Conflict as Spiritual Path

You can make conflict resolution a spiritual path.

Conflict style awareness is truly useful in day-to-day management of differences.  It's easy to learn.
But not so easy to do!

Easy:  Learning the basics of conflict styles.  
Challenging:  Remembering, in the heat of conflict, to use all those great conflict resolution strategies.  We are hardwired by nature with a tiny set of responses when we are frightened or angry: flight, fight, or freeze.  Those simple responses enabled survival in the jungle and you can witness them any time you want in the animal world.  But they have limited use for human beings today.

To build partnerships and solve problems in a complex world we need additional options, and the ability to choose rather than merely react.  We acquire these capacities, not by relying on instinct, but by thought, practice, and reflection.

Conflict as Spiritual Path

When we are angry or frustrated, our brain functions change.  Our instinctual flight/fight/freeze brain takes over.  Our rational brain, the part we use to suspend judgement, listen, empathize, problemsolve,  steps back.  Emotion blots out thought.  We react rather than choose.  Instinct and habit rule, not judgement and skill. 

But all is not lost.  In the words of Victor Frankl, the holocaust survivor whose writings have inspired generations:

"Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom." 

Space to choose.  We all have it.   It might be just a few seconds, but with effort we can expand that space.

I sometimes speak of conflict resolution as a spiritual path and Frankl nails why:  What we do in moments of difficulty with others has enduring consequences.  In the seconds between provocation and response is where we get to work on character.  Here enduring and timeless aspects of our being come concretely within our influence.  Here, over time, in the patterns of repeated choices, we set in motion dynamics that shape the kind of people we become and the kind of relationships we live in.

Groups and nations are no different. How we respond in times of severe provocation reveals for all to see the true character and values of any structure with power and resources. 

You are not a helpless victim of your past.   You already possess ability to choose wisely.   Perhaps in lesser measure than you wish, but you can enlarge it.  In the heat of conflict arise opportunities to do this. By recognizing you have choices and taking responsibility to reflect on and grow in choosing well, in ways that reflect the essence of your life and being, you make conflict a spiritual path.

Four Choice Expanders for the Journey

1. Take the initiative when there is conflict brewing.  Planning is your best ally in responding well in conflict.  If you don't plan, you put yourself at the mercy of your emotions and someone else's timetable. 

Planning doesn't mean you must always engage.  Avoiding is sometimes the best solution - more on that here.  But if you avoid, do it by choice, not from habit. 

When a difficult issue is brewing and you recognize conversation is required, take charge of yourself by pondering when, where, and how discussion will take place.   Think through what you hope to achieve in the situation, and what your opponent probably hopes for.  Make a list of your options and possible consequences of each. Then prepare a strategy to approach the other person.  Tammy Lenski's list of "25 Ways to Disagree Better" is hard beat as a rich source of ideas for preparing yourself.  If you like her as much as I do, take some time to poke around in the short essays in her Archives as well.

Preparing and taking the initiative doesn't guarantee easy solutions.  But it greatly increases your ability to choose and manage the responses you want to make in conflict. 

2.  Work on listening skills.  Do a web search on "conflict resolution skills" and you can quickly find quite a list of skills that are truly useful in conflict resolution.  Listening skill deserves to top that list - it is a "force multiplier" that amplifies effectiveness of every other skill.

Do not make the common mistake of confusing listening with agreeing or accepting. Understand listening at its barest minimum, as information gathering.  Whether you decide in the end to smile and be agreeable, or stiffen your back and confront, a foundation of good listening provides valuable information and makes you more effective.

And of course, whether you employ active listening or its more nuanced cousin, reflective listening, listening keeps your rationale brain active, thereby expanding your ability to choose. 

3.  Practice your lines.  I wish I had a more compelling way to say it!  Conflict resolution unfolds in the realm of words and the best way I know to prepare for a difficult conversation is to practice what you're going to say.

 Let's say you're inspired by that concept from Ury and Fisher's famous Getting to Yes, about separating interests and positions.  What will you say to move the conversation in that direction?

Or maybe you can see room to make concessions, but you're so angry about the attitude of your opponent that there's no way you'll even hint at compromise until he gets off his self-righteousness.  How will you communicate this complex truth in a way most likely to bring progress?

I like journalling as a tool to think through what I want to say.  I often write out, word for word, phrases, sentences, and questions I might to use in an upcoming difficult conversation.   Sometime it takes many minutes to figure out the wording of phrase that can be said in seconds.

Maybe my first try at an opening line is: "I can't believe how childish you are!"  Honest, but not so helpful.  Second try is "I'm outraged about the things you're saying about me in staff meeting!"  Third Try: "You said things in staff meeting Monday that really got my blood boiling.  Eventually I calmed down, but I really don't understand where this is coming from.  Could you fill me in on the history here?"

Obviously the third try invites a different dynamic than the first.  When I put the notes aside, it's surprising how much remains in my head, not only words and phrases but also attitude, ready for deployment in moments of heated choice.

The ultimate way to practice lines, of course, is in a role play.  From time to time I call on a friend or family member to take the role for a few minutes of someone whom I need to confront.  Here I try out words, phrases, and strategies from my notes.  Even if I disagree with the advice of my allies, rehearsal increases self-control and choice in the real life conversation that follows. 

4.  Try calming techniques.  We've all heard of people who teach themselves to count silently to 10 before igniting.  Conflict resolution consultant Tammy Lenski suggests additional techniques for mental detachment based on research:

- physically leaning back, which has been shown to help achieve mental detachment

- imaging that you are viewing yourself from a distance, like a fly on the wall

- moving away from the person you are upset with and if this is not possible, imaging that you are moving away and they are getting smaller.

Don't Wait for Mastery

Don't wait to start until you've mastered these skills. If you do you'll likely wait forever.  Try a better way, note what happens, and aim for better next time.  What matters is your intention, and your commitment to learning and growing.  Over time those will take you farther than you might think.   

If you are active in a religious tradition, start noticing the teachings, practices, resources, and weaknesses of your tradition in responding to conflict.  All are present, in every tradition!  Becoming more conscious of them will greatly deepen your own emotional and spiritual growth, and expose you to communities of people within your tradition who, like you, recognize human responses to conflict as an area worthy of our highest and best attention.