Conflict: Humility

We live in a time of arrogance. We live when people believe they’re better than other people, and they’re entitled to more of the world’s riches than anyone else. In this kind of a world, we’re left with conflicts, as people fight for more than their fair share (despite believing they deserve it). We’re left with a world where people struggle to have respect for one another. The result is more pointless conflict that doesn’t serve to make people better or more whole.

Power Held in Service to Others

The best definition of humility I’ve ever seen is “power held in service to others.” It’s a statement of how the humble person should position themselves. They’re not to become meek or powerless. They’re not to roll over to any breeze that comes by them. Instead, the humble person builds their inner strength to the maximum extent they can. They simply direct that inner strength towards helping others rather than helping themselves.

Instead of worrying about how to finish the race first, they worry about how to first ensure everyone finishes the race.

Humility Is Not Weakness

In Western societies, humility is often seen as weakness. “It’s easy to be humble when you’re powerless” resonates. However, humility shouldn’t be weakness. It should be selfless. Being selfless allows you to leverage your personal strengths for others.

Said differently, humility is not about thinking less of yourself, it’s about thinking about yourself less – thus creating more room to think about others.


The opposite of humility is arrogance – thinking about others less. However, the root of confusion about humility seems similar to the confusion that we have in the Western world about the difference between conviction and arrogance. While arrogance is not caring about others, conviction is being clear about how you care for others.

One can be completely convinced about the thing that they must do and therefore not seek input from everyone. This, on the surface, seems to be arrogance and the opposite of humility, but it only appears this way until you dig deeper and see that there’s no longer the need for input because of the clarity that already exists about how best to help.

In Conflict

If you enter a conflict with conviction but not humility, you’re blinded to how your conviction may be wrong or may conflict with the needs, hopes, and dreams of another person. You may be convinced that every person should have a computer and be blinded to the fact that people are dying of diarrhea and that this may be a more pressing need. (This was the revelation that Bill and Melinda Gates had.)

Humility – the willingness to hold your power for others – is the tempering for conviction that keeps you open to the needs of others while being convinced that your objective is the right one. Whether you decide to change your beliefs because of the conflict or remain firm in your conviction, humility is the tool that keeps us open, listening, and ultimately succeeding in our conflicts.

Conflict: Detachment not Disengagement

Most people don’t really want to have a conflict. It takes time, effort, and mental energy to even be in the conflict, and in our busy worlds, it’s more than most people want to deal with. Too often, conflicts seem to disappear before they can be dealt with only to reappear someplace else in the future. Too often, we disengage from a conflict rather than gain detachment from it.


You can call it retreat. You can call it avoidance. You can even call it stonewalling, John Gottman’s favorite term. Gottman, in fact, names stonewalling – or refusing to engage in a conversation and conflict – as the death knell of relationships. Disengagement is like taking your ball and going home. Disengagement has the same kind of relational impacts as literally taking your ball and going home. It shuts off connection to the other person and blocks or prevents relationships.

Disengagement comes in the silence or in the “okay” responses that are uttered without emotion or with a sullen face that indicates there’s no point in continuing the discussion. It comes when it no longer seems worth it to continue the fight. When it happens, there’s a real problem that requires the other party to try (even if unsuccessfully) to re-engage.


Detachment and disengagement seem similar on the surface. Not only are the words phonetically similar, the responses are even objectively similar. A detached person is likely to accept what the other person is saying by answering with the same word – “okay” – as the disengaged person. The difference is in the attitude. The difference is in what the response does to the person themselves and their willingness to stay in the conversation.

Detached people are “okay.” Literally they don’t see themselves in the ring having the struggle. Any outcome is acceptable. The other party isn’t an enemy combatant. Instead, they’re just someone with a different point of view or perhaps different values. This distance from the conflict allows them to respond instead of react.

Responding not Reacting

Reacting is normal. We react to loud noises, and we often react to the things that we think are going on with other people. However, when we react, we don’t allow the space for our neocortex to come up with an intelligent response. When we react, we don’t take the time to consider the consequences on our discussion or our relationships.

Detachment allows us to view the conflict as “okay” and therefore not a threat. This allows us the capacity to thoughtfully respond rather than trying to respond quickly.

