We often try to isolate events in our lives from everything that precedes and follows it. The practice is delusional at best, destructive at it’s worst. In Part I of this series I questioned the notion that life must be a zero-sum game, where if you win I lose. In Part II I explored the emotional costs we pay for conflict even when we “win.” In this final article, I suggest five questions to ask yourself before you decide to pursue a conflict.
A Tale of Two Sisters
I counseled two sisters who were responsible for caring for their dying mother. Throughout their lives, the siblings had been competitive. If there was a perfect example of a zero-sum game, they played it, ranging from professional achievements, accumulation of wealth and even to their children’s accomplishments. As their mother’s life was coming to the end, every decision about her care became framed within the context of which sister would prevail. Though both loved their mother, neither could see the damage their incessant conflict had on her.
Five Questions to Ask
In the heat of a battle—even a minor one—we tend to forget the consequences of our actions both to ourselves and others. By the time the sisters realized what their bickering had done to their mother, it was too late to make amends. Instead of the mother dying peacefully, her final days were filled with sibling rivalry.
The immediacy of a conflict and the inherent need to win colors our perception of what’s important. There is an old story about a not-to-smart monk who would forget the virtuous things he did during the day. A wiser monk suggested he carry two bags of small stones—one white and the other black. Each time he did a virtuous act, he should put a white stone in his pocket. For each behavior less than virtuous, a black stone. At the end of the day if he had more white than black stones it was a good day.
While assessing the value of a conflict may be more complicated than determining if a behavior is virtuous or not, there are five questions you can ask yourself before beginning a conflict:
1. Why am I engaging in this conflict?
2. Will I achieve my long-range goals if I win?
3. What will the costs be to me even if I win?
4. How will my win affect the person who loses?
5. Can I compromise to avoid the conflict and produce a win-win solution?
Compassion and Running Away
While there aren’t any magical answers, they will provide the context within which you can decide to do battle or run away. Never forget that Monty Python’s killer bunnies populate your life—even when you can’t see them. Often running away takes more courage, compassion, and intelligence than being led by the need to “win.”