Just as one might say “suffering is a part of life”, so too, it seems, conflict is a part of life.
Conflict is in our very nature. Every day, large or small, human conflicts are all around us. But conflict is simply a result of problems being tangled up with the darkside of human nature emerging from innate protection and competition motivations that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive, and that come with difficult tradeoffs. How can we disentangle ourselves and our problems from these more primitive motives and manage conflict better? By activating some of the best bits of what it is to be human, especially the awareness, wisdom, strength, intention and commitment…of COMPASSION.
I was riding my bike at the weekend just past, a leisurely stroll through suburban Brisbane, Australia, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, minding my own business. Riding along the road, I turned right at an intersection where a car was waiting to go the other way. As I past by, I looked through the window, and there was the driver, apparently yelling profanities at me, face contorted with anger, showing me one particular finger pressed up against his window. I’m not sure what had enraged him, I couldn’t hear anything he was saying through the closed window, but something I did presumably made him absolutely irate!
We almost can’t help but have conflicts like this. Sometimes it’s with random strangers, but we also have conflict with our spouses, family and friends, and neighbours. Sometimes gangs, groups or whole communities get into conflict. And of course, nations continue to go to war with devastating and often unnecessary suffering. All of these instances can be traced back to this human propensity to be in conflict.
Where Does This Propensity for Conflict and Violence Come From?
Professor Paul Gilbert, who, amongst many other appointments, is Honorary Professor at the School of Psychology, University of Queensland, and developer of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), has been known to say, “Well, you see, we have very tricky brains!” Professor Gilbert has done seminal work bringing together psychological science, neuroscience and evolutionary science, as well as the wisdom traditions, to understand the human brain and how it has evolved over millions of years to aid in our survival, but with tradeoffs. And conflict is one example of such a tradeoff.
Human beings have a highly responsive threat system. In fact, our brains have evolved to err on the side of seeing threats that perhaps aren’t there, rather than ever missing a threat that is there. And what was a likely threat to prehistoric humans? Well, most notably, other humans. Especially if those other humans were strangers, or looked, sounded or acted differently to us, and their motivations were unknown. “Us and them” mentalities became powerfully wired in the early human brains, and erring on the side of seeing others as a threat became part of how human beings operated.
Fast forward to today, and we see it all around us. We are very good at categorising people, labelling them, putting them in boxes. And if they are different to “us” then they are considered one of “them” and therefore a potential threat. “All these immigrants are taking our jobs!” Given the response that emerges from the threat system is fight or flight, often we choose to fight and thus conflict emerges. Think of all the sayings: “offence is the best defence” or “shoot first, ask questions later”. These simply represent our human brains, passed down to us through the eons of evolution, programmed for us through no choice of our own to respond to potential social threats with anger, aggression and conflict.
But this is not the only source of conflict. We also have an active drive system. After all, if the threat system was always running the show, then we would be tempted just to stay in the cave and never venture out for fear of the dangers around us. But we needed to leave the cave, to find food, water, kindling, tools, other resources, or a mate. The drive system evolved to help us do just that, but again with certain tradeoffs.
Food and water were scarce. Resources were scarce. And perhaps a mate was hard to come by! So competition became woven into the fabric of the drive system. This meant we had to get places first, we had to knock others out of the race, and sometimes we had to defeat or dispatch them in order to get what we needed (or wanted). A classic modern day example is road rage, where, in the anonymity of our car we scream and yell at others, cut them off in traffic, and generally get caught in competition-fuelled conflict on the road when they get in our way, slow us down or obstruct us from our destinations.
It is striking just how often people fall into primitive motives involving threat-protection and drive-competition. And it is common that these motives then lead to anger and aggression, and ultimately conflict. These are very important motives, very natural and innate, and built into our species. The upside is that they have helped us to survive. They do have downsides, such as anger, aggression, interpersonal conflict and violence, and yet these are not our fault. We need not blame or shame ourselves for these human propensities. We just need to ask ourselves, what can we do to start to take responsibility for these downsides of human nature, our darkside, so we step out of autopilot, consider and respond differently, and move away, where possible, from conflict?
Perhaps the answer begins with another innate system of the human brain: the soothing system. We had to protect ourselves from threats, and we had to compete for resources, but the other essential component of human survival is the ability to soothe, nurture and care for each other, especially our vulnerable young, as well as our elderly, sick, or injured. This mammalian motivation to care is a vital aspect to the human brain and human survival. The problem here, of course, is that the soothing system tends to be directed towards our own kin, family or tribe, and does not, left to its own devices, cross the “us and them” boundary. So something more is needed, something that can help us organise these three systems in order to enable change. Luckily, the human brain already has what we need.
