The Lessons of Conflict 

 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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July 2003

I have come to believe that conflict is an essential component of our emotional and spiritual growth.  Every conflict provides us lessons, and our response to our conflicts measures how well we have learned these lessons.

As most of us have experienced, conflict produces fear and anxiety.  Since these are discomforting emotions, we naturally tend to avoid them.  Fear and anxiety were powerful adaptations to a dangerous environment many thousands of years ago. They caused early hominids to be alert to the environment for animals or situations that could kill or injure.  In modern times, environmental dangers are not a concern of everyday living, at least in most developed countries.  Nevertheless, fear and anxiety arising from social interactions are still present and as strong as 20,000 years ago.  Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists might say that we have grown culturally faster than we have evolved biologically.  I think, however, that fear and anxiety, especially when aroused by conflict, now teach three important skills necessary for the next step in evolution:  non-judgment, non-reactivity, and non-anxiousness.

When in serious conflict with others, our tendency is judge.  Judging in highly conflicted situations is almost always dichotomous:  I’m right, you are wrong; I am good, you are evil; I am honest, you are dishonest; I am truthful, you are a liar. Of course, the other person thinks exactly the same way—only you are the target of harm.  The stronger the emotions raised by the dispute, the more black and white we become.  The lesson being presented to us is to resist the categorization of the other person as an opposite. As we learn this lesson, we move from closed to open mindedness.  Other perspectives become possible, and we grow into emotional maturity.

Reactivity is a result of our biological fear response system.  This system has been phylogenetically present for millions of years in vertebrae animals. This means that fear response systems similar to ours have been found in ancient animals. Hence, it is a powerful force to overcome.  Essentially, our brains register danger in the environment about ¾’s of a second before we are consciously aware of what is going on.  By the time we are conscious, our adrenaline is pumping, we are breathing faster, and we may be starting to sweat.  Unconsciously, we rationalize our physical state as being caused by something in the environment and allow our reactions to take over.  Being non-reactive means ignoring our physical reaction until we have adequately assessed what is really going on around us.  Even though our bodies are figuratively screaming at us to flee, freeze, or fight, with a commitment to non-reactivity we can evaluate and choose an appropriate response.  As we learn this lesson, we move from lashing out or striking back, physically or verbally, to patience, perseverance, and tolerance.  Again, we grow into emotional maturity.

Maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of escalating conflict is extraordinarily difficult at first.  As a peacemaker in family and other business conflicts, I have witnessed shouting, anger, threats, and hostility that at first caused me high anxiety.  What was I to do?  How could these people be controlled?  What if I failed?  As I gained experience, I learned to be non-anxious no matter what was swirling around me.  While I look at hostile engagements as serious, I can also see the humor as well.  The last time some partners really began to have it out with each other, I stopped them for a moment and said, “You people are really experts at conflict.  I haven’t ever seen such exquisite displays of anger and hostility in a long time.  You are really good at this, but I have to tell you, you are really lousy at making peace.”  Then I paused, “Is this the way you really want to live?”  That shut them up pretty quickly. My non-anxious presence anchored them around me so that a more productive peacemaking process could develop.

We become anxious because we are fearful of the outcome, the future, what will happen next.  If we let anxiety dominate us, we become so worried that we literally are paralyzed.  The lesson to be learned is not to fear, but to accept.  To the degree that we master this lesson, we grow in emotional maturity.

What would our conflicts look like if we were able to be non-judgmental, non-reactive, and non-anxious?  Why, we might not perceive them as conflicts at all, but only as problems to be solved.  Imagine that in your life.  Now imagine it on a world wide scale.  This growth is the next evolutionary step of our species.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2003, Douglas E. Noll