Cultivating Detachment

Detachment, though desirable, isn’t always easy to get to. To reach detachment with a situation, you must shed the idea that you’re at risk. By cultivating a sense of safety, you create detachment from the outcomes. Cultivating safety can be as simple as playing a fair game of worst-case scenario, in which you evaluate what’s the worst that could come from the conflict – and realize, in most cases, it’s not life-threatening or even all that impactful in the long term.

Learning to take a step back from the emotion to recognize that the conflict isn’t really that harmful can be the difference between unhealthy disengagement and healthy detachment.

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.

Conflict: Is it Fair?

The parent sets a boundary, says no, and the child retorts, “But, it’s not fair.” The parent certainly thinks it’s reasonable and fair, but the perspective of the child is different. So, who’s right? How do you define fair in any situation? The gap in perceptions between two people and what they believe is fair is generally right at the heart of the conflict.


When we comment that something isn’t fair, we believe it wasn’t handled impartially. It’s not fair that she got the job, because she’s the favorite. He’s not the best fit, but he plays golf with the boss, so he got the job. We expect judges to be impartial, and that’s why there are so many rules about what they can and can’t (or rather should and should not) do as it relates to the parties in the case. We expect that they’ll recuse themselves if they believe they can’t be partial. (To recuse oneself is to say that you’re unfit because of potential partiality.)

In our real lives, rarely do we get the option to recuse ourselves from the decisions that we must make. Whether it’s deciding between one child or another’s activities or choosing which family to visit for an important holiday, we can’t just let someone else make the decision. What we can do to minimize conflict is to communicate the criteria that we used and make it clear why we made the decision that we did.

Different Criteria

Ideally, the criteria being used by the decision maker and the criteria of the person who feels slighted should align, but rarely do they. When we’re saying that it isn’t fair, we’re often complaining that the criteria we are using wasn’t the criteria the other person was using, and so the decision didn’t turn out the way we expected it to. The reality of our brains is that we make our decisions and then we rationalize them. Maybe she smiled a bit more or he made better eye contact. Neither objectively has impact to the matter at hand, but it shifted things in their favor nonetheless.

Even if we can align on criteria, we may not align on the way the measurement of that criteria is done. One person may believe the criteria of scholarship is best expressed through the works they’ve read, while another party may believe that the best criteria is what they’ve written. Conflicts can persist even when the criteria is the same if the way it is assessed is different.


The truth is we all have our perspectives that are based on our prior experiences, including our experiences while growing up. Our perspective is not wrong, they’re just incomplete. We see things from one point of view, and the other party sees it from a different point of view. The parent in the opening example believes it’s important for the child to learn to eat their dinner. They’ve made a value choice about learning good eating habits. The child is focused on the here and now and their desire for immediate gratification with some candy. In this case, the criteria that the parties are using are radically different.

Parents might say that the parent perspective is “right,” while children may side with the child in this example and wonder what’s the harm in one sucker. By operating on two different levels, the conflict persists, until the child gets to experience the authority of the parent in the situation. In peer relationships, it’s not so easy to resolve the disagreement with “I said so.”

To find fairness in the situation, we must establish the criteria we’re using and then the standards by which we’ll evaluate that criteria. Done well, this can resolve conflicts quickly – or avoid them altogether.

Conflict: The Value

There is a tendency to view conflict in a negative light. After all, we typically only focus on the conflicts we have that have gone poorly. We only lament about those that didn’t end well. However, the truth is that conflict is a necessary part of all our lives. When we look at conflict through a more wholistic lens, we can see how it’s neither positive nor negative.


Friction is also seen negatively. Friction in our doors calls for WD-40 to help eliminate it. Friction in our cars makes them less fuel efficient. However, without friction, our cars would skid helplessly across the road, never stopping – and they’d never get started in motion either. Friction allows us to get going and change direction, but when we’re focused on efficiency, we don’t always see that. We need the right kinds of friction to allow us to move and control our situation.

However, the wrong friction can be a real problem. Run an engine without oil to lubricate it, and eventually you’ll find that the parts are fused together and no longer work. If you have the wrong kind of conflict, and you don’t lubricate it, you’ll find yourself stuck.

Positive Attributes of Conflict

While conflict can be difficult to get through, it forces us to understand our own thoughts and the thoughts of others better. Consider C.S. Lewis’ perspective on disagreement and debate. He loved it. He and J.R.R. Tolkien were both better for their disagreements and debate. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The reality is that we make each other sharper and better. We do that through our conflicts.

