“It’s supposed to be uncomfortable,” my coach told me. “That’s how you build resilience. Add a little more tension during each training session,” she continued.
As I pant and sweat, I realize my discomfort has a purpose. I am working on getting faster and stronger. Professional cyclists make it look easy, achieving monumental ascents at dizzying paces and leaving many riders in their dust. So often, I wish I could be like the pros. I wish it could feel more effortless for me. But the truth is, it is never effortless, even for the pros.
This discomfort is a lot like experiencing conflict. Each time I engage in conflict, I feel the tension. My heart rate rises, I start to push harder, and I sweat. I feel the discomfort.
For cycling, I know that building muscle is an interactive process of muscle tearing and recovery. Without tension, my muscles would not grow. Similarly, without the tension I experience in a conflict situation, I would not grow.
Conflict can feel exhausting and often chaotic, like a challenging ride in the mountains on a cold rainy and windy day. The trouble is, I want my relationships to be like a smooth ride on a sunny day. I want to feel strong and confident and face little resistance. I want to climb the hills effortlessly, like a pro. However, a challenging climb is always uncomfortable, even for the pros. In the same way, conflict is uncomfortable. In cycling, pros struggle, and they do not avoid the discomfort. They learn to work with tension. In conflict, the same is true. It is essential to work with the tension.
Whether on a bike or in conflict, I can feel the tension in several ways. I can feel physical tension in my muscles, heart rate, and breathing. I can feel emotional tension in the way I handle my morale. I can also feel social tension when I compare myself to others.
Like the flat road that turns into a steep climb, or the sunny day that turns to icy rain, when a change is delivered into my reality, I feel tension. I feel the tension of conflict when a conversation turns into a disagreement when my perspectives, beliefs, or needs are at odds with the other person’s. The tension accumulates. The chain will snap if I put too much pressure on my bike’s drive-train. If I put too much pressure on you, you will snap.
When the tension accumulates, one option is to release the tension. On the bike, you could stop pedaling, or, in a conflict, you could leave the room. The advantage of this option is that you get instant relief, which is sometimes needed. The disadvantage is that you haven’t grown your muscles or resolved the conflict. The same hill will be there later for you to climb.
Another option is to muscle your way through the tension. Muscling your way through is like taking on a challenging climb without regard for a technique or pacing. In conflict, it is like hammering away at your point until you win. The benefit here is that you win, which we all like doing. But the downside is that often it comes with physical injury or damage to your relationships.
A third option is to work with the tension. On the bike, this means working with the terrain, respecting pacing strategy and technique, and listening to your body. Sometimes you must press harder; other times, you need to take it down a notch. In a conflict, this means standing in inquiry about the situation, yourself, and the other perspectives. It also means knowing when to advance or pivot in the conversation. The advantage of this option is that you grow. The disadvantage, it feels uncomfortable.
Each option has a place. And when your goal is to grow, working with tension produces the greatest return.
The key is to ask questions. What amount of tension can I handle right now? Is someone about to snap? What feedback am I getting from my actions? On the bike, a snapped chain gets me nowhere. Similarly, I must know how to work with pressure productively in my relationships. I must be aware of the force I apply to others and myself. I do this by seeing and asking questions about the tensions in me and my relationships. From a place of inquiry, I can explore the understanding and the confusion, the sunny rides and the steep climbs.
It’s not easy. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.
So with these simple words from my coach, I experience this moment of reflection: discomfort helps me grow, not just on the bike but also in my relationships. I am tired, sweaty, and satisfied. I am growing.
Jennifer Jones-Patulli, MA, HSDP
This piece was originally published in partnership with the Human Systems Dynamics Institute.