5 Conflict Thoughts

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As I thought about the passing of RBG, and where that leaves all of us, it seemed to me that conflict was inevitable. I think that the one thing that we can be sure of is that the next few months will be some of the more contentious in our nation’s history. Certainly the most contentious of my lifetime.

Conflict is hard. It is almost always unpleasant. It can leave us questioning the world and ourselves. It can drain us of energy, obscure our focus, and generally rob us of motivation.

One of the things that has made 2020 feel so..... 2020 is that everything feels like a fight. Even stuff that shouldn’t be. People can’t even seem to agree on basic facts. Hell, you can’t even get people to agree on what a “fact” actually is anymore.

This week I will be sharing 5 thoughts on conflict. There are not necessarily strategies to deal with conflict. There could be entire libraries filled with books by those more qualified than me to talk about the nuts and bolts of conflict management. What I propose to share instead is 5 ways of thinking about conflict and our response to it. These are the lessons I have learned about conflict.

My life has been defined by conflict. I was conceived in an act of make-up sex by two very young parents who would not stay together long. I was literally born into a cycle of dissension and recrimination. I have been to war and participated in the ultimate human expression of conflict - armed combat. In these experiences and countless others in between - from VA waiting rooms to PTA meetings - I have learned about the nature of conflict.

Conflict is part of what it means to be human. Think about your relationship with yourself. Look at the person in the mirror. Have they ever done something you wish they hadn’t? Have they ever had an idea you now disagree with? Have they said, or not said, something you now wish they had? We are incapable of living without conflict, even with just ourselves. It would behoove us to think more closely about conflict, our passenger on the journey.

Conflict Thought #1

Conflict is misalignment.

During the pandemic, asynchronous communication has become the norm for me. I almost never have in person conversations with people anymore. I do have the occasional phone call, but there have been entire weeks pass in the last 6 months in which I have not had a single, real-time conversation with someone who wasn’t in my immediate family.

I love texting and email. They are incredible technologies for staying in touch, and something akin to magic. I pull out a rectangle from my pocket, type in a spell, and suddenly I am exchanging words with someone in Atlanta or Minnesota or Belgium or even Carrboro. The asynchronous nature of the conversation means I can send the message and then follow up or respond when it makes sense. If Justin is screaming because his Gatorade is the wrong color (and yes that is a thing that happens), then I can simply wait to answer. I can also answer immediately and continue the conversation for as long as both I and the person I am talking to can. I can always stop to investigate the loud crashing sound in Justin’s room (hint: it’s almost always the cymbals).

There are some limits to asynchronous communication too. The other day I received a simple, 4 word text from a friend. 

Friend: Can you believe it?

Me: IKR? I was shocked.

We went on to exchange another dozen or so messages about how shocked we were, and how the whole situation was 2020 in a nutshell, and how over this year we are, and how ready to just move on. It wasn’t until my friend made an offhand comment that I was struck by a sudden, horrifying revelation.

We weren’t talking about the same thing.

I suddenly felt awkward and weird. I gently texted back.

Me: Okay, this may sound out there, but I thought we were talking about XYZ. Was I confused?

Friend: OMG, LOL. I was totally talking about ABC.

Luckily, this was a good friend with an even better sense of humor. We were able to laugh about it, make a joke about 2020 and move on. We ended up talking about XYZ and ABC.

Most conflict starts with misalignment. It can be a misalignment in communication, like my friend and I experienced. Sometimes, we are just talking about different things. This can create conflict. This happens frequently in discussions of racism. Many white folks have been taught that racism is an issue of the heart. If you don’t have hate in your heart, or think prejudiced thoughts, then you aren’t a racist. Many BIPOC have a different lived reality, Their whole lives have been lived under the influence and struggle of systemic oppression. They see the system - not individuals - as the driver of racism. When we talk about racism we are talking about different things. And conflict results.

Sometimes conflict arises from the misalignment of perspective. We are looking at the same thing, but we are looking at it in radically different ways. I am reminded of the parable of the 5 blind men and the elephant. Each holds a different part, and sees the whole from the perspective of that part. The man holding the leg thinks he holds a tree. The man holding the tail thinks he holds a rope. They are touching the same truth, and seeing it through different lenses. This misaligned perspective can create conflict.

There can also be a misalignment of goals. People may want very different things from an interaction. I learned this tending bar. Sometimes the people sitting at the bar wanted a friend. Sometimes they wanted a date. I just wanted a tip. Conflict can arise when people want different things.

