I have never been a fan of confrontation. Personally, it’s something I try to avoid. I think that I’m not unusual in that respect – there is certainly something about the Irish that makes us uncomfortable around conflict. We are not natural complainers (moaners, yes but complainers no!) We don’t like to offend. If we receive poor service in a restaurant, we are one of the least likely European nations to complain. ”Sure it’ll be grand” is an Irishism that we all like to roll out from time to time. And I’m as guilty as the next person in hoping that a problem will just go away if I avoid it for long enough.
In my early career as a lawyer I was intrigued at the different tools and skills we draw upon to protect ourselves from conflict. To guard ourselves from attack. Complex court cases, in my (perhaps naïve) view, usually boiled down to a simple core element – a person felt wronged and needed acknowledgement of that. In a court case, the parties in conflict feel protected by enrolling a team of professionals and entrusting the court system to provide them with the justice they seek. But is it really necessary? In my experience, the vast majority of cases settle at the last minute. The weapons are thrown to the ground and the paper walls come crashing down. The individuals involved are finally pushed to communicate. And so an agreement is reached.
Wouldn’t it be far better if those individuals were not forced into reaching an agreement with the threat of a court battle hanging over their heads? Would it not make more sense for them to voluntarily face the conflict head on as capable and accountable adults? As individuals communicating their needs and positions and hopes for a resolution?
As a parent of two young children, I hope to impart upon them a sense of responsibility. Of culpability. Of standing up for yourself when required, but also standing down when you have not lived up to your own standards. Of apologising for a wrong done or at the very least hearing and acknowledging another’s perspective of your actions. I’m sure most parents would want to raise their children with similar values.
So why then as adults are we afraid to admit and take responsibility for our actions? Why are we afraid to reveal the hurt we feel and ask for an apology? Why is it so hard to admit to having made a mistake? To show weakness? To seek forgiveness? I mean this not only in our personal relationships but also in our professional ones.
Someone once said to me that, in human relationships, it is not our achievements that connect us, but our vulnerabilities. To truly connect with one other we must reveal ourselves to be vulnerable.
Is that possible in today’s world?
This is a first blog in my series reflecting on conflict. I will be continuing this exploration in future blogs. The views here are my own and based on personal and professional experience dealing with conflict over the last 10 years.