In my experience, most people have a fear of conflict. In fact, some will go to any length to avoid it.
Why we dislike conflict
In its essence, conflict necessitates that we be seen. If we take a stand to speak up for what we don't agree with, we risk being seen for what we believe in. Indeed, I think it is a vulnerable place to be. If there is a part of us that says 'I am not worth it', it will feel scared in any kind of conflict situation.
Threads of memory
"The present moment is a tapestry woven from the threads of memory" (Al Pesso)
Of course we may also have previous negative experiences of conflict. Whether or not these are conscious (as the memory may be pre-verbal) they feed into our fear in the present. This is the psychological process of transference. The present moment and experiences in the here and now are constantly 'polluted' by the past in this way.
We may have seen parents do it terribly. Moreover, we have past events where conflict went badly for us. Perhaps we over reacted and a relationship was lost. All of these experiences feed into a dread of conflict now, or in the future.
I had a client say recently, "I want to be able to confront someone and say 'You're out of order'. However, their fear of not being able to handle their own arousal level (anxiety), or the other's reaction, stops them.
When our emotional response increases, we have less of an ability to think straight. This is because our limbic brain takes precedence over our neo-cortex. When this happens, we revert to a more childlike state of reactivity.
"I want to stand up for myself and stay calm", said my client. "I want to be able to think quickly, there and then, instead of berating myself for what I could have said afterwards."
Engaging the pre-frontal cortex
In order to help the client engage on a deeper level with their objective I asked some questions. What will you achieve in your life if you are able to confront someone and say 'what you've just said is out of order? What will it get for you if you can do the right thing and control your reaction?
With a bit of help from me, my client was able to associate into the experience of achieving their outcome as if it was happening now. And realised what a powerful feeling it was. "It feels really good" was described as a peace of mind, a feeling of confidence and sense of living in the present. My client felt this in their body at their core.
Engaging resourceful memories
As soon as they connected with this feeling, another memory came up. Of lying on their back on a quiet beach on holiday. Their feet planted in the sand, their back supported, looking up at a blue sky. It felt like the sand and the sea were moulding around them. As they fully associated into this memory, using all their senses to arouse a deep felt-sense experience, they realised the higher meaning. "I feel connected. Like I am part of something bigger than me, I feel connected to nature and the universe. And to myself. I belong."
This memory had come up because the client was able to tap into the feeling of handling conflict in a healthy and successful way. In this respect, the memory was a resource that the unconscious mind was presenting to the client - whilst the pre-frontal cortex was engaged - to help them handle conflict situations in the future.
Connection with our self
Essentially, what we learnt in this session is that which keeps us out of conflict with others also keeps us out of connection with our self. It is only because we have lost a deeper sense of connection with our self that we fear conflict. When we regain our sense of belonging, we can do conflict in a healthy way to gain confidence, peace and an ability to be present.
Taking this into everyday life
Amazingly, we can take this resource into our everyday life to use in the heat of a conflict (or other high arousal situation) using the technique of anchoring. I helped my client anchor this resourceful solution, so that with the help of a small movement of their hands they have this powerful state on tap when they next need it.
Here is John Grinder demonstrating anchoring.
Note: all references to client examples are fictitious examples, drawn from my general experiences in therapeutic practice.