Humans are individually unique beings. No one person is the same. Obvious huh? Well maybe, and yet so often we adopt similar patterns of behaviour to those around us; it can sometimes appear that the differences between us is a matter of semantics. From such confluence (Perls, Hefferline, Goodman, 1951) develops formulised and patterned approaches to managing contact with the world around us. Such patterns are evident in many of our default reactions to conflict with our fellow human beings.
One such pattern is to pull back from contact when difference arises with another person. Have you ever found yourself diverting to the toilet/stairs rather than getting in the lift with that person from work you don’t see eye-to-eye with? Smart move! It’s a handy emergency response to keep your anxiety, irritation, or in more extreme cases, anger, at manageable levels. Why put yourself through 8 floors of awkwardness?
Well, it is indeed a handy emergency response. However, in the moment that you withdraw from contact with your colleague, you create the conditions to embed that conflict just a little bit further. The message here is, to find a way to try and stay in contact with that person who you probably wish worked, and lived, the other side of the world. By staying in contact, there exists the potential for creating change in your relationship. The more you move away from contact, in most cases, the less likely you are of resolving the dispute you are having.
The key to staying in contact in this way, is self-support (Perls, L. 1992). What do I mean by that? Well, it’s accessing the resources you have within yourself to be in the same space as the person you are in conflict with. You can start with the most fundamental self-support we have, that of breathing. When in conflict our breathing patterns are often the first things to change and paying attention to steady regular breathing can help when you feel under attack from another. Anyway, I digress a little.
When I talk about staying in contact with another person, I am not thinking here of directly interacting with the other person(s). I am talking about being in the same space. For example, at lunchtime you would rather go out to a café than go to the staff room, because you wish to avoid that person you are experiencing difficulty with. Don’t do that, take your lunch and sit in the staff room instead.
As you do this pay close attention to your experience, and keep breathing! How do you feel in your stomach, your chest, are you tense anywhere in your body, your shoulders perhaps? Why put yourself through this possible purgatory you may ask. Well, as you identify, and allow, your experience, it will change. Just by being with it, the experience changes (The Paradoxical Theory of Change, Beisser, 1970). When we create diversions and cut off from challenging feelings, we also cut off from the possibility of us changing for the better. The great thing is, we usually don’t need to be in direct verbal or physical contact with the person(s) we’re in dispute with to make these changes. Merely by being in some sort of proximity to the other we will have a somatic or cognitive experience that we can then sit with.
One challenge in this practice is that at first it will feel counter-intuitive. “I feel anxious, I don’t want to feel anxious, therefore I’m going to do something so that I can escape this experience”. But as referenced earlier, this creates a kind of toxic loop for the emotions and feelings being experienced, they can’t change. So, sit with the discomfort when it arises, American psychologist Reid Wilson says the following, “step back from current experience, observe it and label it as acceptable in the present moment” (2012: 4).
The final key aspect of such experiments with personal experience of conflict, is grading. Grade the experiment you are trying out so that it is manageable. Using the earlier example, you may not want to sit in the staff room with the person you are in dispute with if the staff room is the size of a small broom cupboard, or if your car broke down on the way to work that morning. But find that place and time where you can feel the emotions and feelings elicited by being in contact with that other person, without them being immediately overwhelming, or you acting out on these emotions and the situation deteriorating. Experiment with your reactions and personal experiences when in conflict with another.
Happy experimenting, and if all still seems irretrievably stuck, then DO turn away from contact, give yourself a break, and go on holiday somewhere beautiful and peaceful, like the place in the photo at the top of this article! Then come back and look at it refreshed.
Beisser, A. (1970) The Paradoxical Theory of Change. In Fagan, J. & Shepherd I., Gestalt Therapy Now. Highland, NY: The Gestalt Journal Press, Inc.
Perls, F., Hefferline, R., Goodman, P. (1951) Gestalt Therapy, Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. London: Souvenir Press
Perls, L., (1992) Living at the Boundary. Gouldsboro, ME: The Gestalt Journal Press, Inc.
Wilson, R. (2012) The Anxiety Disorder Game, Psychotherapy.net