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Engaging Interpersonal Tension and Conflict for Connection

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This article is part of the series “Learnings from the Embodying Collective Transformation Residency”. You can find an overview of all posts in that series and an intro to the topic here.

One thing that is guaranteed to happen when you live in community for any amount of time, is interpersonal tension. There are always going to be some parts of you that react strongly to what someone else does or says. There is very likely also going to be a part of you, that wants to be polite and not immediately start a fight because of that. In this dynamic, there is tension within yourself and tension between you and someone else. At this stage, although maybe a bit uncomfortable, tension is fairly easy to address. If the “polite” part is too dominant though, the part that has a strong reaction to what someone else does or says might “go underground” (thanks Karl for this beautiful picture). This means it is off the radar of your conscious awareness, yet still active. The next time someone does something this part has a strong reaction to, it might come back even more forcefully and the polite part might not be able to tame it – you might say or do things that are in turn upsetting to the other person. Now we have conflict and it requires much more effort to transform than at the stage of tension.

Consciously engaging interpersonal tension can be really connecting

While my conditioning lets me default more towards conflict avoidance and keeping up “harmony”, this month I’ve experienced the power of engaging tension head-on. When I say “head-on”, I mean starting with my side of the tension. The first step is always to look at what gets activated in me. How am I feeling? What need do I have, so that what happened in physical reality makes me feel like that? Once I can gain some distance to my feelings (in IFS lingo: once I’ve unblended from my parts) and am able to engage the parts that got activated with compassion and curiosity I might find surprising answers to the above questions.

For example, I had tension in relationship with someone that was very chatty and did not react to my subtle cues that I need to leave because I have a meeting one day a few weeks ago. I politely stayed to wait till the conversation came to a natural stopping point, where I didn’t have to interrupt the person to mention again, that I’m really sorry but I have to go now. Afterward, I was furious. The conversation that was going on inside sounded something like this:

“How can they be so inconsiderate and insensitive to my hints? I’ve been listening to them so much and they just keep taking up space, without even appreciating it!”

A few hours went by and some other things happened, that seemed to just reinforce my conclusion, that this person was an inconsiderate “taker” and that I had nothing to expect in return but to feel taken advantage of. When I finally surrendered to the fact, that I needed to do something about this, the first step was to get support in identifying, what was going on “on my side of the street”. A friend held space for me and guided my exploration of my inner landscape for half an hour and what came out the other end sounded entirely different:

There is a part of me, that believes, that I will be pushed away and will no longer belong if I state too strongly what I need (like leaving, to go to a meeting). This part can get really dominant and hijack my system with people-pleasing behavior. There is also a part, that is tracking how balanced giving and receiving in a relationship is. It has a need for balance, reciprocity, and appreciation. When this part doesn’t get its needs met, it gets really angry and finds lots of mean things to say about the other person. In this case, the people pleaser was the one who prevented it from having its needs met. I can support the people pleaser to feel safe enough, so that it allows the need for appreciation and balance to be voiced, by expressing to the other person, how much I care about our relationship being healthy and unblocked as a first step in having this conversation. I can support the part that longs for balance to relax, by expressing this need to the other person and explaining how this dynamic got activated, and asking them, if it is okay for them if next time we are in a conversation and I need to leave, I just interrupt them.

After having seen all of this complex dynamic and all of my parts having had space to express how they feel and what they need, I felt ready to take it to the other person. We went on a walk, and I shared what was alive for me. It was received with understanding and care and the tension within me and between us was gone.

Imagine, how different, this conversation would have gone, if I had engaged them with the story I had in my head before receiving support or if I had waited another day for the tension to build up!

The essence of this lesson for me was: engage tension, but do it from a place of clarity, compassion, and curiosity, rather than anger and frustration. This might require getting support from someone else first.

Transforming Conflict can be A LOT of Work

… but this is the work that we need to do.

Depending on the depth of the triggers touched, it can require a whole community to engage in different aspects of a conflict transformation (or in other words transformative justice) process: to support the people directly involved, to support those who are touched secondarily, to support those who support. It can take a long time till there is a sense of resolution. The process is non-linear and might take unexpected twists and turns as new pain points get touched in people as others are dealt with. It might seem like resolution and reconciliation has been achieved one day, only to discover that there is still energy and pain present in people that need attention and support.

Conflict and tension are never absolute

Even while a conflict is active it is possible to relate. There is a place within us from which we can extend compassion toward someone we are in conflict with. Being able to do this is both useful for resolving the conflict and for having some time off. Urgency does not help, so take it slow, and have some fun in between if possible. Get a glimpse of what is there outside of tension and conflict.