When conflict comes up, it is helpful to look for the misalignment. If you can fix the alignment, you can frequently avoid conflict. Some misalignment can’t be fixed. Sometimes your goals and perspectives won’t mesh with the person with whom you speaking. However, even if you can’t bring alignment, you can better understand where the disconnect exists. 

The better you can understand conflict, the better it can be managed. 

Thought on Conflict #2

Conflict can be useful.

The 2000 Los Angeles Lakers were one of the best teams in NBA history. They featured two of the best NBA players of all time - Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant - both of whom were in the prime of their careers. They were coached by Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in NBA history, who would retire after winning an unprecedented 11 titles as coach, to join the 2 he won as a player.

Shaq and Kobe had been teammates since 1996. In 2000, the duo propelled the Lakers to a 67 win regular season, one of the best ever. They breezed to the Western Conference Finals, where they took a commanding 3 games to 1 lead on the Portland Trailblazers in the best of 7 series. Then everything started to fall apart. The Blazers won the next two games to even the series. In the deciding game 7, the Lakers started off slowly, and by the end of the 3rd quarter, they were down by 16 points. The Lakers were on the ropes and in danger of losing their season. 

The Lakers responded by going on a 25-4 run to end the game, led by Shaq and Kobe. They took the lead from the Blazers late in the game and their victory was sealed when Kobe drove the lane and, as Blazer defenders descended on him, lofted a gentle alley-oop pass to Shaq. The 7-1, 325 pound center jammed it home, and the Los Angeles crowd went crazy.

That play would ignite a run of 3 consecutive championships for the Lakers. It ignited something else too. 

If you watch that video, you will see Shaq throwing his arms up in celebration. If you watch closely, you will see Kobe reach out to give Shaq a celebratory high 5. And you will see Shaq run right by.

Kobe and Shaq had been teammates for 4 years. Their personalities could not have been more different. Shaq was large physically, and had an even larger personality. He was outgoing and garrulous, with a fun loving personality that verged on being goofy. He had multiple interests and a diffuse focus. Despite his prodigious genetic gifts, he had an indifferent approach to conditioning and at times struggled with weight, especially later in his career. He relied on being a genetic anomaly - a man so big, so strong, so fast, and so agile that no other individual could stop him. 

Kobe was hyper focused and relentlessly competitive. His conditioning was unparalleled. Kobe pioneered many of the personal training techniques and approaches that were radical in 2000, but are the norm today. Kobe had a personal chef who traveled with him on the road. He had an army of private doctors and trainers all who worked to keep his body in top shape. He worked with a sports psychologist and researched ways to keep his mental edge. He was a voracious student of the game, analyzing film for hours on end. He constantly worked to improve. He was always serious.

Both men were intelligent (Shaq would go on to earn a doctorate in education after his playing career, Kobe spoke 3 languages and would frequently give postgame interviews in English, Spanish and Italian), however their mismatched personalities and approach to the game built resentments. Shaq wanted Kobe to lighten up and enjoy the ride. Kobe wanted Shaq to focus, improve and live up to his enormous potential.

The alley oop was the match that lit the fire. Kobe felt ignored and minimized by Shaq. To Shaq, it wasn’t intentional, and wasn’t a big deal, and Kobe should just move on. The Lakers would win the next 3 championships, but the relationship between their two preternaturally gifted stars was irreparably broken. The two were often so frustrated with each other that they didn’t speak. The Lakers rearranged the locker room so the two would be as far apart as possible. Other Laker players have since said that the locker room was always tense, like a home where the parents are fighting. The Lakers’ on-court success was often overshadowed by their off-court conflict.

Years later Phil Jackson would say that the tension actually drove the success. Basketball players, Jackson argued, were artists. The collaboration between John Coltrane and Miles Davis revolutionized jazz music and it also led to frequent, messy, and even violent blowups between the two geniuses. In the same way, Jackson suggested, Kobe and Shaq drove one another’s success.

I want to be very clear here. Not all conflict makes us better. Some conflict is just toxic (more on that next week). Not all conflict is useful. However, it is important to recognize that some conflict IS useful. Sometimes conflict can help us unlock aspects of ourselves that we can’t access in other ways. Sometimes conflict can drive us to places - collectively and individually - that we can’t reach without it. 