We’ve come to learn that animals and humans need challenge and struggle to fully develop their potential. A chicken who is “helped” out of its shell will almost certainly die, because it never conquered the challenge of breaking free of its shell on its own. New hatchling sea turtles who are “helped” to the sea become helplessly lost, having never calibrated their ability to map their world.

Time and time again, we find in nature that we need struggle, challenge, and conflict to make us better people.

The Outcome

Conflict need not end poorly. When you develop the skills to detach, stay curious, seek understanding, and find new options, you can get to the other side of conflict having learned more about the world, including its objective reality, and about other people. We don’t really want to eliminate conflict, because to do so would rob us of the ability to grow and become more of the people we need to be. However, we want to get to the other side of conflicts, where we’ve grown instead of being harmed or damaging relationships.

Learning how to have conflict the right ways, in which we nurture respect of one another and find greater strength in ourselves and in those around us, is the goal.

Conflict: Creating the Best Conditions

It’s not like you get to choose when conflict erupts. Conflict can happen unexpectedly, like a tornado. There may be a little warning – but there’s not much. That’s why, in conflicts like in natural disasters, it’s important to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.

Best Conditions

If someone told you that you were going to be in a conflict with a colleague, and you wouldn’t know when or the topic the conflict would be about, what would you do to prepare? You can’t “bone up” on the content, because you don’t know what the topic of the conflict will be. You can’t lie in wait, because you don’t know when it will be. All you can do is to try to create the best possible conditions for the conflict.

The best possible conditions for a conflict are to build a relationship with the other party, so that you trust and respect each other enough that you already have trust and respect before the conflict starts. Finally, there’s the issue of finding your own inner peace so that you can enter the conflict without being triggered by it.


Benjamin Franklin knew the best way to develop rapport was to make a small ask of someone else and treat that request respectfully. He’d ask to borrow a book and then return it promptly. Trust works the same way. We make small requests of the other person and respond appropriately, and they’ll start to trust us a little more. By doing this repetitively, we build trust with the other person and ultimately build a foundation for successful resolution of conflicts.

Trust allows us positive affinity for the other party in a conflict and provides a reassurance that the commitments they make will be met – thus allowing for more creative ways to address the conflict.


While trust may require personal interactions, you can develop a respect for someone even if you don’t have the ability to interact with them directly. You can observe from afar how their decisions are determined or their actions convey their care and concern for a value, cause, or person. Respect is fundamentally admiration for someone or some aspect of them.

Respect therefore requires that you cultivate that feeling of admiration. In some ways, it can be actively looking for the aspects of their personality that you can admire and respect. For instance, you may not respect a manager’s temperament towards workers, but you may be able to respect the commitment to quality, the company, or some other aspect of their makeup that is virtuous or notable.

Inner Peace

Inner peace is working through our disturbing thoughts, our past hurts, and the pains we’re holding on to, so that they’re not accidentally stumbled over during a conflict. If conflict was always scary and risky as a child, it’s desensitizing yourself to conflict so that it can become more ok. If you are triggered by someone who seems to be ignoring you, it’s finding the root cause for this and working on it until it doesn’t trigger you as much – or doesn’t trigger you at all.

The goal is more inner peace – not absolute inner peace. Richard Moon, an Aikido master, said, “It’s not that the great masters never lose their center, it’s that they discover it sooner and recover faster.” The point isn’t perfection. The point is that, the more self-aware you can become, the less likely you’ll be triggered by a conflict and the more quickly you can do something about it.

All Together

If you can put these pieces together, you’ll find that your next conflict is easier to get through. Not that any conflict is completely easy, but the more you can build on trust, respect, and inner peace, the less effort that conflicts will require.

Conflict: The Importance of Acceptance

A great number of the discord that we face today across the political isles and in our media are squarely because we’re unable to accept the other person or the other person’s position. We see the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community as bad, because we can’t accept that it’s their life and their choices. The LGBT community fires back, because they can’t understand how the heterosexual community can fail to see people as people first. Whether it’s political candidates or people in your neighborhood, we seem to have lost the fine art of living and letting live.

Understanding and Agreement

We seem to have confused the need for acceptance and understanding with the need to agree with others. We’ve forgotten that we don’t control other people – and we’re not responsible for them. We’ve decided that what is right for us must be right for everyone. We’ve lost our ability to accept that we may not have all the answers, and what we’re doing may not be right for everyone.

