Feeling Stuck in a Conflict That Won't End? Look for Small Signs of Change.
Have you felt stuck in a conflict that you despaired would never end? Maybe you have given up hope that you and your ex will ever be able to co-parent together without racking up legal bills, or calling each other names at your kid’s hockey game. Maybe a fight with a co-worker has gone on for so long that you think the only solution might be to change jobs.
You know that feeling in the middle of February (at least in Toronto) when it feels like spring will never come? We sometimes tell ourselves a story that we will be stuck in an endless winter of icy cold and darkness. Even though we know that season change is inevitable, it becomes easy to believe we are doomed to heavy coats forever. My narrative therapy instructor, Bonnie Miller, uses the metaphor of “signs of spring” when talking about noticing the small changes that are often the first markers of positive change happening in therapy. The same metaphor can be used when dealing with entrenched conflict.
In conflict, like the seasons, change is inevitable. Unlike the changing seasons, we can’t know what this change will be. What we can know is that nothing stays the same forever, even when it feels like it might. Below are three things I have learned about our ability to influence that change to move toward something that feels better.
Let’s start with two pieces of good news:
1. Noticing the occasional good things that happen challenges the story that nothing will ever change.
What is the difference between a story title of “Every time I suggest something around parenting, my ex does exactly the opposite,” and a title of “We disagree a lot, but last week my ex actually agreed with me that we should try to get our kid to bed earlier”? Both stories name the conflict that is there, but the second one also leaves a small opening for something different to happen. By noticing and celebrating those (at first) rare moments of success, it strengthens a story of possibility, and helps people feel motivated to continue difficult work. This is about taking a realistic perspective. On the one hand, it doesn’t deny that a problem exists. On the other hand, it allows you to notice that no situation is always exactly the same. Relationships are made up of people, and people are always changing in small ways.
The small change you are looking for will be different depending on the kind of conflict. In an openly hostile relationship, the “sign of spring” might be a slightly more friendly interaction. In a relationship with lots of chaos and people not living up to their word, a “sign of spring” might be a moment in which both people followed the rules of an agreement they made. If one person is always giving in, but feeling angry about it, a “sign of spring” might be a time when they found a way to clearly say what they wanted.
2. The more we notice small changes in difficult relationships, the more we can think of new ways to encourage the kinds of interactions we prefer.
When you notice a small “sign of spring” in a conflict, that is a great opportunity to ask questions about what has allowed that change to happen, and what sorts of actions you could take to make those small changes more likely to happen again. Some questions might be:
Can I remember other small signs of change that I may not have noticed?
Did either of us do or say anything different that may have led to this small change, and can we do or say those things again?
Was there anything about the situation that may have led to this small change?
Is this a good time to find someone (mediator, union steward, counsellor, etc.) who can help us talk about where we are stuck?
What kind of policy could we could follow, or agreement could we make that would help us reinforce these small signs of change?
Now the less good but manageable news:
3. We have a much harder time paying attention to positive signs of change than we do to negative signs of change.
Human beings have what’s called a negativity bias that predisposes us to notice and remember bad things that happen more easily than good things. Evolutionarily, this helps us remember to avoid the berries that gave us a stomachache. However, when it comes to how we make sense of our lives, interactions, and relationships, it means we tend to remember the bad stories with lots of detail, and tell them over and over again. We also tend to forget or discount many good things that happen.
This means that to build our capacity to notice the “signs of spring,” it helps to make an active choice to practice paying attention to good things that happen. I sometimes suggest a daily gratitude practice (more info here and here) as a good way to get in the habit of noticing good things. However, our negativity bias can be a very hard habit to break, especially in situations, like conflict, that generally feel really bad. A therapist or coach can be helpful in situations when you feel stuck in pessimistic or hopeless thoughts, when you’re in a conflict that feels particularly overwhelming, or when you’re having a particularly hard time noticing small signs of change.