Conflict. We love to watch it on TV, but hate it in our homes, workplaces, and churches. Ask most people and they’d tell you that they’d just rather avoid it altogether. It’s less painful that way…but the reality is that conflict is a part of being human, and the ability to deal with it effectively is a key indicator in the growth and success of families and organizations.
One of my favorite stories to illustrate this is in the Old Testament – in the wilderness, where Moses has led the people of Israel and has now gone up on the mountain to talk with God. He’s out of the picture for awhile, and so the people become anxious.
The Exodus story is one of anxiety tension all along the way. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, but now here they are out in the desert. They complain, they grumble at a low rumble. Their anxiety is self-focused (at least we had food in Egypt), and they blame Moses for their troubles. Now he’s gone off up the mountain top to be with God, they haven’t seen him for weeks, and their anxiety reaches a fever pitch.
For them, like us, the security of the known pain is less scary than the security of the unknown. The Israelites had experienced some big changes in their lives, and changes always raise anxiety.
Last week we talked about reactivity and that’s a huge factor here. The people react in a reptilian way – they decide to thumb their noses at Moses and go a different direction. They can’t manage their own anxiety and start doing things to try to ease their pain.
Here’s a simple example from our daily lives: A parent and a child in Wal-Mart. The child wants a toy…badly. Mom says, “no.” The whining begins, turns to wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by the cries of “It’s not fair” leading to the big one – “I hate you.”
So now you’ve got a two-person, unstable emotional conflict – the child perceives himself to be a victim (unloved, abandoned, denied his right to happiness) and Mom to be the Persecutor.
So the child (like the people of Israel), decides that in order for his pain to be satiated, he needs a Rescuer.
When the anxiety between the two parties becomes too much to deal with, a third party is brought into the relationship, creating a triangle. (Moses, Aaron People – Persecutor, Rescuer, Victim)
The people don’t want to deal with Moses (we don’t know what’s happened to him), so they turn to his brother, Aaron with their pain. “Come, make us gods who will go up before us.” That’s a way of saying, “You alone understand us – only you can save us.” Aaron is brought in as the Rescuer.
It’s a very seductive role. The Rescuer is the savior, the quick fixer. Ease the people’s pain and you’ll be popular with them. So Aaron’s quick fix is to gather up all the gold, make a calf (an idol) and have a party. Problem solved. Right?
Go back with me to Wal-Mart. The child is crying out in anguish and has been persecuted by Mom…so he goes off to the sporting goods section to find….Dad. The crying begins again…Dad’s threshold for the child’s pain is much less than Mom’s. (Bill Cosby – Parents are not interested in justice. They just want QUIET!) So dad caves. “Alright! If I buy this for you, will you be quiet?” Dad has become the rescuer. The quick fixer…”The child smiles through the tears… “Thanks, Dad, you’re the best.” Problem solved. Conflict over. Peace has broken out all over. Right?
Wrong. There are no quick fixes – only a failure of nerve.
In an emotional triangle, roles shift and change while the conflict is never resolved – in fact it is perpetuated and often expanded.
The Israelites are partying hardy. Aaron’s the man of the hour. And then it happens. Moses returns.
When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”
22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
Note the instantaneous shift in roles. Moses says to Aaron (v. 21) “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great a sin?” Aaron has now become the victim and his perception of the people instantly changes….they have become the persecutors. And Aaron looks to Moses as the Rescuer.
Blame. Rationalizing. Self-preservation. All are the wheels which keep the members of the triangle in a constant rotation.
Back to Wal-Mart. What happens when the child marches back to Mom with the toy in hand, saying, “Daddy bought it for me.” Mom is now the victim…but not for long.
It’s a vicious cycle. And its so easy to get hooked into one role or the other
Perhaps you’ve been experiencing this in your family or in your work place. Patterns of triangulation tend to be systemic and passed down through the generations. How many of these triangles exist in your world?
- Maybe you’ve got a boss who you think is unfair, so you meet with a co-worker over lunch to complain about him.
- Perhaps there’s a person in your organization who carries the anxiety of everyone else (If it weren’t for him, we’d actually get something done around here).
- Family gatherings are stressful because you have a problem with someone in the family that’s never been resolved. You talk about it with everyone else but never face it directly.
The point is that the more we try to avoid conflict and confrontation, the more we triangulate ourselves in unhealthy relationships, the more the conflict grows and can grind things to a halt.
How do we deal with it? First, I think we have to understand that conflict isn’t bad and that peace (which we most often think is the absence of conflict) actually can hinder progress. Aaron wants “peace” among the howling mob. But trying to manage anxiety with peace leads to no progress.
In fact, in many ways we have to realize that a system without any healthy conflict really gives power over to the extremists. If no one will lead, if no one will take responsibility for dealing with unresolved conflict, then the loudest in the group or family will usually get their way.
Conflict is a necessary ingredient in a healthy family or organization, but that conflict has to be managed outside of the anxiety.
Remember the dominant paradigm for systems is this: the only person you can manage is you. I saw a great poster once that said – Dysfunction – The only consistent feature of all your dissatisfying relationships is you. There’s some truth to that!
The key to managing conflict is being self-differentiated. That means owning one’s own responsibility and refusing to be “hooked” into the anxiety of another. In other words, managing conflict is really about managing yourself.
Unhealthy conflict and emotional triangles are “YOU” focused. “You” did this to me. “You” are a jerk. Only “you” can save me. All blame and responsibility is pushed off on someone else.
Self-differentiation is “I” focused. A self-differentiated person can recognize, evaluate, and regulate his or her own anxiety and recognize the anxiety in a family or system. “I feel – “, “I believe – “ Self-differentiated people refuse to be hooked into triangles. They refuse to rescue or play the victim. They are more comfortable with the anxiety of others.
Aaron was hooked by the anxiety of the people. He did what he did because he couldn’t separate his own anxiety from theirs. Moses comes back and begins to sort things out because he’s more comfortable with the people’s anxiety (make them drink the gold powder – hair of the dog (or calf) that bit you). It’s self-differentiated people who make the difference in managing conflict.
As I’ve been saying, I believe that Jesus is the prototypical self-differentiated person. When we read the gospels we see that conflict and pain and anxiety constantly swell around him, but he stays firmly grounded in his own convictions and invites people to take responsibility for themselves by not rescuing them inappropriately. He doesn’t give the “go along to get along” kind of message, but instead of peace, comes with a sword – not avoiding conflict but, indeed, embracing it appropriately.
In Matthew 18:15, Jesus tells his disciples how to deal with conflict. It’s the direct route. Moving toward the roar -“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, then you have won your brother over.””
Note that this is a proactive approach. The command is not to fret, gossip, write a letter, email, triangulate…but to go – directly – have a face to face conversation. It’s not waiting for the other to come around. It’s a way of being self-differentiated – taking responsibility for dealing with the conflict ourselves.
If that doesn’t work, then you bring in others – not to triangulate but to mediate. Ultimately, however, it’s up to us to own up to our own responsibility in a conflict, to confront the issue and the person head on, and move on if its not resolvable.
I want to show you a short video that describes how all this theory fits together. I showed this to our church council last month and want to share it with you as a way of focusing ourselves on the principles of being differentiated. Here it is:
This is valuable learning for all of us. It applies to all of our relationships. We need to be looking at triangles, learning about them, and take responsibility for ourselves and our own emotions and anxiety. It takes vigilance!
Where are your triangles? What roles are you playing? How are you learning to deal with the conflict and anxiety in your own life?