Category Archives: conflict

How Conflict Enhances the Stories of Our Lives

In my experience, conflict hurts. Some people thrive on it, but not me. Much of my life has been spent actively avoiding conflict by either kowtowing to those more powerful than I or just leaving them alone. 

As a storyteller, however, I know that when conflict works, that is, when it is handled and resolved appropriately, it is a true win-win for everyone involved. That’s because, as those who study conflict tell us, the resolution of conflict leads to transformation and growth. And that has everything to do with storytelling. What is a story, at least in the Western tradition? Beginning, middle, end. Or in other words, characters and setting, conflict, resolution of conflict. In a good story, the conflict is just disturbing enough, and the resolution is just comforting and fulfilling enough, that we leave feeling satisfied that a job was well done. That all is right with the world.

We learn these things even from the lightest comic strip or horror movie. It feels good to have waded through a swamp of trouble and gotten to the other side. In fact, it usually feels better to have grappled with a problem and solved it than not to have done it at all. That’s because we are, by and large, active creatures with minds that crave some sort of adventure, challenge or mystery. Think of it as the good feeling that comes from scratching an itch, or taking a tall, cool drink on a hot day.

Many of the problems associated with conflict crop up when we seek to avoid it altogether. It’s the opposite of that sign in the dentist’s office: Ignore your teeth and they will go away. In case of conflict, avoid it and it could explode. 

Years ago, I worked as a waitress in a family restaurant. Another employee was constantly picking on me and others, and I disliked him for it. But the job was temporary, and I decided not to make trouble. I just tried to steer clear of him as much as possible. But one day, he did or said something fairly innocuous that just happened to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And I let him have it. All the hurt and anger that had been welling up inside me for months spewed out. He looked so shocked—almost as much as I was! He changed his behavior toward me after that, which was a good thing. But why did I have to wait until the dam burst to speak my mind? I could have controlled my emotions and words and felt better sooner had I dealt with the problem when it was smaller.

More important than the explosion, however, is the fact that if we hold onto conflict until we can’t control our behavior, we usually end up mishandling the situation. Then the next time we’re faced with a conflict, we stick our heads even further into the sand. And the same thing happens, except just a little bit worse.

I try to keep sight of the image of the irritation in the oyster that causes the pearl. Conflict is inevitable between any two people. If we could only celebrate it, and welcome it, our stories would be so much easier.

Many storytellers work with conflict situations. Noa Baum and Susan O’Halloran are two who come immediately to mind. Sometimes we tell a folktale to a group, because an ageless fictional story can help people address issues from a metaphorical distance. Then that story can serve as a jumping-off point for the sharing of people’s own stories. 

Whatever the method used, the message is clear: As long as we keep talking, we can move forward. Stop using words, and the violence speaks for us.