Full transcript of professor Clair Canfield’s TEDx Talk: The Beauty of Conflict @ TEDxUSU conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The beauty of conflict by Clair Canfield @ TEDxUSU
Clair Canfield – Lecturer in the Languages, Philosophy, and Communication Studies
I’ve heard it described as a volcano that’s about to erupt. A hurricane. Like slow-dancing barefoot on broken shards of glass. Like trying to hold back the ocean with a broom. War. The plague. Like being drawn and quartered.
These are just a few examples of thousands of metaphors I’ve collected about conflict. What’s conflict like for you? Your metaphor matters because it often reflects how you think and feel about conflict. So it makes sense that if you think conflict is the plague, you’d probably want to avoid that, and avoid everybody else that has it too. If it’s like trying to hold back the ocean with a broom, I would imagine that feels frustrating and futile.
So what do you do when the waves just keep coming? Because conflict washes ashore in all of our relationships; at home, at work, in our neighborhoods.
And you’ve probably already been given advice on how you should deal with it. “Communicate.” But sometimes talking about it seems to make it worse. “Don’t go to bed angry.” So you stay awake, and now you’re angry and tired.
Or, “You just have to learn to compromise.” But if your compromise has ever felt like, “You don’t get what you want, I don’t get what I want, but at least together we’re mutually miserable.”
Now I’m sure all of this advice is well-intentioned, but it treats conflict as if it’s a problem. What if conflict isn’t a problem? What if it’s a solution? What if it’s not negative, but full of beauty?
After 15 years of studying, researching, teaching, and training in conflict, I’ve learned to see it differently. I’ve been able to see the power it has to transform – to transform us, our relationships, and the world around us.
It can be difficult, though, to create that change. And it means we have to start looking at conflict differently. No matter how negatively you think about conflict right now, it is possible to change that. It takes three keys in order to do that.
The first is to recognize what our conflict is really about. I have a four decade long history of fighting about the dishes. When I was a kid I hated doing dishes, and I fought with my parents and my siblings on nearly a weekly basis about whose turn it was.
When I got to college I fought with my roommates about the dishes because sometimes they’d go home for the weekend and they’d leave behind their dirty dishes with their half eaten burritos, with congealed ketchup, and bowls of funky, fermenting, green Lucky Charm milk in the sink.
When I got married I fought with my wife about how you’re supposed to do the dishes and if it even counts as doing dishes if you don’t rinse the sink out afterwards.
With my own kids I’ve fought about the dishes, about them not dirtying 15 cups a day because they get a new one every single time they get a drink of water, and trying to get them to help load and unload the dishes.
I mean, maybe I ought to just switch to paper plates. But maybe, it’s not about the dishes. As I think back, as a kid it wasn’t about the dishes, it was about independence and wanting to make my own decisions. With my roommates, it wasn’t about the dishes. It was about wanting to feel respected and wondering if they valued the relationship the same way that I did.
With my wife, it’s not about how I do the dishes. It’s wanting to feel competent and likable no matter how I do them. With my kids, it’s not about the dishes. It’s about my identity as a father, trying to teach them respect and responsibility.
You see, conflicts are a lot like icebergs. What we see on the surface may seem small, but what’s underneath can send boats like the Titanic to the bottom of the ocean, and if I don’t pay attention to what’s underneath my own conflicts it can rip holes in my relationships.
Conflict is about so much more, about our identity, our relationships, the things that really matter to us. And as you’re thinking about you’re own conflicts, maybe you can start to see that they might be about something more.
Now, once you recognize what your conflicts are really about, the second key is recognizing when you’re stuck.
Now, I am no stranger to being stuck in conflict. I started learning about conflict because I was terrible at it. Well, a couple years ago, I asked my four-year-old daughter to put away a couple of “hair pretties” that she had gotten out. You know, a hair pretty is like little bows and rubber bands, stuff you put in your hair to make it pretty.
So she took them, but she chucked them on the floor of the bathroom, and I said, “You can’t just put them there on the floor, you need to pick them up and put them in the tray with the rest of the hair pretties.” She said, ” I don’t want to put them in the tray.
And I said, “You got them out. You have to put them away.” She said, “I don’t want to!” and started throwing a fit.
So she’s laying on the floor, so I get down on the floor next to her and I put the little hair pretties right next to her hand, and I bring the tray over, and I’m just like, “Just put them in the tray.” And she said, “I don’t want to!” and flips the tray.
20 more hair pretties go flying over the floor. So I’m like, “Line in the sand. You’re not coming out of this bathroom until you pick up all the hair pretties!” So she tries to rush past me and I block the door with my gigantic body. And she’s flailing at me with her tiny little fists.
Then 20 minutes later I’m at the door trying to explain to my neighbor who has brought a plate of cookies to welcome us to the neighborhood why my daughter is screaming, trying to climb over a mattress that I’ve used to block the bathroom door.
Now, that may be entertaining for you, but at the time, for me, not so much. I was stuck. That was not working very well for me. Have you ever been in your own conflicts and thought, “This is not working so well for me.” See the thing that gets me stuck there is justification.
Justification is believing that I’m blameless. And it’s so seductive, because in conflict if I’m blameless, then I don’t have to do any of the work to change. I’m not the one that needs to change. Somebody else needs to change. And it keeps us stuck.
As you think about your own conflicts, do you ever feel justified but stuck? Again, that might feel nice in the moment, but in the end it’s pretty dissatisfying. It keeps us doing the same conflicts over and over again and nothing changes. You can get unstuck. If it’s not working for you, you can find a different way.
The third key in unlocking the beautiful, transformative power of conflict is to start learning to speak responsibly.
To have those kinds of conversations where we can create change in ourselves, in our relationships, in the world around us, it requires vulnerability, ownership, communication, acceptance, boundaries. It’s hard work, though.