Suffering can be positive

It is understandable, of course, that we will seek to avoid suffering whenever possible. We look dimly on people who seek to impose suffering on others and regard wanting to inflict suffering on ourselves as a form of pathology. Clearly, suffering Is not something that tends to get seen in a positive light, and quite rightly so.

However, this is not to say that suffering cannot also bring positives in some ways. There are, of course, lessons that can be learned from suffering – not least in relation to how to take steps to avoid such suffering in the future. However, it is important that we approach such lessons in a balanced way. For example, if we have suffered because we have been hurt by someone we thought we could trust who has let us down, we may be tempted to draw out the lesson from this that we should not trust people in future. That sort of reaction would be understandable as a response to the pain we have experienced, but – understandable or not – it would not be a helpful lesson in the longer term, as it would simply not be practicable.

It is a heart response, whereas what we need to do by way of drawing out the lessons to be learned is to make it a response that balances head and heart. So, rather than over-reacting by saying: ‘I am not going to trust anyone ever again’, the more realistic conclusion we can come to is: ‘I am going t be very careful about who I trust in future’.

But it isn’t just by learning how to avoid future hurt that suffering can be positive. It can also help us to appreciate other positives, to tune in to what we have going for us, rather than just get bogged down in what we have going against us. To put it more figuratively, a light will shine much more brightly in a context of darkness than it would in broad daylight. Suffering provides the contrast that highlights the positives.

In these consumerist days where the potential for happiness is so often equated with purchasing power, suffering can help us be more fully aware that material goods mean relatively little in the overall scheme of things. The negativity of suffering can highlight the non-materialistic positives we have in our lives – our relationships, for example.

In this way, we can see suffering as a spiritual matter, a contribution to our sense of who we are and how we fit into the world. This is why it can be so hurtful if someone belittles our suffering, it strikes it the very heart of our being and undermines us.

Suffering can also be a great motivator. Consider, for example, how many people have committed themselves to good causes because of their own suffering. Hospices generally have lots of volunteers who give up their time to help others who are suffering, because they have been there, they have trodden that painful path.

This is not to say that we should seek out suffering or use its positive value as an excuse to inflict it on others – life is such that suffering is never far away, so there is no need for us to create it artificially.


Don’t run away from conflict

Over the years I have run very many training courses on conflict management and a common theme that has emerged right at the start has been a strong tendency for participants to bring with them the idea that conflict can be equated with hostility or even fighting (physically or otherwise). Of course, there is a significant potential link between conflict and these other issues, but it would be a big mistake to see them as one and the same. It is better to understand that hostility is not the same thing as conflict; rather, hostility is what emerges when our efforts to manage conflict have not worked out as we would have hoped. It is perfectly possible to have conflict without even the slightest hint of hostility, aggression or violence – in fact, it is quite normal for this to be the case.

Conflict is where, in a sense, people get in each other’s way. What I am trying to do is being blocked by what someone else is trying to do, or vice versa. It is an everyday occurrence for people to disagree or have conflicting aims or intentions. But – and this is a key point – in the vast majority of situations, we will handle such conflicts very skilfully and effectively. It is only on relatively rare occasions that we will actually fall out about such matters. This is testimony to the fact that we tend to be very effective conflict managers in our everyday lives – just look around you as people interact and it won’t be very long before you see people demonstrating exactly what I mean.

Unfortunately, though, because conflict can cause tension and there is always the potential for it to escalate into hostility and beyond, many people have developed unhelpful defence mechanisms that involve avoiding conflict – running away from it in effect – that can cause significant problems. These problems include the following three:

  • Smouldering If we try to turn our back on conflicts instead of facing them and dealing with them constructively, there is a very real danger that they will smoulder over time, creating considerable ill-feeling, lowering morale and generally being very counterproductive. And, as so often happens, when things smoulder, there is always the risk that they will burst into flames at any moment and do even more damage – often at a very inconvenient moment.
  • Festering Again, it is a matter of failing to face up to conflicts causing significant problems over time. But what differentiates festering from smouldering is that, in this case, there is no bursting into flames, no clearing of the air that allows you to move on and put the conflict behind you. Conflicts that fester rather than smoulder can carry on for weeks, months and even years – causing untold harm throughout that time.
  • Destroying credibility Imagine a manager, say, who is aware of harmful conflict between two members of their staff; everyone knows they are aware of the conflict, but everyone also knows that the manager is doing nothing about it. Just consider for a moment how that manager’s credibility is going to be significantly undermined by their unwillingness to grasp the nettle. And, of course, it is not just managers that this applies to.

Consequently, anyone who runs away from conflict, rather than deal with it, runs the risk of doing great harm through smouldering or festering and is sabotaging their own credibility (and thus their ability to influence people) into the bargain. They are also losing out on all the benefits that come from developing your conflict management skills to the full.