Virginia Satir was one of the most celebrated pioneers in therapy and also one of the most compassionate souls who ever lived. Satir had a kindly grandmotherly demeanor, and could disarm the most jaded person with her gentleness and insight. I’ll never forget the moment in a video I saw some years ago when a sulky 15-year-old boy broke into a reluctant grin after Satir unraveled and soothed the anger in his family (the teen was the five-member family’s reason for going to therapy, and clearly not thrilled about it). Everything in his face said, “Alright lady, you got me."
Satir pointed out in her book Peoplemaking that everyone has a default attitude they fall back on when they face conflict with someone: accusational, distracting, intellectualizing, or disconnected. None of these ways of dealing with conflict work out particularly well; they aren’t meant to truly resolve the conflict, they only dial down its influence over us, push it away for the moment so we can do other things. This is true even for the aggressive, accusational reactions: they’re explosive but shielded, striking out in hope that the other person will submit without retaliation (and to just shove harder if there is aggression, locking things down in the familiarity of verbal battle).
Conflict is unavoidable. It must exist even in the closest relationships, with lovers, spouses, and family; in fact, it is more likely to happen then. Conflict means you and someone else are in each other’s business, and frustrated as hell. It is going to happen, and we deal with it regularly, continually, by trying to avoid it, distracting away from it, or attacking the other person as a way to keep yourself out of harm.
The alternative to attacking or avoiding while in conflict is to be sincere about how you are feeling, to be open to the other person’s feelings, and to tell them what you need while also respecting their needs. Much easier said than done, I know. This is where courage comes into play: being real with someone even when you don't expect them to be real back. The power of this position is that even if they don't respond in kind, you have kept your own integrity, you own honesty.