(....or why conflict avoidance, under the guise of tolerance, can be a dangerous thing.)

I was once asked to support a man who had been sent to prison for carrying out a violent attack on his neighbour. He was referred to me to see if I could help him with what was considered to be some remaining anger towards his neighbour, and the officer who referred him did not want another violent attack to occur.

When I met with him, he used to tell me about the various things his neighbour and her children had done to him - insults, throwing small stones over the fence at him, rudeness from the other side of the fence while he was in his garden etc.

Often his main response to any of these activities was to do back to them what he saw them as doing to him. So if they abused him, he abused them back. If they threw stones over his fence, he would throw some back etc. And so it went on.

However, he considered himself very tolerant for putting up with this over a number of years and felt that it was justified, as a reaction to putting up with it, for him to carry out the violent act towards his neighbour which eventually led to him going to prison.

Many of his friends and family felt the same and were very sympathetic towards him.

'Wouldn't you do the same?' he would challenge me when I explored his reactions to the events of his dispute with his neighbour. He frequently sought my agreement that his actions were 'understandable after all he'd put up with'. I couldn't give him what he wanted as I don't feel my agreement or even my view is relevant to what he did. I'm not him and so how I would have reacted is of no real consequence.

He felt very strongly that the time he had waited before finally 'cracking' meant it was justified to do what he did. Instead of seeing that the very reason he 'cracked' and reacted as strongly as he did was because his response was to suppress his anger and his other feelings for all those years. He avoided the conflict and did not seek to resolve it. Instead he 'tolerated' it, until he could no more. Then his anger burst open and he carried out a violent attack on his neighbour.

We sometimes read in the papers of apparently quiet, polite people who kill their neighbour over a hedge dispute, or some similar situation. Often these people will have 'tolerated' the situation for years until they finally burst in an act of extreme violence.

Tolerance, when it is basically a suppression of anger can be extremely damaging. Our health can be affected, our relationships, our comfort in our homes or workplace can be reduced when we suppress our anger. And if we suppress it for a long period and suddenly it bursts out because we can't keep the lid on any longer..... the outcome can be devastating - to us, as well as to the victims of our outburst.

In terms of the way in which we approach conflict it is the conflict as a problem approach to conflict.

Where are you suppressing some anger? Is it festering within you? Is there a risk that one day you will 'explode' from trying to keep it in? Would the damage you might do be much less if you expressed it now in some way?

Do you have lots of people agreeing with you about how terrible your situation is? That agreement can help you to feel justified in doing something explosive if it goes that far. Be careful of that agreement. Those people may sympathise, and that can sometimes feel comforting....but it rarely actually resolves anything. It usually just entrenches us in our 'victimhood'.

Are you one of the people who has sympathised? Most of us have at some point in our lives. We might have been trying to be supportive, but ultimately it doesn't help a lot.

This is not to say that people have not suffered great distress and discomfort and pain as a result of others' actions. I am not talking about what has happened to them, whatever it may be. I am talking about how they respond to it. Is it a constructive response or a destructive one?

The man above did suffer great discomfort and pain and I would not want to belittle or ignore that in any way. But it was his, possibly unconscious, decision to suppress his anger and 'tolerate' the events rather than deal with them sooner.

Dealing with it can mean many possible things including trying to communicate with the person we are having difficulties with, or if that is not considered to be possible, then finding someone who will not simply agree with us that our situation is terrible and possibly 'hopeless', but who will allow us to review how we have responded in order to find better ways. A mediator is trained to do this.

Alternatively, counsellors, books, other information sources such as the internet etc. all enable us to stand back and review our situation. This helps us to stop reacting (for example by just 'doing back to them' what we see them as 'doing to us') and to start choosing our actions. We understand that we ultimately have the ability to choose our response - our response-ability.

Tolerating a distressing situation is as much an action as any other. However, if by 'toleration' we mean suppression of our anger, it is a destructive response to our conflict. When we 'explode' it is as if we have moved from a conflict as problem approach to a conflict as competition approach. The explosion is intended to finally put a stop to it all and 'win' the battle.

Neither approach is ever effective at resolving conflict.

Earlier recognition that we are suppressing our anger or frustration or distress etc. allows us to choose to find ways of responding constructively. These responses may not resolve the dispute, but ultimately it resolves our own difficulties with the situation.

And then there is no longer a dispute to resolve.

It doesn't take two people to end a war, only one, and you're the one. What a perfect set up. Byron Katie from 'Your Inner Awakening' - The Work, Live, A man deals with his son's disrespect for him.

The above article is taken from the March 2008 Newsletter of the Communication and Conflict website.

Author's Bio: 

Alan is Director of a Community Mediation Service based in West London UK, Hillingdon Community Mediation.

He provides training and consultancy in Communication Skills, Conflict Management, Mediation, Establishing Mediation Systems, Client/Helping Professional Relationship support and various other tailor made options for supporting effective communication and conflict resolution.

His Communication and Conflict website details insights into these areas drawn from his experience in the field of mediation during the past 14years.