Conflict seems to pervade our lives. This political season rings in daily news of candidates not only debating together, but of savage and underhanded attacks, not only on each other's policies, but on each other’s pasts, families and fundamental characters. On TV, competition and conflict are everywhere, even on the cooking channels! And in these conflicts, the losers are humiliated and denigrated in every way, up to and including being killed, and their death becoming a viral video. Conflict is everywhere, red in tooth and claw.
Given that conflict is so upsetting, how is that it remains so enduringly popular? The simple answer seems to be that it’s inevitable. Resources are scarce, not only material resources like land or water, but non-material resources like recognition and esteem. There can be only one Design Star each year, and only the Design Star gets her own show on HGTV. Only one person will win the 2012 election (assuming we don’t get a replay of 2000), and become president. It sure looks like a win-lose world.
Besides, conflict matters. If there is nothing we value enough to to take a stand for, a line we will not cross, who are we? Sooner or later, all but the most compliant and enslaved person gets to the point where continuing to step back and accommodate threatens our basic integrity or survival. If we merely collapse and permit this violation (again), then our worth is nothing.
A Chinese philosopher said, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” True, but good luck with that! As human beings, we are hard-wired for preferences. We prefer life over death, prosperity over poverty, praise over blame, and security over chaos. And given these seemingly innate preferences, we inevitably come into conflict with others who have similar and apparently incompatible preferences. Interests differ.
Nevertheless, conflict doesn’t usually have to be prolonged, savage, debilitating or intractable. By using three simple (though not necessarily easy) steps, the real obstacles to conflict resolution can be overcome. And none of these steps requires selling yourself or your real interests out. Never. It simply requires an understanding of what keeps conflict “stuck”, dammed up like water, unable to flow. Once these obstacles are dealt with, interpersonal and organizational processes tend to flow naturally toward their appropriate resolution, like water flows toward the sea.
So let’s look first at the obstacles. The first is physiological arousal in the face of perceived threat. Conflict arouses the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), because it feels like a threat to our physical or social survival. The SNS operates outside of conscious awareness or direct control, ramps up the organism to deal with threat by fighting, fleeing or freezing. In sympathetic nervous system arousal, heart rate increases, adrenalin and cortisol flow, energy goes into the muscles, and digestion shuts down. The entire organism mobilizes to meet the threat. The problem is, when the fight-flight-freeze state is triggered, high-order thinking really diminishes. Stands to reason- when a sabre-toothed tiger is running at you, a lot of reasoning and analysis is not what’s needed. However, in our world the problems are seldom so clear, and the needed solutions are a lot more complex than just fight, flee or freeze. So SNS arousal is the first obstacle.
The second obstacle is our assumptions. We human animals are pattern-recognizers; that’s how we survive. Once we’ve seen a certain constellation of features a few times, we then know what to expect the next time we see it, and therefore how to appropriately react. However, pattern-recognition manifests as assumptions. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. End of story. But when things are more complex than just, “Is this a duck?”, simple assumptions based on the past are not so helpful; they don’t recognize or allow for novelty, the way the present is different from the past.
Assumptions also include interpretations, whole worlds of feelings and meaning associated with events. Many people are vaguely aware that the world each of us experiences is not a “given”, but rather a set of interpretations based on the combining of sensory data with memories and meanings that derive from our personal and cultural pasts. Necessarily, my interpretations of any given phenomenon will be different from yours. Often those differences are trivial and easily overlooked, so that we can readily sink back into the implicit assumption that all of us are experiencing the same reality together. Conflict brings the differences in our interpretations and assumptions into sharp relief. Under pressure, most of us quickly forget everything we know about the world. Things start to become very solid, tight and obvious as we harden into a defensive posture. Our own world of meanings and assumptions turns into the REAL TRUTH. Other beliefs and interpretations appear to be self-evidently a LIE. This confusion of beliefs and interpretations with a self-existent reality isolates us inside our castles of assumptions, talking only with the ones who share those same beliefs.
The third obstacle is our difficulty in listening. This obstacle is intimately related to the first two. First, our degree of arousal makes a passive activity like listening very difficult. It can feel as if the motor is racing, but the transmission isn’t engaged. So we can’t sit still long enough to listen; or impatience (arousal) gets the better of us, and we are compelled to fidget, interrupt, tune out, or leap in to contradict or to defend ourselves. Even when we know that opening our mouths right now is a really bad idea, our level of arousal is just too much, and we just can’t help bursting out. Second, when our core assumptions about ourselves and our lives are challenged, we don’t experience that as merely a matter of preference; it feels like a threat to the roots of our survival. Merely hearing these disagreements feels like a violation, and we are compelled to defend ourselves, and prove that all other ways are wrong.
So, to deal with conflict situations effectively, we need to deal with the three obstacles. Here are three principles, each devoted to one transcending an obstacle. Practiced sincerely, they work together to promote sane, satisfying and natural outcomes, based on each person’s real needs and the inherent qualities of the situation.
