View this post on Instagram
Life without conflict is as impossible as a baby with a forever clean diaper.
No matter how hard we try to avoid conflict, sooner or later, there’s going to be sh*t.
If I were to share my biggest lesson about managing conflict, I would say, “Pick your battles wisely.” Making the choice of which fight is worth fighting is first and foremost. Then, follow the strategies and tactics for resolving the conflict.
Imagine putting in all your effort to climb a difficult mountain only to get to its peak and realise that it’s the wrong mountain. There is no beautiful valley of flowers as you had imagined. There’s only a deep, dark abyss.
And that’s what happens when so many of us pick the wrong battles.
A battle is considered “wrong” when, if we win, it still does not add meaning, fulfillment, or joy to our lives. “Right” battles are those that, even if lost, add greatly to our true self-worth—not our foolish ego—and mark a milestone in the long and arduous journey toward justice.
The first category of the battles we need to re-think are the ones we pick up in the “heat of the moment.” These are typically impulsive angry outbursts without having calmly thought through the issue and its consequences.
Road rage is a typical example: Someone overtook us from the wrong side, we made him stop, had a nasty altercation that lasted 15 minutes, and we reached late for an important customer meeting, ruining all our chances of bagging the deal.
Overtaking from the wrong side is a mistake—true. We were wronged—that is also true. Does this mean we should make the person aware of their mistake and make them admit they were wrong? Would it be prudence if we let go of this battle, or would it be cowardice to not stand up for ourselves?
The answer to that question needs some deliberation. In an ideal world, yes, all mistakes are punished, everything is fair, and our rights are protected. But…the world is not ideal.
There are trade-offs to be made. Maybe, if we had paused a bit, we could have compared the fulfillment of bagging the upcoming deal with the irritation we feel at being overtaken from the wrong side. Maybe we would have realised that having an altercation is just not worth our while when we have far more important things to focus on.
Or maybe we would have let go.
Included in this first category are battles we have over simple likes, dislikes, or preferences.
For example, two colleagues argue over the font size used in a slide deck. One says 16, the other prefers 20. Within no time, the argument has more to do with the size of their egos, instead of the size of the font.
Each thinks that getting their own way would somehow establish their superiority over the colleague. Again, would it be prudence if they let go of this battle, or would it be cowardice? Maybe, if they reflect, they would realise that it is more important to discuss the content of the slide deck, and maybe they should let go of the battle over the font size.
As human beings, we are far more wired to hold on than to let go. Letting go does not come easily to many of us. It has to be consciously practiced and cultivated.
So, think through the conflicts you are going through right now in your life. How much time and energy is it costing you to hold onto conflict?
Also, include the opportunity cost of the conflict—if the time, energy, and resources that we are expending in this conflict were spent on another pursuit, would the joy and meaning in our life be greater?
Are you holding onto this conflict only because of anger? In hindsight, is the issue quite trivial, or is there an important cause, priority, or life principle that you care deeply about and are standing up for it? Think through these questions carefully and decide what you want to do.
One thing is clear for sure: if we pause a bit before our angry outbursts or ego tussles and think through the importance or triviality of the issue and the consequences, we will definitely reduce a large amount of unnecessary conflict in our lives.
The second category of battles that need a lot of thought and reflection are about issues that matter to us. Our initial anger has subsided, some time has passed since the issue occurred, but we still feel violated—this probably means that it is an important issue. Should we pick up this battle or not?
Let’s understand this better with an example:
Sridhar is a hardworking employee who came up with some great ideas for improving the department that he shared with his manager. To his dismay, in the next staff meeting, his manager stole those ideas and presented them as his own, winning accolades from the senior leaders.
There have been other incidents in the past where Sridhar has been let down by his manager. Sridhar knows that his manager does not like his authority to be questioned, and if he takes up this issue, the manager would take great offence and become vindictive—to the point where he may create conditions for Sridhar to leave the job.
Sridhar is the sole earning member in his family—he has two children, his parents are dependent upon him, and he needs to repay a big house loan. There is a recession in the economy and the job market is tight right now.
Should he pick up this battle or not? Would it be prudence if he let go of this battle or would it be cowardice not standing up for himself?
The chances of winning this battle are poor, and there is a severe downside to starting this conflict. He has not been given his due at work, but on the other side is his family whom he loves dearly and wants to provide for them as best as possible.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t give us easy answers—things are not black and white. Only Sridhar can decide the right thing for him to do. He may decide to swallow the affront and continue with the job, or he may decide to wait for a while till the job market is better to find another job. Or, he may decide to bring it up with his manager and go through the conflict with all the possible consequences.
Now, let’s take this discussion a few notches higher by talking about life and death issues—about injustices that repulse our souls:
In 1930, an Indian person will be jailed if he tries to produce salt locally.
In 1955, a person of color in the United States will be jailed if she refuses to give up her bus seat for a white person.
A girl in a village gets raped and is threatened to keep quiet because if she reports it to the police her entire family will be killed.
A junior government officer is threatened with kidnap and murder because he wants to report the corrupt senior officials.
The Taliban will shoot girls if they try to attend school in Afghanistan.
At the time, the chances of winning these battles were incredibly poor. The consequences of these battles were severe—many costed lives.
Should these people have let go of these battles? Would it have been cowardice or prudence to let go? Was it courageousness or foolhardiness to pick up these battles and stand up for themselves as they did?
The battles we face in life are actually arranged on a continuum—from trivial at one end to crucial at the other. In the middle are ones that are similar to Sridhar, where the issue is important (though not exactly life and death), and standing up for one issue may mean compromising on another life priority or principle. Self-awareness is important in these dilemmas. We need to know where exactly our meaning, fulfillment, and joy lies, and only then can we make our choices—only then can we decide what is “right” for us.
However, the point I am trying to make is that in our homes and in our workplaces, we are probably more guilty of trivial battles than crucial ones and of wrong battles than right ones. More often than not, we are unable to let go of trivial issues, and more often than not, we are unable to muster up the courage to stand up for crucial issues.
It may be useful for us to think through which battles in our life are trivial. And by letting go of them, we can release energy for the important priorities of life and the things that really matter—those that will enhance the meaning, fulfillment, and joy in our lives by leaps and bounds.
Let me leave you to ponder on one of my favourite prayers, “The Serenity Prayer,” that I have adapted slightly to suit the context:
“God, grant me the tolerance to let go of battles that needn’t be fought, the courage to fight the battles that need to be, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
*Original Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”