Conflict is a part of life. It’s part of sibling, family, and spousal relationships. It rears its ugly head at work when colleagues have different ideas about how to achieve a goal, when they discuss who should do what work and when personalities clash. Conflict is part of friendships and, as we’ve learned so well this year, it’s part of our democratic process.
Given how common conflict is, it’s surprising that we’re not better at dealing with it. Rather than addressing our differences, many of us who are conflict-adverse choose to look the other way, brush problems under the rug, or assume we have no power to change the dynamics that cause our consternation.
Alternatively, those who are more comfortable with conflict may be seen as argumentative. These shouldn’t be the only two options. Rather, we should get better at resolving our differences, without avoiding them or getting into disputes.
What we need is a method for managing conflict. Those who are very good at it use a model I call The Pillar of Trust. The Pillar offers a structure that can support even the toughest challenges and allow individuals or disputing parties to reach their potential and achieve optimal results.
Good communication forms the foundation of the Pillar. It is only through conversation, both talking and listening, that we can begin to understand one another.
As we learn more about each other and our mutual understanding grows, so too do our relationships. The development of these personal or working relationships then become part of the Pillar, making it stronger and able to the bear the weight of even more difficult challenges. In turn, these increasingly stronger relationships beget deeper levels of communication. In this way, communication and relationships continue to spiral around each other, together gaining strength.
While strong relationships are a gift in themselves, they also yield a host of ancillary benefits, including:
Confidence, health, and reduced stress are most certainly pleasant consequences of positive relationships, but the development of mutual trust is perhaps the most powerful byproduct. Trust allows us to take risks, open up, and look for mutually beneficial solutions when conflicts occur. Trust gives us peace of mind when we need to rely on one another, and comfort to share our vulnerabilities.
From my college days, I remember the moment of realization when I understood the importance of sharing your own neediness with others. I’d been so focused on projecting a strong and invincible outer image, on being trustworthy and helping other people, that my friends Lisa and MaryBeth didn’t realize how much I needed and valued them, too. In fact, their interest in my friendship seemed to wane, before they realized how important they were to me.
When I finally let down my guard and accepted their help and support in a low moment, Lisa and MaryBeth were happy to be there for me. I quickly saw that relying on their care wasn’t only for my benefit. They too needed to be needed. My willingness to share my trouble was, in itself, a show of trust, caring, and intimacy. I was reminded of this a couple of years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Indeed, the support of friends and family was crucial to my well-being, but so too was my acceptance of help crucial to theirs.
Trust is tricky that way–in order to determine if someone else is trustworthy, you need to make yourself vulnerable. However, with a strong base developed through communication and relationship building, that exposure is unlikely to feel risky.
The triumvirate of COMMUNICATION, RELATIONSHIP, and TRUST creates a strong foundation and formidable structure, able to bear the weight of the toughest challenges. Looking at the model, you may wonder why Communication is at the bottom and Trust at the top, if the elements are so intertwined.
The reason is that trust rarely comes first. While it’s certainly true that you need to develop a certain level of trust before you can delve into deep or sensitive conversations, the reality is that individuals are more likely to use lighter conversation topics to build relationships and trust slowly, waiting until they are mutually ready to probe and share more deeply.
To begin building a pillar, don’t wait for others to make the first move. After you set the tone and model the type of honesty you desire, others are likely to follow suit.
Most people have a variety of relationships that differ in the level of intimacy. Though not impossible, it’s unlikely that total strangers would dive into a very deep conversation.
Because building relationships is an iterative process that takes time, perfect strangers, or those with a history of bad relations are more likely to start building (or re-building) their relationships with more superficial topics of discussion. After they’ve found some common ground and established a new base-layer of trust, they become better able to scratch below the surface and eventually have deeper, more personal and more difficult conversations.
To build relationships strong enough to tackle the personal, professional, or political challenges we face today, we must start by communicating.
Through open, honest and truthful dialogue; by sharing our feelings and experiences, fears and joys; Pillars of Trust will rise. These Pillars will enable us to enjoy supportive relationships both at home and at work, find common purpose, and resolve or respect our differences.