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What You Do Makes Sense: Cultivating Compassion for the Self and Others in Conflict

By Graham Haber

What you do makes sense. Perhaps you’re thinking, of course it does. I’m a reasonable person. It seems natural that if we see ourselves as reasonable our actions should accordingly also be reasonable and make sense. Imagining the contrary might conjure images of a Monty Python sketch or something similarly absurd. I don’t recall ever meeting someone who believed that the majority of their actions or beliefs were arbitrary, irrational, or based on flawed logic. If anything, most people tend to lean the other way, holding beliefs as near truths and sometimes identifying with them.

The belief that what we do makes sense seems easy enough to hold for ourselves yet, in moments of conflict, one of the beliefs that often shows up is the belief that I am right and the other person is wrong. That I make sense and they don’t. That I am rational and they are irrational, or at very least, their reasoning is faulty. If only they could see it my way.

... how can I hold space for both myself and the person across from me so I can begin to understand how we’ve arrived at such different places?"

Yet if both parties embroiled in conflict were to hear, what you do makes sense, they would in all likelihood both nod along and think, yes, of course it does, and each feel perfectly justified in that belief. The question then becomes either, who here is wrong, or how can this be true for both parties at the same time? The ladder question seems to me the more intriguing and fruitful path to explore.

What would happen if the starting point were not, I am right and they are wrong? What if it were, we both make sense and how can I hold space for both myself and the person across from me so I can begin to understand how we’ve arrived at such different places?

Letting go of being right will likely be useful in facilitating this process, though this may prove challenging for some. It could be that being right meets one of your needs. And there may be a part of you that feels like having this need met is very important. If you’re unsure, you could try asking yourself, can I accept that a conflict might go unresolved? Who got to be right in my family and what did it afford them? What does being right, or not being right, say about me? What’s at stake here?

Maybe the need to be right stems from a need to feel like you have control, a need to be held in high regard, or a need to feel safe (is there safety in being right?). Exploring our needs and the stories and beliefs that inform them can sometimes shed light on what motivates our actions. If we’re fairly certain the person in front of us isn’t able to hear us much less change their mind, why are we still arguing? We're generally not prone to futile pursuits, so what's going on here?

Sometimes the greatest barriers to a healthy relationship are the strategies we adopted as children in order to ensure that our needs were met."

Perhaps there was a time when a particular need went unmet with what felt like or were grave consequences and now a part of you is hyper-vigilant to ensure that, that doesn’t happen again. Perhaps you learned the story that to be right is to be safe or free of pain, to be deserving of praise or love, or to have power. This may have made sense and even been true when you were a child. In childhood you were in many ways dependent on others to meet your needs, so you did what you had to, to ensure your needs got met. These patterns made sense then, in the context of a parent-child relationship. Now, as an adult, you get to examine whether those patterns are still serving you in your relationships, and if not, you have the power to work on learning different ones. Sometimes the greatest barrier to a healthy relationship are the strategies we adopted as children in order to ensure that our needs were met. Fortunately, you are no longer a child and you are no longer dependent on caregivers for meeting your needs. The power dynamics and the people involved in your present relationships and conflict are not the same as those in the parent-child dynamic you experienced in the past.

As you explore the patterns and internalized stories that inform how you connect and disconnect, experience conflict, and communicate what you need, try to be curious. If you find yourself drawn into harsh judgment or becoming self-critical, I’d encourage you to return for a moment to the thought that what you do makes sense; that you formed these habits because they were the best strategies available to you at the time and you were doing the best you could. Now you’re holding those ways of being up to the light, like a leaf to the sun and observing what’s beneath the surface. Now you're deciding what works for you and you’re doing the best you can, given all you’ve been through and all you’ve experienced.

The unmet needs you might have experienced in childhood were not your fault, but what you do now as an adult is your responsibility."

As you become aware of these internalized stories and how they appear in your adult interactions, you can begin to have compassion for yourself and experiment with consciously choosing different responses based on your current situation. However, awareness is not always the same as change, so patience is important. This is a process of unlearning ingrained reactions and interpretations and adopting new ones. This takes time and is an effortful process. In a sense it becomes your job to teach the child in you and your nervous system that they are now safe; your adult-self can take charge now. This may mean learning to notice and regulate your emotions, to soothe yourself, as it is particularly difficult to consciously shift our patterns and hold space for anyone when we're dysregulated. This is hard work. While the unmet needs and trauma you might have experienced in childhood were not your fault, what you do now as an adult is your responsibility. It isn’t fair. For some there may be more to unlearn and relearn than others

This is holding space for ourselves, space to witness our past with empathy and to choose our present with intention. This means coming to our experience with curiosity and compassion, and through conscious effort choosing actions that support us now, as opposed to reacting and re-enacting from then. Now the question becomes, how can we hold space for another in a moment of conflict?

This is the really hard part. Especially when the reactions of the person in front you poke at your own wounds. While not impossible, the extent to which you can hold space for others tends to be closely related to the space you can hold for yourself. Do you notice yourself reacting to your partner’s reactions? Is there a point where you both stop hearing each other and only want to be heard yourself? If you notice this happening, it's time to take some space and return to the conversation when you're both feeling calmer.

A moment of conflict is an opportunity to pull someone closer, to let their momentum carry them into embrace, and for you to hold them. But this requires that you stop pushing back and open your arms; shift your attention away from you and why you are right, and toward them and their experience. To have empathy for them and hold them as you would yourself in the belief that what you do makes sense. When you do, you almost can’t help but see their actions as a culmination of a lifetime of experiences and learning, not all of which serve them in the present, but all of which inform their experience. When we see a person as emerging from the sum of their experiences, good and bad, traumatic and nurturing, it becomes impossible to see them any other way than as making sense.

This is does however come with the notable caveat that you should not hold space for abuse. While you may be able to empathize with someone's processes, that does not make abuse okay. In spite of all the trauma they may have endured, which wasn't their fault, they are still responsible for their actions. You get to have boundaries, say no, and take space, and create safety for yourself. Abuse is not acceptable, and I don’t encourage pulling someone closer when their behaviour is abusive. Your safety matters.

All the dysfunctional things we do started off as serving a purpose. As humans we are constantly applying the life’s learnings, even when it isn’t helpful to do so. So next time you find yourself fixated on criticisms of yourself or another, I’d encourage you to cultivate compassion through trying to understand what lies beneath the patterns and return to the idea that you we do makes sense.

Below are some questions that might be helpful in exploring your own patterns in conflict and where you might have learned them

  • What did conflict look like in the home you grew up in? (expressive, confrontational, explosive, aggressive, avoidant, passive aggressive, deferential, or distant (by no means an exhaustive list))

  • Does your conflict style resemble that of one of your caregivers?

  • How easily can you let go of conflict?

  • Is resolution necessary for you to move on?

  • When you were a child, what happened when you expressed that you wanted something different or inconvenient?

  • Was it ever unsafe for you to be in conflict?

  • What do you make it mean when someone wants something different than what you want?

  • Whether you avoid or get stuck in conflict, what need is being met by doing so? What does doing this give you or protect you from?

  • Is there something you need to hear from your partner in order to feel safe in conflict?

  • What are you doing to create a feeling of safety for yourself in relationship? To what extent to you take responsibility for your feeling of safety?