Have to Devolve Into Drama
“If you think you are enlightened, go home for Thanksgiving,” the spiritual leader Ram Dass once said. It’s refreshing to know that even wise teachers like him aren’t above being irritated by people who know how to push their buttons. But emotional and spiritual growth isn’t always about getting along with everyone all the time. There will always be a partner, co-worker, boss, parent, sibling, or in-law who rubs us the wrong way. The key to reducing the drama in these kinds of relationships isn’t to convince the other person that we’re right, or to change the person, but to better understand ourselves, and why we allow these situations to trigger certain emotions in us. When we do understand those dynamics better, we can consciously navigate challenging relationships more effectively, with far less drama: Even confrontation doesn’t have to involve conflict.
Poison from the Past
The people who irritate us have a lot in common with poison ivy (although we don’t actually get a rash when we’re around them—it just feels like it): When someone is exposed to poison ivy for the first time, they actually do not have any physical reaction. In fact, the vast majority of people have no idea they’ve even come into contact with the toxic plant. However, on the unseen level beneath the skin’s surface, something is happening: The body absorbs the antigen from the poison ivy, breaks it down and produces antibodies against it, which it stores in the vacuoles (tiny cavities within tissue) for later use. It’s only when a person comes into contact with poison ivy a second time (and thereafter), that the typical rash and blisters appear. In order for the painful effects of the secondary exposure to occur, there must have been a primary exposure at some point in time, even if it isn’t remembered.
“The people who irritate us have a lot in common with poison ivy.”
Our subconscious works in much the same way. When we are emotionally triggered by another person, it’s a similar process to the body’s physical reaction to a biological irritant to which it’s been previously exposed. Our anger, irritation, resentment, or jealousy is the emotional blistering or secondary conflict—that’s actually the reaction from an older, primary emotional conflict of which we’re entirely unaware, or that we’ve long forgotten.
Missing the Mark
In medicine, there’s an unfortunate and overwhelming tendency to focus on symptoms or effects, rather than the cause of illness. With the proliferation of thousands of different kinds of drugs today, it’s much easier (and maybe more profitable) to write someone a prescription to treat their symptoms, rather than taking the time to discover what’s actually causing the symptoms and eliminate disease at its primary level. In the same way, it’s very easy to mistake a person who irritates us, and the upset we feel, as our primary conflict, especially when we’re triggered in a powerful way. We think that if we can get them to come over to our way of thinking, or to do something we want them to do, then our pain will go away—that is, until we’re exposed to the next romantic partner, boss, or co-worker who irritates us in the same way. In both medicine and emotions, we tend to focus solely on the secondary conflict—fighting to get what we want in the moment versus discovering what we really need in the long run—so nothing actually gets solved or healed.
Owning Our Emotions
Another interesting fact about poison ivy is that after the primary exposure, not everyone gets a severe rash and blistering on repeated contact. Some people have no reaction at all. In a similar fashion, not everyone in the office is irritated to the same extent by that co-worker who you find to be a total jerk. Why is that? There’s an old saying that goes: You spot it; you got it. That means you don’t have a reaction to something unless there’s a corresponding element of it inside of you, too.
For example, think back to the last time you got a new car. In the months following, you may have suddenly started noticing your car all over the roads, driven by other people, at stoplights, in parking lots, and on the highway. You were noticing all the different colors and models whereas only a year ago, in your old car, fifty of those cars could drive by you completely unnoticed. What changed? Were there suddenly more of that kind of car on the road? No. You got one of those cars for yourself, it entered your consciousness, and you started noticing it everywhere. In the same way we acknowledge ourselves as the owners of our cars, we have to own all of our emotions, and not blame our reactions on other people if we intend to improve our most difficult relationships. At the end of the day, no one can make us feel anything. Present feelings arise from thoughts based on our past experiences.
"How you choose to relate to yourself, inside yourself, is far more important than what is occurring outside yourself!"
If you notice your mother-in-law’s tendency to be controlling, and it upsets you, then perhaps her behavior might be triggering a deeper issue within you from a previous relationship that has something to do with control, freedom, or independence. This isn’t to excuse anyone’s bad behavior, but to see your reaction to this secondary conflict as an opportunity to explore a little deeper. Your present upset is an invitation to resolve a primary conflict—so that you aren’t as triggered in your current relationship, and can deal with the person in a calm, conscious manner regardless of how they choose to behave. Eventually, as you cultivate deeper loving consciousness toward this person, they will likely either change the way they behave toward you or redirect their energy at someone else. You also cultivate emotional mastery over your life through holding a more accurate understanding: How you choose to relate to yourself, inside yourself, is far more important than what is occurring outside yourself!
Asking the Right Questions
Whenever you find yourself triggered, the most important and difficult thing to do is to refer inwardly instead of attacking outwardly. It’s to ask yourself:
Regardless of how awful this person is behaving, what does this situation have to say about me?
To the extent that this situation may be an opportunity for deeper learning, then what am I to learn from this?
How could I have drawn this person or situation into my life in service of learning and growing?