The threat, drive and soothing systems are part of very old, in evolutionary terms, brain functions. In fact, many animals, especially mammals, share these systems with humans. However, humans have also evolved certain new brain functions such as imagining the future, remembering the past, being aware of oneself, understanding the minds of others, and being able to set intentions for ourselves. Now, these new brain functions can be tricky too, such as causing us worry, rumination and self-criticism, however they can be brought to bear in order to shape and change our experience and participation in conflict.
As an extension of these new brain functions, our capacity for social intelligence provides an opportunity for effectively navigating conflict. Our new brains help us to bring awareness to a situation, and to think about that situation carefully and wisely, and to arrive at an understanding of the nature of the conflict, and the role of our tricky brains in further exacerbating it. Our new brains then also help us to listen, understand and empathise, both in terms of what we ourselves might be feeling, as well as what the other person or party might be feeling, and why, and how each party might be affecting the other. And our new brains help us, with wisdom, strength, empathy and understanding, to intentionally commit to finding the right path such that we seek to be helpful in the situation rather than causing more harm, thus activating a compassionate motivation.
From Conflict to Compassion
Compassionate Helpfulness, Forgiveness and Assertiveness
The Dalai Lama (1995) has defined compassion as a sensitivity to the suffering of self or others, with a deep commitment to alleviate or prevent it. This uniquely human motivation can be brought to conflict situations in powerful ways, giving rise to helpfulness, forgiveness and assertiveness. Compassion can aid us in managing our protection and competition motives, and motivate us to try to be helpful to all concerned. For example, imagine conflict with a neighbour over a boundary issue. Rather than digging our heels in and not giving an inch, compassion can bring us to a point of being able to consider, “What can I do so that all parties suffer less? What can I do that is most likely to be helpful to all parties?”
And compassion can allow us to see things clearly, and from the other party’s perspective, to connect with their essential humanness, and all the good bits and not so good bits that go along with that. With compassion, we can begin to forgive the other party for the threat, obstruction or hurt they may have caused, wittingly or unwittingly, as well as forgive ourselves for our own transgressions. And forgiveness is a gift! It is a gift to the other person, with whom we have a much greater chance of reconciliation, and it is a gift for ourselves, allowing us to let go of resentful or vengeful thoughts and feelings. After all, those thoughts and feelings are usually much more painful for the person experiencing them than the person they are being experienced about.
For example, imagine conflict over an incident in the traffic. Of course we can stay offended and resentful, and we can start plotting our revenge! Or we can understand that there are many factors that might lead up to that person behaving in that way, we can forgive them for their mistakes, and we can slow down a little, make room for them and let them in. Just think of the suffering this could prevent. This is itself an act of compassion.
And finally, compassion is about alleviating and preventing the suffering of self and others. Therefore, the answer to conflict is not about going to the other extreme of aggression and simply being submissive, giving in or letting people off the hook. Compassion can help us in being assertive, and coming to a respectful agreement with mutually beneficial solutions and outcomes. Compassionate assertiveness guides us towards compromise and fairness, self-reflection and improvement, and effective communication and appreciation. It is about being open to giving and receiving understanding, giving and receiving feedback, giving and receiving appreciation, and agreeing upon reasonable boundaries.
Imagine being criticised by a partner, family member or friend. We can so easily feel threatened or hurt, and the temptation is to become defensive and start attacking. We might lash back with, “How dare you! You are awful and horrible, and you have no right to speak to me that way. I hate you!! In fact, you’re the one who is the problem here!” Of course, this is likely to cause the other person to fire up right back at you. An assertive response that comes from a compassionate motivation might instead be, “When you say things like that it really hurts me. I know that it comes from a place of worry or frustration in you, and yet I get upset because it makes me feel like you really don’t care. Could we talk together about this in calm and kind ways, and see if we can understand where each of us is coming from?”
Steps Towards Compassionate Helpfulness, Forgiveness and Assertiveness
So, conflict is a part of life. Human beings have tricky brains, and often it is the threat-protection or drive-competition parts of our brains from which conflict emerges. And it can be very destructive. But it doesn’t have to be! Our brains bestow us with a range of comparatively newer functions, such as social intelligence, which, when brought to bear on experiences of conflict, can serve to guide us in ways that are much more effective. Our awareness, empathic understanding and ability to set intentions can activate a more compassionate motivation. Handled well, this allows us to find ways to be helpful rather than harmful, to be forgiving rather than resentful, and to be assertive rather than aggressive or submissive. And together, this allows ourselves and those we interact with to suffer less.