The Lakers don’t beat the Blazers without Shaq. And they don’t do it without Kobe. They don’t win multiple championships without each other. 

And maybe they don’t do it without conflict. 

Conflict Thought #3

You can’t die on every hill. Choose wisely.

In 1997, I was stationed at Fort Hood. That year, there was a major simulated war exercise that involved commands from all over the globe, hosted at III Corps Headquarters. The exercise involved a lot of computer power, and our unit was tasked with providing user support. It was an extended exercise. Normally we would go to the field for a week or two, maybe even three. This was a months long exercise. 

Instead of being in a tent in the woods, we were set up on the parking lot near the headquarters. Instead of being on site 24/7, our battalion commander authorized us to work in shifts, and spend our off hours at home. My platoon had enough people to split into 3 shifts. Instead of working the same 8 hour shift, our platoon leader came up with the idea to work slightly longer shifts with more time off. That way, no one would have to work the same midnight shift for months at a time. Instead, we worked 12 hours on, 24 off. We were broken up into groups of 2 or 3 junior enlisted soldiers and 1 noncommissioned officer to act as our supervisor. I was assigned to the team led by Staff Sergeant Vincent Washington, who would eventually be one of the biggest mentors of my military career.

SSG Washington had only recently come to Fort Hood from Fort Gordon, where he had served as a drill sergeant. He carried an intimidating presence. He never cursed. Ever. In 2 years working for him I never heard him curse once. You knew he was starting to get heated if he said “dog-gone.” If he worked his way to “dad-gum” then you were in serious trouble. If he was truly on the verge of going nuclear, then he would get the two mixed up. If you heard “dad-gone” then shit was about to get real.

No one made him say “dad-gone” more than me.

SSG Wash was old school Army. He was just old school period. He believed in following orders, working hard, and sweating the details. He believed in being on time. Granted, being on time is a basic military expectation, but SSG Wash took it to the next level. “15 minutes early is on time,” he would tell us. “On time is late. Late is unacceptable.” “If 15 minutes early is on time, then why don’t we just change the time?” I would ask. “Dad-gone Hall!” he would bark, and then we were off to the races. To this day showing up even 2 minutes late to something makes me break out in a cold sweat and look over my shoulder for Wash.

One day during this extended field exercise, I was late for my shift. It was only 5 minutes, but as I walked to the tent I knew that SSG Washington would be furious. I could hear the “dad-gones” and feel the pushups already. “It’s not my fault,” I sputtered as soon as I entered the tent.

“This ought to be good. Who’s fault is it then?” Wash asked.

“Barbara’s.”

Wash was incredulous. “Barbara? Your wife? Your sweet, wonderful, pregnant wife? The one who does so much for this whole unit? It can’t be that Barbara. Is it another Barbara?”

“No. That one.” I started explaining that we had a ... disagreement before I had left for shift, and that it had gotten heated. For some reason, she had failed to see things my way, despite the fact that I was clearly right. Because of that, I was late and, obviously, it was not my fault.

Wash told me to sit down. He sat across from me. “Specialist Hall,” he said calmly, “You can’t die on every hill. You have to choose wisely. Most aren’t worth fighting on.”

I couldn’t even start to tell you what Barbara and I were arguing about when I left for work that day. Maybe it was about putting together furniture for the baby’s room. Maybe it was about prenatal vitamins or taking out the trash. I honestly can’t remember. It was a forgettable hill in a marriage full of forgettable hills.

What I haven’t forgotten is SSG Washington’s advice. I can still see him sitting next to me in that tent, explaining how not everything was worth fighting over. He went on to say that fighting about everything eventually turns everything into a fight. You lose the ability to see the difference. You can let some things go, he told me. You should save your energy for the fights that are really important.

I listened respectfully, thinking the whole time that Wash was full of shit. Picking and choosing battles was dumb. I was a fighter. I was young and I had passion and energy and no fear of anything. I would never back down. I was always up for a fight. 

His advice would come back to me many times over the years. I heard his advice on the day that Willie was diagnosed with autism. I heard it in Iraq. I heard his words the morning I woke up handcuffed to an ICU bed. 

When you fight everything, then everything becomes a fight. You can’t die on every hill. Choose wisely. Save your energy for the fights that are really important.

It took a while for me to learn. But SSG Washington was right.

I’ll be dad-gone.

Conflict Thought #4

Resolving conflict means practicing accountability.

