This weekend, after a short discussion on one of the ideas in Indivisible (specifically the idea that violence to another is the ultimate form of disconnection – an extension of other forms of alienation), a woman raised this question: “I get the idea that violence is disconnecting, but aren’t you VERY connected to those you are violent with?” She continued, “When you’re that violently engaged or  enmeshed with someone, you’re more connected, aren’t you? Fighting with someone can be akin to arm wrestling just so you can hold hands.”

This got me to thinking about the differences between violence and conflict.  When I work in the victim-offender program in California’s prisons, one of the questions we explore is “How could your (the offender’s) need in the moment matter more than… (the victim’s life, body, property rights, etc.)?” “How did you become so detached as to think you could just do what you wanted to another person?” Believe me, a rich dialogue ensues.

Violence is “control over”. Violence arises to make something happen that you want to have happen – injury to others, or collateral damage be damned. It’s power over another person: do this or else. Violence demeans another’s individual sovereignty- their right to govern themselves and make their own choices. Even if you reach some understanding after a violent incident, trust is usually broken, some disconnection arises. Violence is always destructive.

On the other hand, conflict, specifically constructive conflict, offers a positive possibility.

Constructive conflict invites the co-creation of some new solution. It has the potential for “creation with” rather than “power over.” Constructive conflict requires both self-confidence and respect for the other’s intrinsic worth. It incorporates inquiry into another’s needs, emotions, values and goals; in constructive conflict, we’re actually interested in what is real and true for another person.  This means we have to let other people be fully themselves, with all the good, bad, and ugly. Without judgement. Without running away. Without giving in. When we’re committed to this idea, we can move through ruptures and upsets, and even come out stronger.

I know a lot of people who are “conflict avoidant.” This shows up in any number of behaviors – swallowing feelings, changing the subject or deflecting, or some other form of emotional drama. Very rarely do we get the training or skills to navigate conflicting desires with others.  Yet, if we can’t do constructive conflict, we might even leave relationships that had great potential.  At the very least, we will sub-optimize outcomes.

There’s a helpful framework from Thomas-Kilmann that plots 5 conflict style on two axes: assertiveness and cooperativeness. The five styles are: Competing (assertive, uncooperative), Avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative), Accommodating (unassertive, cooperative), Compromising (intermediate assertiveness and cooperativeness), and Collaborating (assertive, cooperative). Which one of these styles of conflict result in a sense of more connectedness? Holding your own center, and wanting to work respectfully with others: the conflict style of “collaborating.”

Violence to another is an unconditional rejection of the other person’s very being and autonomy.

Constructive conflict resolution is unconditional respect and acceptance of a person.

After real talk, the development of a mutual solution, our connection will be stronger than ever.