Go beyond what you want in the moment and identify the feelings the situation is bringing up for you: Why do I feel disrespected? When have I felt unloved before? How have I or someone else taken me for granted?
Through a process known as projection, the subconscious gives us a valuable tool to answer many of these questions. It causes us to project our primary unresolved conflicts outward onto other people, just like a movie projector shines an image on a screen, where we can see it. The key lies in recognizing that our external or secondary conflict is really an illusion, a trick of the light, and that its primary source is inside of us.
For example, a wife who criticizes her husband because he never says she’s beautiful almost certainly doesn’t believe herself that she’s beautiful. So she projects this subconscious insecurity outward onto her husband for external validation. Perhaps her primary conflict was based in a memory of someone once saying she’d be beautiful, “…if she only lost some weight.” Now, even at a healthy weight, she still can’t see herself as beautiful. When this primary conflict is resolved, she won’t be affected whether her husband does or doesn’t comment on her beauty because she’ll see her own beauty and be in charge of her own emotions.
Emotional Growth Fuels Advancement
Engaging in this way of being isn’t just important for emotional and spiritual development. Our physical advancement in life is also largely dependent on identifying and resolving the primary emotional conflicts in our lives. Otherwise, our unconscious and uncontrolled reactions and the behaviors that arise from them will hold us back. How many times does someone have to be fired or divorced or declare bankruptcy before they ask, Maybe it’s not all about everyone else? Maybe it has something to do me?
To better understand how what does or doesn’t occur within ourselves affects everything in our physical world, think about physical life (seen) as moving along a horizontal X axis and our spiritual life (unseen) rising on a vertical Y axis. It’s the cultivation of things like love, courage, trust, authenticity, and self-awareness in the unseen realm that fuels our forward momentum into a better life in the seen realm, and helps us accomplish more of what we want, including the kind of relationships we’d like to have.
Conflicts and Health Consequences
Success in the physical realm includes good health; and over time, the stress and negative energy from unresolved conflicts (regardless of whether we’re conscious of them or not), will take their toll on our bodies. Whenever we’re upset on the seen realm, you can be sure there is a corresponding action happening inside our bodies, first chemically and then physically.
We recently saw a patient who was diagnosed with advanced tongue cancer. Her tumor was so large that all the other doctors she’d seen recommended having her entire tongue removed, which would have meant never speaking or swallowing again. We soon learned she had a terrible relationship with her ex-husband. He’d been verbally abusive in their marriage, during which she felt she had to hold her tongue most of the time. Near the end of the marriage, she’d gotten into the habit of literally biting the side of her tongue when dealing with the stress of the situation (a habit that stuck with her after their divorce). We believe that the energy from her anger and the belief that she didn’t have the right to speak up on her own behalf most likely was transferred to her nervous habit and played a role in her cancer. After working with her to discover the primary injury that caused her to silence herself, we were able to address that issue and help her deal with her ex-husband in a way that served her and improved her experience of the relationship. After several months of physical treatment and doing this emotional work, her body responded. Her tumor had shrunk to the point where surgeons were finally optimistic that they could remove it without taking the tongue. She’d still need physical therapy afterward, but she wouldn’t be debilitated.
A Common Journey
Our own unresolved primary conflicts can have disastrous effects on our relationships (and even set our children up for their own if we don’t learn how to parent from a conscious perspective). We see many people at our Transformational Intensive workshops (and in the couples’ version) who experience profound breakthroughs in resolving primary conflicts. The amazing thing is that even though a person may come to us to improve a particular relationship, once they understand this work, all their relationships improve—most of all, the one they have with themselves.
“All this means is that you can see them as another soul doing their best—given their consciousness at this time—to work out their own primary conflicts, most of which they’re not conscious of.”
When you have to interact with someone who pushes your emotional buttons or becomes defensive, it’s important to recognize their divine essence. All this means is that you can see them as another soul doing their best—given their consciousness at this time—to work out their own primary conflicts, most of which they’re not conscious of. Just that shift in perspective can be significant enough to cultivate some compassion and de-escalate the emotional reaction from your side. Keep in mind, they’re on the same journey of emotional maturity and spiritual development as you; they’re just taking a different route.
Perception-checking goes a long way toward calming the other person down if things get out of hand: Repeat back to the person what they said to you, so they can be reassured you know what’s important to them. Most often, all we want in the heat of the moment is to be understood. This is done by saying things like: Just so I understand, you… It sounds to me like you’re saying… Or, What I hear you say is… Follow this with a short paraphrase of what they’ve shared and leave them with an honest and heartfelt inquiry: Is this accurate?
“Most often, all we want in the heat of the moment is to be understood.”
If you find yourself heated: After the fact, go within and ask questions that can lead you to how or why you might be feeling the way that you do, and what primary conflicts might be involved in your reactions. Also consider practicing cathartic Purge Emotional Writing for twelve minutes.
Keep in mind, this kind of work does not mean you must allow yourself to be verbally abused or that you can’t speak your mind. It does, however, give you a path that nurtures higher psychospiritual faculties within yourself. It’s the essence of what we call transforming a confrontation into a carefrontation—because you can approach it with love for yourself, concern for the other person, and respect for the healing process.