Owning Our Part: The antidote to complicated conflict.

August 15, 2023

A person drags a huge sled of emotional baggage as they walk

Have you ever been frustrated with how a conflict can mentally hitch a ride with you thereafter? Riled up by the uncomfortable situation we are embroiled in, we turn the details over and over in our heads as we try to make sense of what happened. With an outward gaze, as we tend to default towards in a basic version of The Blame Game, this can become an unwanted extracurricular activity that follows us around.

When bad things happen, it’s usually the result of a series of many things and often involves many people – including ourselves. But accepting that we’ve made a mistake is difficult, and so the blame is cast outward. When we avoid looking at ourselves, we are not being honest – and as a result, we can’t find peace.

Consider this quote by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, from their book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me):

The mind wants to protect itself from the pain of dissonance with the balm of self-justification, but the soul wants to confess.

By way of self-protection, our mind wants to convince us that we did nothing wrong – that it’s always the "other" that is being unreasonable. This play battle of good (you, obviously) versus evil (them, obviously!!!) can only go on for so long – because underneath the hand-wringing and finger-pointing, there is a part of us that wants to own up. A clean conscience, after all, helps us to sleep soundly at night.

If it’s beneficial to concede to our mistakes, why is it so difficult to admit them? There are a couple of common reasons:

  1. We aren’t aware that we have made a mistake.
  2. Many of our cultures are mistake-phobic, linking mistakes with incompetence or stupidity that will be punished.

When our cultures and societies have a narrow tolerance for mistakes, we inevitably develop coping strategies to avoid making them in the first place – or having responsibility land on us in the second, third, or eleventh place.

Does this make us humans sound conniving? Well, it’s not that simple. The way this usually plays out is unconscious. Unbeknownst to our conscious selves, we often have an unconscious internal conversation that describes ourselves more positively and others more negatively. Inwardly, we think of ourselves as good innocent people who couldn’t possibly make a mistake, sheesh! Then we reaffirm our haloed self-image by spending time ruminating on the specificities of how others got it wrong.

Naturally, these spinning thoughts spill out of our minds and off our tongues to any ear that will listen – creating a containment problem that arises to which our colleagues, friends, and family can probably testify. Worse, none of this solves the original conflict and unnecessarily escalates the issue.

A note to self that we all make mistakes

Whether a hesitancy to admit to our mistakes is due to cultural conditioning or honest unawareness, we can help ourselves and each other by shifting our perspective to a more nuanced stance. In recognizing that conflict is natural, we can address our spiralling thoughts. We can remove the shackles of having to be perfect and mistake-free. And when we hold a more realistic view of our role in a situation, we can cultivate a culture of growth.

There are three things we need to understand and accept about our role in all conflicts:

  1. We will make mistakes: No one is perfect! Besides, mistakes give us a chance to learn. Becoming better is all about experimenting, trying new things, and opening up to new possibilities. And when we inevitably mess up, we try again better next time.
  2. Our intentions are complex: While we might insist that we’re keeping our motives pure, we all have blind spots. Could there be some unconscious, secondary gains we aren’t acknowledging?
  3. We have contributed to the problem: This can be tough to own up to, but it’s necessary for moving forward. We are embedded in a relationship’s dynamics, where our actions have not always been constructive. Even if our behaviour was not immoral, illegal, or unethical, it might just not work for the other person.

So let’s agree to stop blaming out, okay? But before we swing too far the other way into thinking that it’s all up to us, let’s remember that it’s both. The antidote to defensiveness in the face of conflict is for each of us to own our part.

When we claim personal responsibility in life’s sticky situations, we can take steps towards clarity, understanding, and perhaps even resolution. This translates to a sense of lightness – so that when we are wrapping up the day, we can be free of mental and emotional baggage that otherwise might follow us around.

Through many years of third-party mediation, we’ve witnessed the stark difference that this shift in mindset can bring to conflict that otherwise feels stuck. Rehearsing and regurgitating stories about how others are wrong does not have to be your hobby.

Our ongoing work here at Mediation Services is to help you find resolution and clarity in the conflict of your own life. There are plenty of resources on our blog to get you started, and we continually offer accessible trainings in mediation (both online and offline) with tools for you to help disentangle tricky situations.

While we all need to take 100% responsibility for our role in the conflict, we also need to allow other people to safely take responsibility for theirs too. If you need assistance bridging a divide that has formed, request a third-party mediator here or contact us to explore your options.

We are here to empower you amidst the complexity of interconnectivity.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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