1. Calm Yourself Down. First, we need to deal with sympathetic nervous system activation in order to be able to think clearly, and to pace ourselves appropriately. The easiest, fastest way to do this with with the breath. What’s needed is to expand the inhalation, and to lengthen the exhalation. Because SNS tighten the muscles in preparation for fight or flight, it can be difficult to get a full inhalation. This in turn creates a smothered, desperate feeling. Here’s a way to bring awareness to the breath: put one hand on your chest, the other on your belly, below your waist. Notice how the hands rise and fall with your inhalation and exhalation (if it’s helpful you can try this experiment lying on your back with your knees up and feet flat). Now deepen the inhale by letting your belly fill up under your hand on the inhale. Feel how the inhalation includes both the chest and the belly (for most people, the natural breath starts in the belly and then rises into the chest, but for others, specially when under stress, it feels better to expand the chest first, and let the belly fill up after. What’s important is that both the chest and belly hands rise and fall with each breath). Expanding the chest breath gives a sense of having more space and less pressure in the body, the emotions and the mind. Expanding the belly provides a sense of grounding; it also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) response, which calms the whole organism and frees up higher-order thought. Experiment. Find out about your natural relaxed breath, and let it deepen. Bring more blood to your brain so you can think.
Slow down and smooth out your exhalation, so that it becomes longer than your inhalation. Pause for a moment on empty. This also works to enhance PNS response, the so-called “rest and digest” mode, in which slowing down, pausing and reflection become available. Work with the breath also enhances heart-rate variability, which promotes health, longevity and resilience in the face of stress.
It’s OK to pause. It’s OK to say, “I need a break” or “I don’t know the answer to that right now. Let me get back to you tomorrow.” SNS arousal tells us that every upset is a life-threatening crisis that must be dealt with NOW. In fact, most bad solutions are the result of haste, cause by excessive SNS arousal and diminished reasoning.
So, the first of our three steps is Calm Yourself Down. Deal with your upset BEFORE you try to deal with the conflict. Make sure you are in as whole and as centered a state as possible. BREATHE. Monitor yourself. When you get overloaded, find a way to pause.
The second step, now that the higher brain is coming online again, is to:
2. Question Your Assumptions. In conflict, most of us are all too ready to question the other person’s assumptions, and indeed their entire world-view, but to take our own at face value. Try asking yourself, just as an experiment, “What’s another possible way to explain this situation? How would I be responding if that other interpretation were true?” Get creative: try out all sorts of alternative explanations, even ones that seem ridiculous, just to free up your thinking. If you can’t think of any alternatives on your own, ask a friend to help you.
Keep reminding yourself that each of us lives in our own internal world of assumption and interpretation, which give rise to feeling and meaning. We often confuse feeling and meaning with facts and fail to acknowledge the ways in which our interpretations are inevitably based on our personal, organizational and cultural pasts.
Of all our assumptions, there are three that i think of as the most “toxic assumptions”. When any of these assumptions is taken to be true, watch out! The result is likely to be intractable conflict, deep and lasting ill-will, and enormous ongoing stress.
The first toxic assumption is malevolence. We assume that the other person is out to get us, that she or he derives intense pleasure from our defeat and humiliation. In short, that this person is evil and sadistic. Now, it’s true that cruel and sadistic people do exist. But they are very few indeed. Most of the time the other person is feeling really threatened and is in a scary defensive mode; she is reacting to her own interpretations of the situation, not to you personally, no matter how she may be sounding.
The assumption of malevolence is incredibly dangerous, because it evokes a maximum threat response, a “scorched earth policy”, in which any behavior, even torture, becomes acceptable, because the other is evil and threatening.
The second toxic assumption, often paired with the first, is powerlessness. We assume that the other person holds all the high cards, and that we ourselves are helpless. This assumption also leads to out-of-control behavior. When we feel powerless against an overwhelming oppressor, we fear that our biggest weapon is no more adequate than a toy popgun, never mind that it lands on the other person like a tactical nuke. People who feel powerless are dangerous; they have nothing to lose. They become suicide bombers, Viet Cong terrorists on the domestic front.
The third toxic assumption is urgency. When we’re caught in this trap, we believe the problem must be solved RIGHT AWAY. We fall into a panic because we can’t stand the discomfort of ambiguity. Many problems benefit from “pausing”, giving time for research, reflection and consultation. They are like fruits who only give their juice in their own season. The feeling of urgency usually comes from SNS activation and not from the real requirements of the situation.
Once I start to question my own assumptions, I start to wonder about yours. The question, “How can you even think that?” becomes less an expression of outrage than the beginning of an inquiry. What are the processes that lead me, and you, to this position in this conflict? I know I need to understand you in order to relate to you appropriately, whether that’s to shake hands or run like hell. So the third step now appears:
3. Listen. Pray that prayer, "May the Good Lord shut my mouth and open my ears”. Listen first of all to your own gut. Now that you’ve calmed yourself down and opened up your breath, it’s easier to feel that body sense of what’s actually happening here and now. Your brain gets re-engaged, both logically and intuitively. You become capable of original thought and real decision-making.
Next, listen to the other person, recognizing that it’s imperative that you comprehend how they make sense of their world. A useful question to ask yourself about the other person is, “HOW does your position make sense? I assume it DOES make sense, but how?” Another useful question for him is, “How do you FEEL about this?” What’s needed is to move questioning out of its usual prosecutorial or defensive mode into a mode of intense curiosity, a compelling need to comprehend. And “comprehend” is not found so much in the thinking mind of concepts as in the felt sense of rightness and ease.
With the regular practice of these three steps, conflict naturally tends to flow, like water, to its appropriate destination. Even conflicts that are unsolvable can nevertheless have the fangs of vengeance and dehumanization pulled from them.
The presence of conflict is an opportunity in its distressing disguise. It point us toward our real interests as humans, to the needs we all share for a self that contains well-being, relationship and ability to act. Conflict forces us to stand in our integrity, and discriminate real needs from false desires. It impels us to take risks, and to look for new solutions. But it’s a roller coaster ride. Fasten your seat belts, and hold onto yourself!