There are times in our relationships when we find ourselves the target of what may feel like negative responses from another person. We cannot always discern whether those responses are based on some kind of reaction within that person, some kind of reflective decision, or some kind of destructive motivation. Those deeper meanings make all the difference. I was talking with a young woman the other day who works in a very challenging environment. Because she is extremely capable, she has risen rapidly in the organization, and other people are responding to her in a variety of ways. In particular, there is another, older, woman whom she has surpassed rather rapidly. This colleague is generating some amount of conflict in the work they are doing together.
You might expect that this young woman would be frustrated, angry, or retaliatory. Instead, she is making a distinction between conflict generated due to a motive to be destructive and conflict that is a reaction to her own problems or something else in her life. The young woman–let’s call her Susan–does not believe her colleague is intending to cause problems for her, but simply that she is reacting to her own loss of realizing she is not rising at the rate that Susan is. In other words, it is not personal to Susan.
These distinctions may not be completely clear cut, but they are helpful. If a person seems to be generating conflict, is it because he or she simply does not agree with you–which we might call reflective–he or she is responding to some internal loss or vulnerability–in which case the conflict is not directed at you personally but is a form of pain relief for internal pain–or he or she is actively attempting to be destructive, either to you or to the larger system–in which case some kind of internal pain has gotten out of control and is being directed at you.
Destructive motives and reactive motives both come out of inner pain, but the target is different. The former is directed toward an outside target, and the latter is reacting to an inside target. Whether or not we can discern what basis underlies a motive for conflict, we can recognize that different motives are possible, and this can free us from being impacted. We may decide that a person who is reactive needs us to get more involved with him or her and we may decide that in the case of a person who is destructive we need to get less involved with him or her.