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When Conflict is Real But Not True

Chronic or unresolved conflict can trigger us to react based on what has happened in the past even when the present circumstances don’t warrant that reaction. In those instances, the conflict may be very real but not entirely true.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s plane was departing late. This was not unusual; in those days, air travel in Nepal was uncertain.

But that day, high winds were coming. By the time the plane was in the air hours late, those winds had arrived with a vengeance.

As the tiny plane flew to a remote site high in the Himalaya, turbulence tossed it up and down, up and down. Passengers began to scream and cry. Despite trying to steady himself, Rinpoche nevertheless was gripped by the same fear the others were experiencing.

But the plane did not crash. And when it was time to return from the Himalaya, Rinpoche found the terror returning as he was crammed into the same small plane. Sweating through his robes, he clutched the armrests in fear during the easy flight.

Remembers Rinpoche,

The fear I felt on that return trip — and the fear I felt for many years later, even when I was traveling on large commercial airliners — was real, in the sense that I was fully experiencing it. However, as I looked back on each subsequent experience, I had to admit that it wasn’t true. That is, it wasn’t grounded in actual, present circumstances, but instead was triggered by residual memories of a past experience.

This is not an uncommon experience with conflict, too. Chronic or unresolved conflict causes us to act on what feels real without discerning whether it is true in the present moment.

We feel real conflict with them…hours, days, even months later, even if the present conversation is completely benign. They walk into the room and there the conflict is again, hovering in the air between us. We feel it viscerally, even if they have not spoken.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche uses a simple, four-word mantra to help ground him in present circumstances in such moments: Real but not true.

Repetition of the mantra has become a practice for him. It is an acknowledgement of real feelings and also an internal check-in and challenge. Rinpoche recommends,

Ask yourself again and again if what you’re experiencing is real or true, until mentally and emotionally you can accept your feelings as real but the conditions on which they’re based as possibly not true. Such momentary pauses can transform your understanding of who you are and what you’re capable of.

I use a slightly different form of the same idea, posed as a question I try to ask myself when I notice myself simply reacting automatically (questions may be more effective than affirmations:

It’s real. Is it true?

When I tell myself it’s real, I am acknowledging my feelings as legitimate and honest. When I ask myself the question, I am reminding myself to consider whether I am reacting based on present circumstances or on past experiences.

Some conflict is real and true, and when it is, it may be worth our attention. The “real but not true” distinction gives us the gift of reducing the debris in our relationships, increasing our peace of mind, and teaching ourselves to distinguish having a thought from believing that thought.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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