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Conflict Resolution - The Indispensable Inner Life

by Michael Wright
April 2012 Michael Wright

Sage wisdom tells us that we have an inner and an outer life. These two worlds have been the subject of centuries old religious and spiritual traditions, east to west, and are an observable and frequently studied fact of life. Never are these two worlds so pronounced and important as when we are in conflict.

Yet it is at these times that the inner world is most often avoided and obscured, keeping us unaware of our internal thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. A move inward would surely put us face to face with the turbulence of negative thoughts that color our conflict experience–thoughts of blame, possession, distaste, fears of the future, and general nonacceptance of what is appearing in our external lives. It is no wonder we avoid taking a look.

What we don’t always realize is that when we fail to peer into this inner world, it simply projects itself onto our outer life. We literally start to see and experience externally what we think and believe about a situation. Then we mistake these external events as the source of our conflict and troubles, literally blocking our discovery of their internal origin. The end result is that we put off acknowledging our role and contribution to the conflict. The almost reflexive dynamic of projection also keeps us from our faculties for realizing solutions, as we are only able to see the thoughts that gave rise to conflict in the first place.

But when we give attention to and clean up this inner world, as best as we can, it can become a source of creativity, greater well-being, and ultimately solutions. This clearing effort allows us to see more of the world around us, to see beyond the confines of the thoughts and beliefs we previously held so tightly. In this newly discovered space, we can begin to see a range of solutions that may not only be acceptable to us, but actually better for us.

As mediators, we often disclaim that we are not therapists, and of course we are not. However, this does not mean that our methods are not therapeutic, and we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that our clients don’t also know that fact. After all, what is more “therapeutic” than facilitating client explorations of their thought and belief systems surrounding a present conflict. Part of our work may involve asking a client to see if they can generate alternatives to their preferred position, one that may run counter to what they think or believe and inherently prompt reconsideration of their point-of-view. We may also ask questions to draw out what underlies their position, where clients may become aware of their motivations for the very first time. Some of us even practice reflective listening and repeat back to clients our understanding of what has been said, inviting greater awareness of the thoughts and ideas in the room.

These are but just a few examples, each pointing to the fact that our facilitative skill is more than just a surface tool to move parties toward resolution. It is this very skill that can support parties in going inward to realize and transcend the thoughts and beliefs that have stood in their way of recognizing solutions to conflict.

Perhaps then mediation might also be considered a meditation, a meditation on the constellation of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions of our inner life and a curiosity and questioning of those that don’t serve us. The process of mediation and its facilitative nature makes it well-suited to invite such inquiry, and the subject matter of conflict is more than worthy of the effort–not just on a personal level, but on an interpersonal as well as societal level. For a conflicted mind can only continue to produce further conflict.

No mediator can force, nor should we, someone to delve into their inner world. Some clients may not need it, others may manage it well on their own, and some may simply have no interest or capacity to do it. But we as mediators can come prepared with the skills to support such an exploration and offer the invitation when appropriate.


Michael S. Wright, JD, CPC is a licensed attorney (New York, Massachusetts) and certified professional coach.  He is the founder of Dream Brightly, a coaching and facilitation practice that works with change agents interested in leading from the inside out. Michael brings nearly 20 years of experience to his practice, having led cutting edge social impact projects for the American Psychological Association, Harvard University’s Center for Business and Government, the Shriver Center, and the United Nations, including work on a small team of advisors to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Business and Human Rights. 

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