The prerequisite to accepting is understanding. Before we can truly accept someone else’s position, we must seek to carefully understand it. However, we’re often blocked by our belief that our approach to life is right. We believe that, to accept someone else, we must agree with the way they’re doing life.

Our belief that we need to agree with other people interferes with our human need to connect and understand other people. If we let go of agreement, which is judgement-based, we can enter the conversation in a way that truly seeks to understand.

What’s Wrong with Understanding

The real problem with an attempt to understand someone else isn’t about them at all. It’s a fear that the other person will change our mind. Our world is built upon our beliefs. If we’re open to understanding the person, then how might that change our beliefs?

Changing your beliefs is scary stuff. The more insecure you are about your current beliefs, the more risk you’re taking on to consider someone else’s beliefs. Paradoxically, the less secure you are in your own beliefs, the less willing you are to explore whether they’re right or not. Instead of filling your time with people who believe differently than you, you fill your time with people who believe like you think you should believe, and you sometimes feel no more certain about those beliefs after you’re there.

Moving to Acceptance

If you can acknowledge there’s something about the other person that makes you feel uneasy – and that uneasiness is your problem to solve – you can begin the journey of accepting the other person. It doesn’t matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, political orientation, or motivations. If you can learn to accept the person for who they are, you’ll find yourself more at ease, they’ll be more at ease, and you’ll be positioned to start the process of negotiating conflict.

Acceptance in Conflict

Acceptance has a lubricating effect in conflict. It reduces the friction between the parties and makes it easier to talk about the key concerns that each side has. Instead of viewing the conflict from a people-oriented perspective, it’s possible to view conflict from the perspective of good people with different perspectives disagreeing. From there, it’s a short walk to get to finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs.

Conflict: The Impact of Trust (Self and Other)

Have you ever been in a conflict, and you knew that it didn’t matter what the other person said, you weren’t going to believe them? There wasn’t a resolution to the conflict, because you couldn’t trust they were telling you the truth. Therefore, no matter what they promised, you couldn’t accept that you would really get it. It’s a frustrating experience that unfortunately too many of us must go through. This is the extreme example of how a lack of trust can make conflict inescapable.

Defining Trust

To understand the problem, we must first understand what trust is and discover why it’s critical to being able to resolve a conflict. Trust is, simply, our belief in our ability to predict someone’s behavior. Whether we trust that they’ll do whatever is in their best interest or whether they’re going to be the most virtuous person possible, we trust that we can predict how they’ll respond.

Ideally, of course, we hope we’ll predict that their behavior will be good to us and others but trust itself is simply that belief that we can predict what they’ll do. Sometimes, it will be a blind trust, which ignores evidence to the contrary. However, it’s always the belief that we can predict the other person’s behavior.

In the Conflict

The challenge when we believe we can’t predict someone’s future behavior is that we can’t believe they’re telling us the truth and therefore any promises or commitments they make will be upheld. They can commit to changing their ways, considering our needs, or paying better attention, but, ultimately, if we don’t trust them, there’s no belief that these things will come to pass.

A complete lack of trust therefore can’t provide any foundation on which a resolution to any conflict can be found. There’s nothing solid to build on or push against. That’s why successful negotiators often will seek small commitments that are easily met to encourage the parties to begin to trust one another.

Building Trust

Trust seems like it’s a magical thing that you either have or you don’t, but there’s a simple formula to building trust. Make a commitment, then meet it. That’s all it takes to develop trust. The problem with the simple formula, and the one thing that keeps so many people from doing it, is that it takes a long time. You may make and meet dozens or hundreds of commitments before the other person decides to start to trust.

The greater the integrity of your words to your actions, the easier it will be for others to choose to trust you. The more consistent you are over time, the greater their capacity is to predict your behavior and the greater their willingness is to take the leap of faith required to trust.

Trust and Trustworthy

We often confuse our being trustworthy with our decision to trust another person – and vice-versa. We believe that if we behave in a trustworthy way, someone else must trust us. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Our decision to be worthy of trust (trustworthy) is based on our integrity and who we want to be. The decision for someone else to trust us is based on their willingness to be vulnerable.

