How to resolve conflict according to the Tao te Ching

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on April 5, 2012 at 7:00 AM

During my convalescence from a concussion and fractured clavicle I have been somewhat restricted in my ability to read, watch television and use the computer. So one day I picked up an old copy of the Tao te Ching for entertainment, which is manageable reading material because each entry is quite short, but filled with immense wisdom. I could read a few lines then rest my eyes while I contemplated the meaning of the passage and how I might apply it to my life.

As mentioned in a previous post, Lao-tzu wrote the Tao te Ching in the 5th century BC as, presumably, an instruction book for would-be leaders of the people, and the title means: “The Book of How Things Happen.” In my browsing I have found a wealth of insight from Lao-tzu on how to manage a variety of conflicts, ranging from simple disagreements to all-out war.

Conflict is perhaps the most common disturbance we experience in our daily lives as we struggle to relate to other people and their ideas and perspectives that differ from our own. Of course, conflict itself is not a bad thing—it is often the means of growth and inspiration for new ideas. But occasionally our disagreements can spiral out of control and become destructive to us and to the people on the “other side.”

Sometimes those people become our enemies and we can find ourselves engaged in battle, even though we might be confused about how we got to such an extreme situation. One reason this occurs is that our Shadow selves take over and sabotage all efforts at collaboration and cooperation (see previous posts for more information on the Shadow.)

But, in other instances conflicts arise simply because we are not skilled at handling difficult and delicate negotiations. Lao-tzu’s advice seems especially helpful for learning an approach to highly charged situations that are likely to result in conflict. Here are some of my favorite recommendations from the Tao te Ching, which generally go against our instinctive and habitual behavior when we feel threatened:  


  • Wait and see. Lao-tzu advises us to take a slow course in times of conflict and refuse to make the first move. Rushing too quickly in a tense situation can cause emotional over-reaction and escalate the misunderstanding. 
  • Retreat a yard. In this surprising tactic, Lao-tzu states that a wise general knows that it is better to retreat a little than to advance even an inch, thus forcing the opponent to make the first move and become vulnerable. When you step back at the beginning of a difficult encounter you can get a clearer view of what is happening and come to an understanding of your opponent’s approach. This helps you to better equip yourself with wisdom. 
  • Don’t think of your enemy as evil. Lao-tzu repeatedly emphasizes that you must have compassion for the person opposing you and regard him or her as a potential teacher. When you see evil in another person it is really your own Shadow falling upon that person and you must be responsible for controlling that negativity. 
  • Let the “mud settle.” Have patience during times of conflict and wait until you can clearly see the right action to take. The next step will eventually arise by itself and you will know how and when to proceed if you are calm and careful. 
  • Don’t use force. Every forceful action results in an equal and opposite act of force, both of which are destructive. A solution will come in its own time if you don’t rush or push too hard for it to happen. 
  • Say little. Lao-tzu’s famous quote is, “He who talks doesn’t know; he who knows doesn’t talk.” Talking too much allows the mouth to be a conduit for out-of-control emotion and can escalate and further confuse the conflict. Limit the words you speak or write to carefully chosen messages that are simple and direct.


These suggested behaviors do not come naturally to us during times of conflict, when our instinctual tendency is to blame, criticize, be aggressive, ventilate our emotions and shout at the person opposing us. To be able to act with calmness and patience during difficult times, we must develop more even minds and learn to control our emotions, which can be achieved with the help of a regular spiritual practice.

In addition, we must let go of our desire to “win” and be superior to others, which is the most difficult challenge of all. In a final statement of wisdom Lao-tzu maintains: “When two great forces oppose each other, the victory will go to the one who knows how to yield.” Change your definition of “winning” to “achieving a resolution” rather than “getting your way,” and you will be moving toward a more peaceful and productive existence where conflict becomes a skillfully used tool.

Categories: Relationships, Spiritual Practice, Transformation

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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