How to let go of unresolved conflict

A workshop participant recently asked me, “When I can’t get the other person to talk, and the conflict can’t be resolved, how do I let go of it?”

I’ve had the privilege of bearing witness others’ decisions to let go of an unresolved conflict and move on with their lives. And it really is a conscious decision not to let too much of the past eat up too much of the future. Those decisions, which I’ve witnessed as an executive coach, as a mediator and as a college professor of conflict studies, usually became possible when one or more of these had occurred:

You can let go when you feel you’ve made a real attempt to get it resolved. Recently, a coaching client called me following a workplace conversation between himself and another senior executive with whom he’d been in considerable tension for more than two years. Their conversation had resolved a few key matters, but one matter loomed and it didn’t look promising that they’d work it out. The client said to me, “Having that conversation, even though it didn’t work out fully, was one of the best choices I’ve made in this whole mess, because I can let go now. I gave it my best shot, I know I gave it my best shot, and so did she, and we’re not going to agree on this one. I can let go because I know I left no stone unturned and that really feels like success.”

You can let go of the dispute when the relationship has been shored up. In a recent consulting project, I ended up with my mediator’s hat on briefly as I worked with an administrative unit that wanted to improve the way it makes decisions together. There had been a dispute about a “decision” made several months before and some members of the team felt that a decision had never really been agreed upon. They wanted to resolve that dispute in one of the meetings in which I was participating. Yet when they talked it over, their conversation ended up focusing on how they make decisions, how they talk to one another, how they communicate when differences occur. It was a fulfilling, even energizing conversation, and when they were done, not a single person in that workplace team felt that the original dispute needed any further attention at all. Addressing the state of conflict was more important than negotiating a specific dispute.

You can let go by deciding to let go. This sounds absurd at some level, but Bill Clinton’s story about Nelson Mandela being escorted to freedom outside the prison gates beautifully describes the power of choice that is within your grasp:

“Mandela made a grand, elegant, dignified exit from prison and it was very, very powerful for the world to see. But as I watched him walking down that dusty road, I wondered whether he was thinking about the last 27 years, whether he was angry all over again. Later, many years later, I had a chance to ask him. I said, ‘Come on, you were a great man, you invited your jailers to your inauguration, you put your pressures on the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all I’ve not been free in so long. But,’ he said, ‘when I felt that anger well up inside of me I realized that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me.’ And he smiled and said, ‘I wanted to be free so I let it go.’ It was an astonishing moment in my life. It changed me.'”