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Why Some Conflicts Will NEVER Go Away

Who likes conflict? I don’t! But sometimes within our conflicts, we can spot the forces that are in tension – that will never go away – and learn to live with them!

Conflict Between CouplePicture this:  You need some time alone, while your partner wants you both to go to a large music event that’s happening downtown.

You imagine the traffic, the parking, the noise, the expense and wonder if you’ll have the energy to make small talk with the friends you’ll invariably see. You try to explain this to him, but he counters with the fact that the two of you haven’t been on an outing together for a month, that you need to stop being a hermit, and how you’re going to love it when you get there.

You suddenly remember the time you asked him to go with you to the theatre and he decided to stay home.

Your stomach starts to bind up.

You’ve got a conflict.

On the one level, the conflict is resolvable – you can choose whether you stay or go together, or do your separate thing. Done.

But underneath the choice, there’s a conflict that will never go away as long as you’re together: the tension between taking care of yourself and taking care of your partnership.

This chronic tension between conflicting values that look like opposites but are really two ends of the same cord, is a polarity.

Clearly, in any healthy partnership, we need to “attend to self” AND “attend to the partnership.” If you do too much of one side without the other, you’ve got trouble.

Like inhaling and exhaling – you’ve got to do both!

Although you’ll always have the tension, the key to managing a polarity lives in two simple words: “both/and.”

Yin and Yang.ying yang  icon on white background

You want to get the best of both values while avoiding the problems that happen when you attend to only one side.

You don’t want to become either a self-sacrificing martyr or someone who thinks “it’s all about me”.

Maybe it’s time to step out of the specific conflict to look at what’s really at issue. You could ask: “How can we enjoy going out together – and still give each of us some space and downtime to take care of ourselves?”

Leadership is full of polarities. Leaders need to balance the need for change and stability, candor and diplomacy, justice and mercy, standardization and variation.

In our culture we often swing from one polar value to another without noticing how the two values will always be linked.

One political party cries out for individual rights and freedoms while the other emphasizes the collective good.

Then the parties demonize each other.

Sorry knuckleheads in Washington, D.C., but don’t you get it? Respect for individual freedom AND concern for the common good go together. We NEED that tension. So stop fighting and deal with it!




p.s. If you want to know more about polarities and leadership, I recommend the book Power Surge by my friend and colleague Margaret Seidler. It’s a very accessible fable-styled book that shows us how leadership polarities play out.  Or, read the book that started it all: Polarity Management by Barry Johnson.


One Response

  1. OMG! There are so many. Some examples: the difference between things as they are and how I wish they were; what I am busy being and what I am trying to become; looking out for number one (that would be me) versus my broader responsibility to ease the suffering of others; maintaining a spirit of gratitude for what I have materially and experientially versus what I feel I do not have. The list is really impossibly long.

    Both/and, the Tao, are all part of the pulsing melody that is the score of our life. It is a journey without distance, but also without end. It is finding joy in the struggle.

    Dr. Bob

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