Trusting someone, even in small ways, exposes us to vulnerability. Our decision to trust is based on the calculus of the benefits we expect to receive from the trust minus the potential costs of betrayal and the worries and frustrations. If trusting seems to be positive for us, we’ll do it, and if not, we won’t. Of course, it’s not like people get out a paper and pencil to work out the equation, but it’s the rough math approach to trust. What’s challenging is that some people’s experience with the other person will reduce the degree of trust, and some people’s life experience will increase the costs of betrayal while minimizing the values of trusting.

The Cost of Betrayal

The costs of betrayal factor heavily into the decision of whom and how much to trust. The greater the risk taken in trusting someone, the greater the costs of betrayal. Our goal in navigating conflict is not just to ensure that parties are being trustworthy but also that we’re putting in appropriate safeguards to minimize the risk of betrayal – and increase the consequences should a betrayal happen.

Conflict negotiation isn’t easy, and it’s impossible if no trust can be granted. To properly confront the conflict, we need to make sure we’re addressing the factors of trust – including the cost of betrayal – so that it makes sense to everyone that trusting enough to reach a resolution is the right answer.

Conflict: Ownership in Communication

If you say something that makes someone else angry, are you responsible? That’s the question at the heart of taking ownership for your communication. At some level, you’re only responsible for your words and actions and the other person is responsible for their responses. On the other hand, there are things someone can say to intentionally provoke someone else. So how do you accept responsibility for your part in communications problems without becoming enmeshed in the other person’s responses?


Certainly, if someone intentionally tries to create a negative reaction in the other party, they own the reaction. We can ignore the reality that the other person can choose their response. The response that was received was the one that was intended. However, what happens when you communicate a message that you intend to be neutral or positive, and it’s interpreted negatively? Here, there is a challenge, because ownership for the problem may lie in the reasonableness of the response.

Consider a situation in which you thank the host for the meal they’ve provided with, “Thank you for the delicious feast that you’ve provided,” and the host is offended. Unbeknownst to you, they’ve struggled with overeating, and to them the word “feast” is associated with their overeating. They’re angry, and you have no idea why. Even if you knew that they struggled with overeating, you have no reason to believe the single word feast will trigger a response. In a case like this, there was no ill intent, so the communicator should feel no shame in accidentally triggering the other party.

Reasonable Prediction

Reasonableness is a fuzzy definition that’s prone to problems, as what seems reasonable to one person won’t be reasonable to the other – and vice versa. Despite the challenges, “reasonable” is the only criteria that is flexible enough to fit most situations. So, we’re stuck with the mucky world of what we should be able to predict – but sometimes can’t.

Eating everything on your plate in the Midwest of the United States is a sign that you appreciated the food provided by the host. In the Far East, it’s a sign that the host didn’t provide you with enough food – and they’ll be embarrassed. So, what is reasonable is context dependent. Where are you, and what is the experience of the person you’re communicating with?

Ultimately, it may not matter much whether the other person’s response is reasonable or not. It only changes whether you may feel guilt (or shame) about having not realized you might cause harm. The way you respond should be the same whether their response was reasonable or not.

Responsible vs. Responsive

Instead of worrying about who is responsible – or who is at fault – a better approach is to focus on the response. We’re not responsible for someone else – or their reactions – however, as concerned members of the human race, we should be responsive to them. When one of our brothers or sisters is hurting, we should seek to remedy their hurt. It doesn’t matter that they’re hurting because of something unintentional that we said or did or not. There’s no need to sift through whether we could or should have anticipated the harm or whether the other person is being overly sensitive.

Our response should be that we’re sorry they’re hurt and it was not our intent, and we should ask what we can do to make it better.

The Dangers of Feeling Responsible

So, while the response that we offer doesn’t change, there is a risk. The risk is that we’ll become focused on whether we are at fault and therefore guilty. It opens the door to self-condemnation and spiraling into an inner focus, which takes us away from being able to be responsive to the other person. A preoccupation with fault, guilt, shame, blame and the like doesn’t serve to heal the hurt feelings.

The goal should be to learn from the experience instead of getting caught up in the blame game. Instead of focusing on whether you should have known, focus on what you should now know – and what to do to remedy the situation. If you remain focused on addressing the hurt directly and improving for next time, the problems will get smaller and smaller until you almost never hurt the other person’s feelings, because you know what not to say or do. Without feeling like you can’t be yourself, you can learn to mediate your responses in a way that’s healthy for both.