Q&A: When Is Conflict Unhealthy?

Steve, On the Air

This week we’re going to revisit a few of the core beliefs behind Counter-Stories.

We have Ashley Vogler, of the What’s Your Arena podcast, to thank for the opportunity to take a step back. She recently interviewed Steve about his work, his mindset, and the relationship between conflict and physical health. 

If you’re new to the counter-story mindset, or you’re unfamiliar with some of the language we use, or you’re wondering why this blog exists, give that interview a listen. (It’s 17 minutes.)

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What does it mean to be a peacemaker? (Not a doormat.)

What are our most common sources of conflict?

When is conflict unhealthy?

These are all questions that Ashley and Steve get into, here.

Meanwhile, we’re going to unpack that last question, ‘When is conflict unhealthy?’

What Is Conflict?

As humans, we’re built to belong. We’re built for connection. But you don’t have to live in this world long to experience the complications:

Money, sex, parenting, in-laws, behavioral patterns, misunderstandings, fears,  disappointments, jealousies, unmet expectations… 

We live in a world where these complications exist—and to make matters more complicated—where humans aren’t perfect. Conflict is when the stories we tell ourselves about these complications clash with another person’s perspective on how and why things happened the way they did. 

It’s a fact: conflict is inevitable. But what if conflict is also necessary?

To engage with one another in this imperfect world—to form relationships, to arrive at shared understandings—we need a mechanism for reconciling our differences. In its best form, conflict is a relationship-builder.  

What Is ‘Healthy’?

As it relates to conflict, we get our idea of ‘healthy’ from this definition of peacemaking:

A way of life—everyday—in which we fight for the flourishing of all things within our spheres of influence

In that definition, ‘health’ is a vision of peace, where we each flourish. 

Keep in mind that ‘flourishing’ is about the whole person (because we are whole people). We aren’t just intellectually afraid or emotionally anxious. We carry fear and anxiety in our bodies. Unresolved relational tension will eventually take a toll on our physical health. 

What does that mean for conflict?

It means that we need some help in order to experience conflict in a way that doesn’t breed fear or anxiety. We need tools like gratitude, confidence, and curiosity to help us work through conflict so that the outcome is connection—not isolation. Not fear and anxiety, but health.

How to Know When Conflict Isn’t Healthy.

Many of us tend to have negative gut reactions to the threat of conflict. So how do we know if conflict is actually unhealthy? 

Thankfully, we have some sure signs:

  • If you spend more than a day or two having imaginary conversations in your head instead of real conversations with the other person, the conflict is probably unhealthy.

  • If you see the other person in the grocery store, and you promptly do whatever you have to do to avoid interacting with them, the conflict is probably unhealthy.

  • If you haven’t taken the time to test your story about ‘what happened’ (talking with the other person to find out how they experienced it), the conflict is probably unhealthy. 

  • If you know that your story is skewed, unfair, or untrue, but you don’t want to give it up, the conflict is definitely unhealthy.  

What To Do About It.

The 3 strategies that Steve shares for Ashley’s listeners apply here, too:

  1. Let it go.

If the offense is minor and the resolution doesn’t require a conversation, let it go. Don’t keep track of the small stuff, like a tally over your coworker’s or friend’s or partner’s head. If you can, let it go.

2. Don’t let it go.

If you can’t let it go, then don’t. Don’t wait for the conflict to be magically solved because it won’t be. Time doesn’t heal. Have the conversation. Start with some empathetic listening and a genuine effort to understand: “Tell me how you experienced it. What happened?” Use first-person storytelling and avoid the temptation to accuse: “The story I’m telling myself is…”

3. Stay curious.

When it comes to dealing with conflict, one of the very best things we can do is ask questions. We have to continuously ask ourselves: Where can we change our story in a way that makes a path forward—in a way that’s better for our relationship?

So long as we’re exploring answers to those questions together, there is hope in conflict. And when there’s hope in conflict we have something powerfully healthy: an antidote to fear and anxiety, a true pathway to peace. 

Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at admin@cstevebeck.com.