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.’”

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  1. says

    Hi there, Dio! Yes, you're right about the complexity and that's the paradox, I think. It feels really difficult to let go on one hand, and on the other we do have the power to marshal our resources and choose to opt out of more misery. So while it's hard, it's also elegantly simple, depending on how we want to play it for ourselves.

  2. says

    I know people must have some awful conflicts going on in their lives, things which are very difficult to resolve. That being said, I still find #3 the best solution. It is even easier to attain if I turn the question on myself and ask why it is I'm still holding on to some conflict. Chances are it is because it felt like a blow to my own self-esteem/self-worth in some way. Once I nail that down, letting go becomes a far easier option.

  3. says

    Rohit, thanks for stopping by for a visit! Your example is such a good one because the only other choice you may have had at that point was to continue to agonize…life is too short!

  4. says

    Great information Tammy! I had a situation with one of my closest friends. We had known each other and been very close for years. But now the relationship was there more out of the longevity, rather than a current reflection. We had some issues years ago and they were still in the background. I called him up, apologized for my part in it, and he didn't say anything in return. That is when I knew that I had done my part, he wasn't willing to do his, and I could finally let go… Thanks for the article!

  5. says

    Tammy, this is a powerful post. The Bill Clinton-Nelson Mandela story is beautiful. Lots of wisdom in a few words- to decide just to let it go.


    Stuart Baker

  6. says

    Hello, Stuart! I first heard the Mandela story when I was listening to Clinton's autobiography and I remember pulling over my car to sit and ponder its power. It literally stopped me cold…er, warm!

  7. Megan Cummings-Krueger says

    Thank you for this, and all of your postings Tammy. This one really resonated because it was an important lesson for me personally. And it reminds me of another great resource which really helped — the book “The Four Agreements”. Because if you truly accept/agree that you should never take anything anyone does personally, it’s amazing how that perspective reframes everything – including the decision of when to let go.

    • says

      Megan, I have a copy of The Four Agreements on my shelf, too! It’s one of those books I pull out about once a year and re-read. So glad you suggested it here and thank you for the kind words about this blog post.

    • Austin Dosaj says

      I totally agree. The Four Agreements is a fantastic book and another one called Where’s My Zen? really resonated with me as well. Those two books together completely changed my perception (and therefore experience) of life. I don’t know where I’d be without them.

  8. says

    Hi Tammy

    Thank you for your wisdom, love and for sharing your extensive wisdom with us. This particular topic resonates with me as I too had a bitter conflict with my boss which ended with litigation some 15 years ago. Even though I eventually won the court case some 5 years later I discovered that this wasn’t what brought me peace. As you say, a person has to choose to let go and this was what eventually saved me from a life of bitterness. Since then I’ve gone on to develop a passionate interest in alternative dispute resolution and as a community and workplace mediator I am helping others to respond to conflict differently than I did all those years ago.

    Thanks also for the book reference Megan and Austin.

    • Tammy Lenski says

      Letitia — What a story you’ve shared! And what a wonderful thing you’ve done for your own life, your loved ones and the folks you now mediate for. You are a strong woman, I can tell. I’m so glad you’re part of the mediator community now!