In 1996, the government of South Africa held the first hearings of what would be the first large scale attempt at restorative justice in modern history - the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The goal of the commission was to investigate, record, and bear witness to the human rights abuses of the apartheid era in South Africa. A central part of its work was the public testimony of apartheid victims, who were given the ability to tell their story for all of South Africa (and the world) to hear. 

What made the TRC unique was that the perpetrators of the abuse were asked to make statements, and give public testimony of their abuse. If they did so honestly and completely, and accepted responsibility for their actions, then the commission had the ability to provide amnesty for their crimes.

The TRC was not without its critics. There were some who believed that the hearings were tilted in favor of the perpetrators, who could walk away without punishment for their serious crimes and abuse. There were some who believed that the TRC was the starting point for restoration and reconciliation, not the end point.

While these criticisms are valid, there is also no doubt that the TRC made the contemporary South African democracy possible. By providing a path to racial reconciliation, the government made it possible to move beyond a period of state sanctioned hate and oppression. The linchpin of the process was public accountability. In order to heal the conflicts of the past, the people responsible for abuse had to take full accountability for their actions.

One of the reasons that there remains an open and festering wound around race in America is that we have never had anything like the TRC in America, to say nothing of reparations or other systemic attempt to make whole the victims of our own history of racialized violence. In many ways, South Africa is farther ahead after 25 years of work than we are after 160. And we fought a whole ass civil war over it.

You don’t resolve conflict - of any kind - without internal and external accountability. Apologies without accountable change are worthless. Without accountability, conflict persists. Healing can only really begin when we accept the full weight of the wrongs we have done, and demand that others do the same. 

Working through conflict starts with accountability. 

Conflict Thought #5

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

One of the jobs my team had in Iraq was interacting with the local population in Anbar Province. We were the “good cops” who brought money, equipment, and support to people who helped the US forces operating in the area. One of the goals of our work was to create relationships strong enough that locals would let us know about insurgent activity before it happened.

One day, a local reached out. He told us that his young neighbor had been cooperating with insurgents, even helping them emplace IEDs. We knew the house he was talking about. And the boy he identified. This kid was like 12 years old. He seemed even younger. He was always smiling and laughing, even in the midst of years of war that had taken so many in his family. While it was certainly possible that the kid was working with insurgent forces, it seemed like a real stretch.

Our team huddled to talk about it. We agreed that it seemed very unlikely to be true, but that we should follow up. I mean, what reason would the old man who told us what was happening have to call out this child? On the other hand, we weren’t gonna take this kid into custody and have him disappear to Abu Ghraib or an even worse black site. If we were gonna take him into custody and release him into that world, we wanted to be damned sure.

A couple of days later we met with the boy and his mother and grandmother. They assured us that the kid had done nothing against the Americans. “He loves America,” his mother told us, “he wants to go to America.” When we asked why the old man down the street would say something like that, the grandmother spoke up. “His family and our family hate each other.” She was completely matter of fact about it. Why the hate, we asked. 

She went on to explain that her great grandfather had been accused by the other family of stealing a goat from them. Despite the fact that they lived near one another, the kid’s family had always been lower status than the other family. “They think we are thieves and liars. We hate them because they look down on us.”

We went back and talked to the old man. He asked if we had arrested the kid yet. We asked about the great grandfather’s goat. “Those people are not to be trusted,” he said. Our team leader asked what proof he had that the boy had been working with insurgents. “Look at his family,” he said, “this is all the proof you need.” We explained to the old man that we would not be arresting the boy unless he had some real and definite proof of his activities. That the character of his family was not enough reason. “Americans destroy everything,” he said, “except what I most want destroyed.”

For weeks we talked about the fact that the old man was willing to get a child arrested by the Americans, knowing full well what that could potentially mean. The revelations from Abu Ghraib were just months old at that point, and were a constant topic of conversation among Iraqis. All over a goat. From generations before.

Sometimes conflict is like that. It becomes a habit. We hate things because we think we should. We fight because it’s an expectation. We feel like everything needs a response, every slight must be answered. 

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. You don’t have to RSVP to every fight you get invited too. Sometimes, you can just leave the goat in the distant past.

Sometimes, conflict is a choice we make. And we can make a different choice.

Sometimes, conflict is not a choice. And we will talk about that next week, when I share 5 thoughts on toxic conflict.

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber. 

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.