Reality Check: An Unworkable Conflict

Opportunities for conflict abound. That’s reality. Whether those conflicts grow into overwhelming difficulties or fade into minor irritations can depend largely on the choices we make. That’s reality therapy.

What behaviours are helpful when we’re faced with a conflict?

In his book, “Take Charge of your Life,” Dr. Glasser distinguishes between two types of conflict: true conflict and false conflict. For these discussion, I’ll use slightly different terms: true conflict is “unworkable;” false conflict is “workable.”

Why distinguish between conflict types? Because one type—workable conflict—can be improved by…work! Unworkable conflict, however, is not helped and can even be harmed by work. Can you imagine? Let’s look at an example.

Jamey is adamant that she will apply to her dream university. Her mom, Stephanie, is devastated. Why? It’s on the other side of the country. Stephanie can’t bear the thought of Jamey moving so far away. As the application date draws closer, Stephanie frets about what she perceives as “her loss.”

Stephanie is working on a frantic campaign, hoping to convince Jamey to reconsider. She’s spent countless hours researching universities near home. She’s practically lined up a job for Jamey at her workplace, if only Jamey would apply. At home, Stephanie’s working constantly, anticipating Jamey’s needs: meals, laundry, chores; trying to make home so appealing that Jamey won’t leave.

For her part, Jamey loves her mom and appreciates their relationship. But her heart is set on a career and future that she believes can only come through this university.

The harder Stephanie works, fusses, and tries to “help” Jamey, the greater the distance between them grows. Jamey has started to withdraw and become abrupt with her mom, who won’t tolerate even a mention of “that” university and the city that is trying to pull her baby away.

It would be wonderful if a win-win solution existed for every conflict, one where everybody could be satisfied if each party would bend or compromise just a little. Realistically, though, that’s not always the case.

Stephanie has a truly unworkable conflict: Jamey has decided that she’s leaving, and Stephanie has decided that she can’t accept it. Stephanie can’t force Jamey to stay, and Jamey can’t force Stephanie to accept it.

The work that Stephanie has been doing has only made the situation worse; it’s damaging her relationship with Jamey, rather than strengthening it. Does Stephanie have a more effective option? Try this:

Stop working at the conflict. Sit back a bit. Time will pass, situations will change. Jamey may change her mind, or not be accepted. Or Stephanie may realize that she’d like to move, too!

The point: if what you are doing is not helping, then consider not doing it. Dr. Glasser makes the point vividly, “We may be up against a stone wall, but we don’t have to bloody our heads against it unless we choose to.”

Sometimes work can be counterproductive. If so, then the most effective behaviour may be to do nothing at all.

On the other hand, “workable” conflicts can be helped by work. We’ll take a look at those next time.

Are most conflicts workable or unworkable? Let me know…

This article is the first in a series.
The next article in this series is here.



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