The Paradox of Conflict

Posted on August 12th, 2012 by micka002

At the recent International Enneagram (IEA) Conference in Long Beach, CA, I attended a session offered by Roxanne Howe Murphy and Diana Redmond entitled Deepen Your Living: Using Paradox and Counterpoint to Occupy Your Soul”. It impacted me in ways I still don’t fully understand and it inspired me to re-examine a topic that I’ve considered in the past, although from a different perspective; namely The Paradox of Conflict.

As I look back at my 20+ years in the field of conflict resolution work, as an attorney, mediator, trainer, consultant and coach, I realize that conflict transformation (more than conflict management or resolution) is largely about my ability to hold space and energy for paradox and helping others to do the same.

What do I mean by that?

Well, conflict transformation is about helping people see different realities and understand that individual realities are neither all right or all wrong – they’re just partial and inexact. And they’re all a by-product of our Type structure – an attempt to make sense of the world and to attain that which we care about most, whether it be affiliation, connection and love; security and safety; or autonomy and control of our environment. As Anais Nin has said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

In terms of Enneagram Type, Ginger Lapid-Bogda has an insightful summary of how our styles of behavior tend to get us the opposite of what we truly want. Paradoxical but true.

For example, Enneagram Type Ones tend to pursue perfection in the hope that they will be accepted and loved by others. But in reality, it’s their striving for perfection that can make them seem unreal, distant, and unlovable. Type Twos believe that if they help and attend to the needs of others, they’ll be lovable and cared about. But to the extent that their caring and giving is invasive, “over the top” and unwanted, they drive others away. And on and on… (Do you recognize any paradox(es) in your own Type structure?)

I’ve come to realize that peacemaking is about helping people find a third way, a way that’s difficult to see or imagine. (And this includes myself – I’m often unable to recognize that there’s a third way.) More often than not, it’s discovering that the real conflict is about something totally different and unexpected.

For example, a couple may argue about their ideal vacation. She may have her heart set on a wilderness experience, replete with camping, gazing at the night sky and rock climbing. He may want nothing other than a luxurious hotel, replete with swimming pool, spa, and fine food. On the surface, the two desires, the two realities, seem miles apart. And if someone ‘wins’ and someone concedes, no one really wins.

So what’s the third way? Initially, it’s unknown. And it can’t be known except through the path of curiosity. What is it that I really want, care about and need from this vacation? And what is it that my partner wants, cares about and needs from this vacation? Is it that he/she got her/his way last time and so I feel that it’s my time to “win”? Or is it a desire to connect at a more heart-felt level and a belief that such connection won’t/can’t happen in either a modern, busy, scheduled spa-like environment or in a wilderness environment where I don’t believe I can relax and truly be myself because of a hard tent floor, an outdoor latrine, and being scared to death for my well-being and safety?

So if we’re having a “what should we do” conversation when the real issue is contained within a “how am I’m feeling about this” or “how is this is impacting my sense of self-worth and identity” conversation, we aren’t likely to resolve the issue in a constructive, creative, compassionate, or heart-felt manner.

As John Paul Lederach says, conflict transformation is in part about the discipline to sustain curiosity and an eternal belief in the creative act.

And as my friend Angie Witmer puts it so insightfully, it’s about… “Listening. Really listening to others and to yourself. Not offering advice. Not fixing things. Not being an expert. Not being “right.” Not winning. Just being present with yourself and the other. No ego. No agenda. Just being. What an amazing gift that is to you, to the other, to the world.”

I don’t remember whether it was Roxanne Howe-Murphy or Diana Redmond, but one of them said during their recent IEA workshop, “Embracing paradox allows for an opening of the heart to hold both.”

Isn’t this what it’s all about? What’s our capacity to embrace paradox? Unless we’re able to do so, can we really be present to another with an open heart?


Disclaimer: These comments are offered within the context of thinking about conflict with those close to me – those who I care about and with whom I want to maintain/continue relationships. There are elements of what I say that are applicable to business and work settings, but within that context, there are often additional considerations. In large part, these comments comment focus on conflict transformation rather than conflict management or resolution.

And a note of attribution: In my last blog, I mentioned the Positive Outlook, Emotional Realness and Competency Types (in the Enneagram). These are the Harmonic Triads – work developed by Don Riso and Russ Hudson of the Enneagram Institute. My apologies for forgetting this attribution last time.

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3 Responses to “The Paradox of Conflict”

Karen FordAugust 13th, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Curt – this was such a well written and provocative article. Thank you starting the conversation – it’s so consistent with our work and yet you added a fascinating new dimension.

Roxanne Howe-MurphyAugust 14th, 2012 at 3:19 am

Wonderfully articulated article. Thank you for the reference back to our session.

Yes, hanging in with the unknown, whether in coaching or in mediation, or in any other part of life is being willing to let go of the edges of the duality, there is a process of surrendering that can be both painful and liberating.

Just to note, paradox often contains irony. Certainly, the personality contains plenty of paradox. I think we look for ‘what are the two truths here’ that are keeping us in this struggle? This connects beautifully with the different kinds of conversations that you share in your session. Again, congratulations on a substantial, heartful and beautifully facilitated IEA session!

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