I don’t take sides in other peoples’ conflicts. Here is why.
We all act differently under conditions of conflict. All of us.
Also, all of us act differently behind closed doors compared to how we act in public.
And all of us act at least a little bit differently towards those who have more power or status than we do, compared to those who are equals or those who have less. Finally, most people act differently towards people depending on the type of relationship. Strangers, our social circle, our close friends, our romantic partners, our parents or ancestors, our children, and our cousins or siblings may all get different types of treatment.
What does this mean? It means no matter how well I think I know someone, I might not know how they are acting in the conflict that they are in. If I take their side, I may very well be taking the side of someone who is being abusive, who is acting unethically, or who is using me in ways I don’t understand.
Not only that, but just because there is a bad guy doesn’t mean there is a good guy. Real life is not the movies. It’s actually more common that there are two bad guys than that one is a dude wearing a black hat and the other is a knight in shining armor. Sure, one bad guy might not be quite as awful as the other bad guy. But if you take sides, you may find yourself stuck with an ally that is worse than an enemy. You may find out, at great cost and emotional agony, why it is that the other bad guy had gotten so angry.
Furthermore, taking sides can even harm your relationship with the person whose side you took! When in conflict, people often regress. They think in terms of winning and losing, not in terms of compassion, or shared goals, or even their own individual best interests, values or beliefs. And they often stay in that winning and losing mindset regardless of whether it makes any sense.
This is why trying to take sides as a peace-maker so often backfires. If you try to encourage or manipulate someone deep in conflict, even if you think you are leading them in the right direction, it can easily turn into a contest about winning and losing because they are just stuck in that messed up mindset. And they don’t want to lose, so they resist whatever you suggest, just because the suggestion is coming from you and not them.
For instance, I used to be quite naive about abusive relationships. I used to think that if a friend was in an abusive relationship, I should encourage them to leave. Nope. Often that will strengthen the resolve of the victim to stay in the relationship, partly because they don’t want to “lose”. And losing can mean anything. They may not want to admit to others that they were wrong about the relationship in the first place, they may not want to admit that they “failed” at their relationship, or they may not want to lose their abuser to someone else. Depending on how bad the abuse is, they may simply be justifiably afraid. Even worse, since abusers are excellent at playing the victim, the actual victim may feel that I am encouraging her to take some form of revenge by encouraging her to leave. At that point, she feels guilty, which will drive her back to her abuser. And now the abuser has become even more powerful (and is suspicious of and perhaps angry at me, which will give him incentive to isolate her from me.)
It doesn’t get any better in a mutually abusive relationship. Let’s say two of my friends are in an abusive relationship with each other. Trying to “help” them stay together and improve their relationship will only accidentally cause me to take one side or another in their arguments. And in fact, this is true in a non-abusive relationship as well. Trying to “help” will cause you to accidentally end up on someone’s side in an argument, which will only make the other person more defensive.
No, by far the best thing to do is to not take sides and instead simply be friends with each of them so that neither gets isolated.
The other important thing is to model non-abusive behavior. I don’t waste a lot of time telling people to stop being abusive. I mostly just act non-abusively.
Here is an example. Abuse is often based on the mindset that says people are either all bad or all good. This is a big part of why abusers blame others so much. They can’t admit to being even a little bit wrong or else they feel that they are all wrong. The final result of this mindset is that everything is always their partner’s fault.
So when I refuse to take sides I am, in fact, modelling non-abusive behavior. I am showing, not telling, that people are a mix of good qualities and bad (or, I am modelling that peoples’ qualities don’t need to be categorized as good and bad. Either one works.)
This is crucial in groups and families. When members have conflicts with each other, the worst type of escalation is dragging others into the conflict. If two people have a conflict with each other, and they discuss it with each other, then it is possible for just the two of them to resolve the conflict. No one else needs to be involved. But the moment someone else is dragged in, even as a “peacemaker”, or a “voice of reason”, then at that instant the conflict cannot be resolved without participation by all three people. This can potentially still work if both people in the conflict ask for participation by a third party and if that third party refuses to take sides. But if the third person takes a side, then whoever is now in the 2v1 minority is going to seek out an ally as well.
If too many people are dragged into the conflict then, eventually, resolution is literally impossible. The conflict grows exponentially. In a two person conflict, only one resolution is necessary (the one between the two people.) In a three person conflict, four resolutions are necessary (three resolutions for the three different pairs, plus one resolution for the three person group as a whole.) In a four person conflict, as many as ten resolutions may be necessary because there might need to be a resolution for each of the six possible pairs of people, plus resolutions for each three-person group, and also a resolution for the entire four person group. Once five people are involved in the conflict, it’s probably just become too complex, even on a mere mathematical level, and it is almost certain that there will be no resolution at all.
This is why the kinds of people I call “peace-mongers” are often nearly as toxic as outright abusers in group settings. “Peace-mongers” are folks who seem to genuinely believe that the best way to deal with any conflict is to try to “smooth things over”. They enlist the aid of other members in the group to “calm people down”. They deliver messages to and from members, and this game of telephone replaces actual one-on-one communication. They attempt to make people like each other. They ignore divisions in the hope that the conflicts will just go away. They try to make everyone “get along” without ever letting everyone say how they actually feel. The end result is that in any conflict almost every member of the group ends up being involved, which means the conflict has become too complex to resolve.
And our minds don’t like that complexity. So what happens as the conflict escalates is that people regress into the violence mindset of only two sides.
One of the truths about physical violence is that, once it starts, no matter how many sides there used to be, the number of factions always gets reduced to two. It’s hard enough to avoid friendly fire even when there are just friends and enemies. During actual violence, there is so much chaos and confusion that it is probably impossible for there to be multiple sides. As a result, once physical violence breaks out, everyone ends up on one side or the other, whether they like it or not.
So when interpersonal conflicts escalate as people are added who should have stayed out, everyone’s minds start to devolve to a violence mindset. In other words, people take sides. When that happens, activities that should be either harmless or beneficial to team building instead become destructive. (If you want a concrete example of what I’m talking about here, consider gossip. Normally it helps people bond. But once group conflicts have escalated and people have taken sides, gossip becomes a tool for each faction to demonize the other.)
At that point, if you want to act ethically, it is necessary to give up any hope of being a peace-maker, a hero, or “right”. At that point, the only thing left is to absolutely refuse to escalate the conflict. If I refuse to escalate the conflict, then perhaps other people will follow my example and also refuse.
And how do I refuse to escalate?
Don’t take sides.