The Difference Between Conflict & Disagreement

Photo by George Eastman House

Most of us can think about how conflict is different from disagreement. We have folks we can peacefully disagree with on certain issues and it doesn’t affect our relationship. But what is it that turns a difference of opinion in to an outright argument or nasty fight?

Power.

When we’re in a philosophical discussion with someone else about a particular issue, if we don’t let our emotions take over, we are generally able to have a conversation that allows for different ideas. But as soon as we start to feel personally attacked or fear that the other party is going to try and force us to act in a way we don’t want to, things get ugly. There are two things at play here. The first is the way our brains work.

When the emotion centers of our brains begin to really activate, the part of our brain that reasons goes quiet. In addition, when we are strongly emotional, we are literally unable to process auditory input (listen) as well. We stop being able to listen when our emotions take over. That’s a problem when we are having a discussion with someone whose ideas are very different from our own because in order to have a productive exchange, everyone needs to feel heard. At this point, it’s pretty hard to learn from the other person and generally, we let things devolve to a point where the objective becomes winning instead of learning. when we let adrenaline take over, we are afraid to lose. That leads us to the second issue of power.

If the goal is winning, you’ve opened the door to a power struggle and whichever person is louder or more tenacious or had more power in the first place is likely to prevail. This is a particular problem when it comes to difficult discussions between parents and teens or teachers and teens because the adult in the situation almost always starts out in a position of power, whether they acknowledge it or not. And when you’re faced with a power differential, it’s a safe bet that there will be conflict instead of disagreement. The person who is at a disadvantage will always have that niggling fear in the back of their mind that what they say doesn’t ultimately matter because they don’t have enough influence. They may also be afraid to be completely honest because of the repercussions that might come. Will they be grounded? Have their phone or car privileges taken away? Be put on academic probation or suspension?

So, what now? Here are some tips for either de-escalating from conflict back to disagreement or for preventing conflict in the first place when you know there’s a difference of opinion with a teen:

  1. If you’re the person in power, call it out and do your best to set an intention for the conversation that is about learning, not about consequences or winning. I’m genuinely curious about your thoughts on this. I will do my best not to judge or tell you you’re wrong. I just need to understand.
  2. Try to keep emotion out of it. Remember, the angrier/more frustrated you get, the harder it will be for your brain to actually process what the other person is saying. If you get triggered, name it and let it go. Wow, that made me feel really sad/angry. I’m going to try not take that personally and ask you more questions about it instead. Remember that the goal is to learn, not to make the other person feel bad or stupid or change their behavior, necessarily.
  3. Agree to table the conversation if the other person is really emotional. Sometimes, we need to walk away for a bit in order to let the feelings subside and then circle back around. Emotions are contagious, so if one of you is really ramped up, the likelihood that the other person will match that emotional intensity is pretty high. Can we talk about this later? I really want to get where you’re coming from but it seems like it’s too raw right now. 

Adolescents need their relationships with adults to evolve over time to give them more power and to listen more. Not only does this help them become more independent, but it models for them how to have adult conversations about difficult topics, and it empowers them to honor their own perspectives and ideas. By the time they get to college and/or the workforce, they will need to have the skills to have disagreements without turning them into conflict.

Tips for Teachers: Why Shame and Blame Are Counterproductive

Sometimes, calling a student out in front of their peers seems unavoidable, but here are a few reasons why it’s important to resist doing it whenever possible.

  1. There are few things worse to an adolescent than being seen as inferior to their classmates. During this time of increased social awareness, teens desperately want to be regarded positively by peers. Being part of a tribe is on par with basic survival to most adolescents, and when they are shamed publicly, many find it incredibly difficult to recover from. If a trusted adult is the one doing the shaming, the likelihood of a positive relationship surviving that is very low. Most teens won’t rise to a challenge posed by an adult they don’t respect or trust, so if the goal is to help a student improve, shaming is far more damaging than productive.
  2. Strong emotions interfere with our ability to hear and listen.  The higher our emotional intensity, the less able our brains are to process language completely. When we are embarrassed, ashamed, or angry, the portion of our brains that are responsible for listening and learning are circumvented or muted. Strong emotions activate the more primitive parts of our brain and we need our prefrontal cortex in order to learn.
  3. The more self-critical we are, the more self-absorbed we are. While it’s true that most teachers are motivated by helping students become better, if we fail to acknowledge a student’s positive attributes, we are actually contributing to their isolation. Starting with a student’s strengths and encouraging them to build on those things can help them become more internally motivated to improve. When someone points out what we’ve done wrong, we tend to focus on all of the other ways in which we don’t measure up and we close down instead of forging alliances and finding support.
  4. Teens need adult-teen relationships they can trust. In order to get the most out of their classes, teens and teachers need to cooperate and collaborate, but if a teen doesn’t trust their teacher or has formed a negative opinion of them, they will be more likely to give themselves permission to check out. Often, teachers will sense this and continue to push or call out these students which ultimately ends up making things worse. If, instead, the student is enlisted as an active partner in their own learning, we can begin to make some headway.

