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Conflict: Personal Agency and Compassion

If you want to make conflict easier – and you don’t have the ability to build trust and relationships with the people involved ahead of time – there are still things you can do. You can work on you. Working on you means developing an appropriate sense of personal agency and cultivating compassion.

Personal Agency

Your sense of personal agency is your belief that you can get things done. It’s about believing you have the strength and resources it takes to overcome obstacles, and it’s very handy in conflicts for two reasons. First, feeling like you have personal agency makes you more resourceful for coming up with solutions that require you to offer up some skill, talent or resource.

Second, and more importantly, believing that you have personal agency allows you to weather the conflict more easily. In a conflict where you believe you have few resources, every inch you give to the other party’s position feels like something you’ll never be able to regain. Every inch of lost ground is a major issue. However, the greater your personal agency, the less concerned you become with winning every point. This allows you to concede some points while knowing that the end of the conflict will be ok.

Recognizing your personal agency makes the conflict safer. Making the conflict safer opens up riskier options that sometimes have the greatest value.


Rising out of a place of strength in personal agency is the capacity to be compassionate. Being compassionate requires that we’re willing to feel the pain of others and have a desire to alleviate that suffering – even if we can’t do that directly. The willingness to feel another person’s pain is the response of someone who has the inner fortitude and personal agency to know that allowing themselves to feel what the other person feels will not overwhelm them. Compassion requires feeling what others feel, and if you don’t believe you have the kind of strength it takes to do this effectively, you simply won’t.

While many believe that compassion comes from a place of weakness, it does not. Even after connecting to the feelings of another, there is more strength required. The desire to alleviate the suffering of the others requires a willingness to sacrifice. While not every case of compassion requires a sacrifice, every act of compassion has the potential to require some sort of sacrifice – and that sacrifice takes strength.

It may be a financial contribution, a mission trip, a connection, or something else to attempt to reduce the suffering of others; but whatever it is, it represents an expenditure of your personal agency for the benefit of others.

The Impact

Taken together, personal agency and compassion provide the best framework for listening to the other party. Personal agency forestalls a sense of defensiveness that can enter into a conflict when we feel like we have no power or recourse. Compassion provides the power to connect with the other party to understand their needs, their pains, and their perspectives.

Together, these create a set of conditions that make it more likely that the conflict will end with both parties feeling good about it – and less chance that the conflict will end poorly.


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