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The Beauty of Conflict: Clair Canfield (Full Transcript)

Clair Canfield at TEDxUSU

Here is the full transcript and summary of professor Clair Canfield’s TEDx Talk: The Beauty of Conflict @ TEDxUSU conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio:


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.

VOCAB – vulnerability, ownership, communication, acceptance, boundaries

It can be as hard as trying to learn a new language. I’ve created the acronym VOCAB to help you in those moments, to think about how you can be responsible in your conflict, how you can create the change that you want. And it starts with vulnerability.

Vulnerability is my willingness to let myself be seen. To share who I really am, how I really feel, even my mistakes. To share the needs that I have that are below the surface.

Now when I’m vulnerable, I take off my armor of justification and defensiveness, I put down my weapons of blame and accusation. And that can be terrifying. But it’s beautiful because it disarms our conflicts and it creates the potential for us to connect instead of to fight.

The O in VOCAB is for ownership. Ownership is taking accountability for my own needs, emotions, and choices. Have you ever wondered in a conflict, “How did I get here?” Maybe you’re in the proverbial doghouse and you’re sleeping on the couch.

Or maybe your conflicts have escalated into the ridiculous and you have a mattress blocking the door of your bathroom. The beauty of ownership is that when I look at my choices and my emotions in my conflicts, it starts to help me map the contributions that I make. I can see how I got here. I can see exactly which direction I’m headed, and if that’s not working for me it empowers me. I can shift direction.

The third thing you need, and at the center of VOCAB is our Communication. We have to learn to ask, listen, and express. It’s not enough that we communicate, it matters how we do it. So I had to learn to stop telling stories that ended with a period. I had to start asking questions – the kind of questions that help me understand what’s underneath the surface of this conflict, to help me understand the emotions and needs.

After I ask I can listen. Not listening for the other person to make a mistake, or for me to get defensive, but to listen to what’s really important, to hear their requests for change. And after listening, I can then express. Not just anger, but express with vulnerability and ownership how I really feel, what I want, what’s important to me.

These conversations where I start to ask, listen, and express. They’re so beautiful because they can create empathy and a different type of conversation.

The A in VOCAB is about Acceptance, and acceptance is embracing reality and letting go of what we can’t control. There’s very little that I can control in conflict. I can’t even get my four-year-old daughter to pick up three hair pretties. I often want to control how the other person feels and how they behave but I have to let that go. I also have to recognize that because conflict is about change, there’s going to be some loss involved.

Sometimes it’s just the loss of an idea. Once upon a time I thought that relationships were supposed to be happily ever after. But the truth is, all relationships have conflict, and until I let go of that fairy tale and embrace the reality of my relationships could I do anything when those difficulties came.

Finally, the B in VOCAB is for Boundaries. Boundaries are ground rules for acceptable behavior. Boundaries let other people know what I’m okay with and what I’m not okay with. This is important because even though it’s difficult to say no and disappoint somebody, “no” is the foundation of trust.

As a mediator, my role is to help people who are stuck in conflict to have a different kind of conversation. The way we often begin that is by setting rules for how we’re going to interact. It usually involves things like the parties determining, “We’re not going to call each other names. We won’t raise our voices. We’re going to keep this conversation confidential.”

The beauty of that is setting those boundaries and respecting them creates the foundation for trust.

Now, understanding VOCAB, seeing how that works isn’t going to cure your conflicts. It’s still difficult to do, and I still get stuck in justification.

But when I practice it, just like practicing a new language, I become more fluent. And it’s important because that is what creates the changes that I want in myself, in my relationships, and in the world around me.

When my oldest daughter turned six and started the first grade, there started to be a lot of interactions with her sisters that ended with tears and yelling. She started to be kind of harsh. I mean, she’d always liked to be in charge, but she was kind of bossing her sisters around a lot.

So I tried to put a stop to it. I lectured her on kindness, and nothing changed. I yelled at her. Nothing changed. I gave consequences and punishments, and it continued for weeks, on nearly a daily basis.

And I felt stuck. I didn’t know what to do and it was frustrating. Until one evening, I started practicing VOCAB and creating a conversation for change. As I was tucking her into bed, I knelled down next to her. I called her name softly and I said, “I don’t know how to be the dad of a six-year-old. I’ve never done this before. But I’ve been worried and sad. I don’t know what’s been going on between us and between your sisters. I hate that. I’ve yelled at you. I have to own that. I don’t want that. What I want is for us to be able to talk with each other even when it’s hard. I want us to have a good relationship, and I want to understand what’s happening for you. Can you help me understand?”

She said, “I don’t know,” and crawled under the covers. So I worked on keeping my heart open.

I laid next to her. I tried to breathe in and let go of my desire to have her respond. And then I had the air ripped out of me when I heard her say, “Dad, have you ever been bullied?” For weeks she’d been dealing with a bully at school and hadn’t known what to do about it, how to talk about it. I asked her how she was feeling. I told her about how I was bullied when I was a kid.

We discussed how she could set boundaries with kids at school. We talked about, “How do we want to communicate in the future? How do we deal with these hard emotions when they come?” That conversation changed me, and it changed our relationship. It empowered us to continue creating the changes we wanted in the world around us. I no longer see conflict as negative. It’s my chrysalis of change.

It’s a doorway of opportunity. It’s the first ray of light after a dark night. What do you want it to be for you?

Want a summary of this talk? Here it is.


Clair Canfield’s TEDx Talk, titled “The Beauty of Conflict,” explores the transformative potential of conflict in our lives and relationships. Canfield begins by highlighting the various negative metaphors people use to describe conflict, such as a volcano about to erupt or trying to hold back the ocean with a broom. These metaphors often shape our attitudes towards conflict, causing us to avoid it or approach it with frustration.

Canfield challenges the notion that conflict is inherently negative, suggesting that it can be a solution and a source of beauty. Drawing from her 15 years of studying and teaching conflict, she outlines three key principles for changing our perspective on conflict:

1. Recognizing the True Nature of Conflict: Canfield emphasizes that conflicts are often about more than what they appear on the surface. Like icebergs, the visible part is just the tip, while deeper emotions, needs, and identity issues are lurking beneath. Understanding the underlying aspects of conflict can lead to more effective resolution.

2. Recognizing When You’re Stuck: Canfield acknowledges that conflicts can make us feel stuck, especially when we justify our actions and believe we’re blameless. This justification prevents us from taking responsibility and hinders our ability to change. Canfield encourages us to recognize when we’re stuck and consider a different approach.

3. Learning Responsible Communication (VOCAB): Canfield introduces the acronym VOCAB, which stands for Vulnerability, Ownership, Communication, Acceptance, and Boundaries. She explains that responsible communication involves vulnerability in sharing our true selves, ownership of our needs and choices, effective communication that includes asking, listening, and expressing, acceptance of reality and letting go of control, and establishing boundaries for acceptable behavior.

Canfield illustrates the power of responsible communication through a personal anecdote involving her daughter’s behavioral issues. By using VOCAB principles, she was able to create a conversation for change and address the underlying problem, ultimately improving their relationship.

In conclusion, Canfield invites the audience to view conflict as an opportunity for growth and transformation rather than as a problem to avoid. Conflict, when approached with responsible communication and an understanding of its deeper layers, can lead to positive change in ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. Canfield’s talk challenges conventional wisdom about conflict and offers a refreshing perspective on how it can be a catalyst for positive change and personal growth.

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