How You Can Get a Handle on the Costly Curse of Conflict

We were seven kids in a pretty healthy family.  Seven kids in a 3-bedroom ranch. Oh, and seven 7 kids in our one Ford Country Squire. Picture the 9 of us, sardine chldren:

We were a daily and nightly laboratory of conflict. My memory is that there was crying on pretty much a daily basis. Like most of real adults in life, we learned early not to bite, scratch, hit, and throw things at each other.*  And we loved each other, too.  As we got older, we’d pick Mom and the newly delivered baby up from the hospital. And we’d play, laugh, tease (far short of tears), console, etc.  I wouldn’t trade that, even if I could.

But with no offense to my parents, we never really learned just why we – or more precisely, each “I” of us – was inclined to conflict…and so incapable of managing it well.  I was one of the worst offenders.  When I had power (e.g., when my two bros were small enough), I’d exercise it. Increasingly, I learned to channel it into intellectual jousting or burn it off on courts and ball fields. Each of the seven of us had rather unique coping strategies.  We all learned to self-contain it.

But it rattled around – like I’m pretty sure it did and does for you, fellow human. People pushed my buttons – even a sibling or two . . . well into my 50s.  Sibs were mostly replaced by co-workers, girl friends, guy friends, knucklehead bosses, priests. And on my teams at work I saw the same thing: really good people getting under each others’ skin, passively-aggressively attacking or flat-out aggressively attacking. One woman nearly turned my whole team against me. And I talked smack about others way more than I’d ever want to admit.

Good Catholic boys, like good [your tribe here] boys or good [your tribe here] girls, face another big problem with conflict:  We don’t like ourselves when we’re in it. And then, when the controls fail and we really blow cool, we can hate ourselves.  At some level, that is intolerable, so it often makes us more self-righteously angry with “the other,” because they must be why we were acting so “uncharacteristically” uncivil.

The whole cycle of attacking and self-reproach may make our stomachs churn, our heads hurt, and our blood pressure rise. We likely say, “My wife is so frustrating,” or “you won’t believe what my boss said,” or “this youngest child is going to be the death of me.”

Of course, when you step back with me to take this detached standpoint, you can guess what “they” in the three examples above are saying: Your wife says, “My husband is so frustrating,” your boss says, “you won’t believe what my employee did today,” and the youngest child says, “I am dad’s constant target; nothing I do is right, especially after he’s had a beer or two.”

So, conflict comes with being human. And it’s costly to health, productivity, communication, etc.

You knew this.

So…do you have a theory of what’s at the root?

And way more important, have you figured out how to truly work with and through it?

50 years removed from that Country Squire, and I finally am clear about how to handle the conflict I have created and sustained with my siblings.  Yet 50 years removed from it, just last week I was ensnared in conflict with my oldest child and one of my best work-collaborators.

Today I share three lessons life is making hyper-clear to me.  Next week two more.

Lesson 1: Heighten my awareness of conflict.  If I don’t, I’ll perpetuate it. It exists. Admit it. Awareness creates the possibility of learning and choice.  Denial?  Not so much.

Lesson 2: Conflict is always mutual. I don’t have to punch someone in the nose or call them an asshole for them to feel that I am in conflict with them. And you know how others can squash, hurt, befuddle you – even when they don’t know it and don’t intend it.

Lesson 3: I am responsible for the way conflict affects me. Nobody makes me mad. They may stimulate the rise of anger, but it’s my anger.  Nobody makes you sad. They may say or do things that trigger sadness, but they don’t make you sad.  Own your feelings. It’s the essential beginning point.

Sorry for inviting you to think about conflict as I send this on a Monday morning.  But awareness creates choice and power.  I hope you and I can put these three lessons into play as we

Lead with our best selves.


* This footnote recognizes that individuals and collectives HAVEN’T learned these basic lessons we presume to be taught in the home.  Instead we have wars, terrorism, crime, sexual abuse, and other killings and woundings of thousand upon thousands of humans by humans.


  • Dan,

    I really enjoyed this post.

    “I am responsible for the way conflct affects me.” Awareness creates choice and power is probably the #1 thing I took from your class (OK, Mulhern’s law of thinking from right to left” is right there too, but I sort of was doing that before). As I think I discussed with you, the epiphany I had in a job where my role in an interpersonal conflict became so clear, and where I was able to see how it impacted me, I feel has been a real turning point for me. It in fact HAS allowed me to tap into the universal power (that I have and that I count on from others) to create other choices for myself, choices that those with whom I had the “conflict” are fully on board with now because, wait for it, we’re no longer in conflict and as importantly, I understood it was incumbent upon me to resolve the coflict. That’s a double win if you ask me. And, to go to Mulhern’s first law, it was in the process of thinking about “what do i want to do xxx point from now,” in other words thinking from right to left that really got me to think about this (and this was before I even took your course!).


  • For instance, when parents model inappropriate sexual behaviours and interactions or condone abusive behaviours, a child may act in the same way with a sibling. 23 UNHEALTHY FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS Unstable parental behaviour and disorganized family structures have an impact on sibling relationships. For instance, when power imbalances, strict gender roles, differential treatment of siblings, and lack of parental  supervision exist in the family structure, the risk for sibling sexual abuse increases24. In addition, a sexual climate in the family that is either too pronounced or too repressive increases the risk of sibling sexual abuse. 25 SEX OF CHILD Whether the sex of a child plays a role in sibling violence remains unclear. Some studies have suggested that boys are more likely to engage in sibling violence than girls26, however others have found no gender differences. 27  Older brother–younger sister pairs have been shown in some studies to represent the most common pair for sibling violence, however, in others, boys with brothers committed more types of sibling violence. 28 AGE OF CHILD Some studies have shown a link between age and sibling violence, suggesting a possible developmental component to the behaviour. For instance, younger sibling pairs are more likely to engage in violence than older sibling pairs. 29While sibling violence appears to decline with age, injuries tend to be more serious as the age of the hurtful sibling increases. 30 EXPERIENCES OF BULLYING Emerging research has found that there is a significant relationship between experiences of sibling abuse and peer bullying. 31 This link to peer bullying exists for survivors and perpetrators of sibling abuse.

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