In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott writes that “all conversations are with myself and sometimes involve other people”. The same can be said of conflict – that all interpersonal conflict is accompanied by internal conflict, in which our values appear to be in opposition to each other. Until we reconcile such internal conflict, we are unlikely to be able to resolve our external conflicts.
Internal conflict is the driving force behind character development in drama. One of my favourite dramas, Downton Abbey, is so compelling because of the masterful job it does in portraying its characters’ internal conflict. These often pit true love against a sense of duty or pressure to conform to societal norms. The characters’ decisions ultimately define them. That we relate to these dilemmas speaks to the universal theme of internal conflict.
This is also central to Les Miserables. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, has breached his parole and has been pursued by his nemesis, Inspector Javert. One (of several) choice points in Valjean’s story line arises when another man has been mistaken for him, arrested and is facing imprisonment. On the face of it, this is good news for Valjean, as his case will be closed and he will no longer be the subject of Javert’s obsession [as discussed in my previous blog]. Yet Valjean is torn. His sense of justice cannot bear to see an innocent man go to jail in his stead, but to right this wrong, Valjean would need to reveal his identity and risk arrest. The song “Who Am I” chronicles his inner conflict (“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned.”) The song climaxes as our hero touches on his inner truth (“I am Jean Valjean!”) as his sense of justice triumphs.
How we reconcile our inner conflicts can be said to define us. Several years ago, a colleague bounced a cheque to me as a result of conflicting views over a harassment investigation [yes, I am aware of the irony :)]. I was torn between my aversion to conflict and my outrage at being unjustly treated. I wavered until I asked myself “am I being the man that I would want my daughter to marry”. As I certainly did not wish my daughter to marry a doormat, I knew that I needed to pursue the matter despite my discomfort.
People are continually confronted by inner conflict: should I speak up when my supervisor mocks me in meetings (my need for respect) or should I “suck it up” to avoid possible retribution (my need for safety or even financial security). People unwilling to make a clear choice end up in limbo: unwilling to act, yet frustrated by the status quo. Even though an interpersonal conflict may only involve two people, each of the two will be experiencing some level of internal conflict. This may reflect a desire to “get this over with ” contrasted with a need to save face. Until the internal conflict is reconciled, the external conflict is likely to persist.
A colleague of mine who has integrated “mindfulness” with her conflict resolution and counseling practice introduced me to a concept that can help us resolve our internal conflicts: “wise mind”. This has been described as the balance between reasonable mind and emotion mind – a “middle way” that taps into a deep sense of intuitive knowing. For some people, it is that still, small voice within that knows what is best. For others, wise mind is experienced as a “gut feeling”.
If you find yourself torn by inner conflict, I suggest identifying the values or needs that appear to be contradictory. Once you have determined those needs, ask yourself “who am I?”. Wise mind can provide you with the insight to answer that question and guide you through your inner conflict. Singing is optional.