Meeting teens where they are is incredibly important. Recognizing that they are highly susceptible to emotions – even if they don’t show it – and planning our interactions with that in mind can make working with a struggling student much more positive for everyone. Start with the positives, ask them where they struggled and could have used more support, and work together to make a plan. We need to approach students with respect and set aside our assumptions if we are to really help them get the most out of their educational experience, and they  need to be part of the process. The more they understand our wish for them to succeed, the more they will engage.

Conflict Resolution Cartoons

Sometimes when we are in conflict with others, especially if they are people whom we love and/or spend a lot of time with, we forget that our thoughts only exist inside our heads. If we don’t let them out, they can become “Truth.” But our thoughts are generally made up of sets of facts that are connected by the thinnest threads of assumption and driven by raw emotion. Letting them out can expose the misunderstandings to the light and lead to a deeper appreciation of other perspectives or things we didn’t know.

If you’re like me, you forget this from time to time, which is why I created these two cartoons as a reminder. (Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an artist. These are rudimentary at best, but they do serve to help me when I get sucked in to believing my own thoughts.)

Talk about it.
Talk about it.
Start with curiosity.
Start with curiosity.

Mindful Parenting Tip: Check Your Assumptions

This is one of the most impactful changes I have ever made and while it is simple, it takes practice. It also works for educators and school administrators, or anyone who is in a position of power over students or children.

Step 1: When your t(w)een is doing something you don’t like, stop and name what you’re feeling.  For example, if you’ve asked them to come do a chore and they aren’t responding, recognize what your immediate reaction is. Is it frustration? Annoyance? Anger? Maybe there is some story in your head about how often they do this particular thing, “he always ignores me when I ask him to empty the dishwasher!”

Step 2: Acknowledge that what you’re feeling is about you and your priorities, which are absolutely valid, but your child can’t be expected to know what they are right now.  Once you’ve acknowledged it, let it go.

Step 3: Ask in a neutral or inquisitive tone whether there is a good reason why your child isn’t responding to you right now. It may be that he is in the middle of a challenging assignment and he wants to focus and finish it before being interrupted. Or maybe there is some other circumstance that you can’t possibly imagine which is causing the delay. Or,  maybe, you’re just being ignored or teased. Whatever the reason, if you assume bad intent without getting all of the information, you’re painting your child into a pretty tight corner. If you remain curious about the situation and are clear about your priorities, you are more likely to get a positive response and move toward getting your needs met.

I have heard many stories from students about situations where a teacher yelled at them for not making eye contact or for doodling on their paper when the teacher wanted them to “pay attention.” Those scenarios might enforce compliance, but they don’t build trust, and in many cases, the student had what they felt was a perfectly good reason for doing what they were doing at that point. Had the teacher given the student the benefit of the doubt and stopped to ask why they weren’t “paying attention,” they might have gotten good information about that student without the risk of alienating them. This is especially helpful in cases where a student has a non-traditional learning style. Some kids need to doodle or bounce in their chair in order to comprehend what the teacher is saying. Others have a difficult time making eye contact at all, or might need a little extra time to focus before moving on.

As a parent, when I’m in a hurry, it is easy for me to forget that my children are often immersed in things that are important to them, and I sometimes revert to asserting my power to make them do things on my schedule. I can get angry if I feel as though they aren’t paying attention to me, but if I stop and remember to not take it personally, in general they are more open to helping because I took their priorities into consideration.