Uncomfortable: What Bicycling And Conflict Have In Common

“It’s supposed to be uncomfortable,” my cycling instructor told me. “That’s how you build muscle. Add a little more tension during each training session,” she continued.

As I pant and sweat, I realize there was a purpose to my discomfort. I am working to get faster and stronger. The professional cyclists make it look easy, achieving huge 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 easier for me.

Then I realize this is a lot like 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, much like a challenging ride in the hills on a windy, rainy day. The trouble is, I want my relationships to be like a smooth cycle on a sunny day. I want to feel strong, confident, and face little resistance. I want to climb the hills effortlessly, like a pro. The truth is, however, a tough climb is always uncomfortable; in the same way conflict is uncomfortable. In bicycling, pros struggle, but they do not avoid the tension. They learn to work with it. In conflict, the same is true. I must learn to step into the tension, in spite of the struggle.

Whether on a bike or in conflict, I can feel tension in a number of ways. I can feel physical tension in my muscles, in my heart rate, in my 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 disagreement, when my perspectives, beliefs, or needs, are at odds with the other person’s. The tension accumulates. If I put too much pressure on my bike’s drivetrain, the chain will snap. 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 in 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. This is like powering through a tough climb without regard for technique, or hammering away at your point until you win the conflict. The benefit here is that you win, which we all like doing. But the down side is that often it comes with physical injury, or damage to your relationships.

On the other hand, you can work with the tension. On the bike this means working your muscles while listening to your body. In a conflict, this means standing in inquiry about the situation, yourself, and the other. The advantage with 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 in my relationships, I must know how to work with the pressure in a productive way. I must be aware of the force I apply on others and on myself. I do this by seeing and asking questions about the tensions, in me and in 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 instructor, 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.

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