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<xTITLE>Using Mindfulness to Inform Our Responses to Conflict</xTITLE>

Using Mindfulness to Inform Our Responses to Conflict

by Ryan O'Connell
April 2015 Ryan O'Connell

Those of us who are familiar with conflict know that there are means of responding to conflict that are more skillful than others. William Ury notes in Getting Past No: Negotiating With Difficult People that there are three common, reactive responses to conflict - avoiding, accommodating, and competing.1 Those of us who have had the experience of poorly reacting to conflict or being unsure of the best response to a confrontation can easily see the accuracy of Ury’s assessment.

The range of reactions varies from extreme conflict avoidance to high-frequency accommodation to raging competition, and these responses are often the result of a lifetime of conditioning. Most often, these reactions arise from an inability to effectively cope with the challenging thoughts and emotions that can accompany conflict.

In the right situation, any of the aforementioned responses can be appropriate, but it is our almost exclusive reliance on a primary response (i.e. we usually avoid conflict, if at all possible), that makes for ineffective conflict management. What is important to note about these responses to conflict is that, for many of us, our responses are instinctual in nature. Often times, we unconsciously respond to the unpleasant stimuli of conflict before considering whether or not our response is really the most effective approach for the situation.

Those of us who are avoiders frequently shy away from conflict because we are fearful of how we might handle the differences we experience with others. We are afraid we might lose our cool, concede too much, or offend our counterpart by advocating for our own interests. This apprehension leads us to avoid conflict altogether.

We who often respond to conflict by accommodating the needs of the other side frequently do so out of fear that we may damage our relationship with the other party. We are afraid that asserting our own needs in a situation may be seen as self-centered, too aggressive, or lacking concern for the needs of the other side.

Then there are those of us who are driven by competitive motives. We want to win, or sometimes to dominate, because we are afraid to cope with the internal difficulties we experience when we lose. Contrary to the accommodator and the avoider, the competitor’s drive often causes them to value the object of the negotiation over the negotiators.

These descriptions of the basic motivations underlying our instinctive responses to conflict are far from complete, as they are highly complex and vary from individual to individual and situation to situation. However, these illustrations hopefully make clear that our conditioned responses to conflict are generally driven by emotional concerns.

It becomes clear that we need a way to pause before letting our default response take over if we are to be more skillful at addressing conflict in a situationally-appropriate manner. One technique for doing this is a mindfulness practice known by the acronym RAIN – Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Non-Identification.

RAIN is a practice developed by Michelle McDonald, a mindfulness teacher with over thirty years of experience teaching vipassana meditation and the co-founder of Vipassana Hawaii. The practice is intended to cultivate a spacious self-awareness and offer support for working with challenging thoughts and emotions.”2

As described by Tara Brach author of True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, the RAIN practice involves recognizing what is happening, allowing life to be just as it is, investigating the inner experience with kindness, and realizing non-identification, which gives way to open awareness.3

Recognize.

The first step of the RAIN process involves pausing to recognize the sensations in the body, feelings, and thoughts that are present in your inner experience. It can be tempting to ignore unpleasant thoughts or feelings or to form judgements about those thoughts and feelings, but our aim in this step of the process is to observe without an internal or external reaction. One useful piece of advice for this step is to be friendly with yourself as you recognize what is happening within your mind and body.

Sometimes, asking ourselves a question can help initiate a clearer recognition of our present moment experience. Questions like, “What am I feeling right now?” or “What do I really think/feel about this situation?” or even “What is happening inside me right now?” help us to focus our energy towards a clear recognition of our inner experience.

Once we recognize our sensations, emotions, or thoughts, it is helpful to name them – “anger,” “sadness,” “tightness in the throat,” “worry about mother,” “loneliness,” etc. Naming what is happening within you allows for a clearer connection to the experience.

Allow.

According to Branch, the next step is to “allow life to be just as it is.” This entails letting the difficult experience exist without trying to change it. Often, our response to difficult thoughts and emotions is one of three forms of aversion – we ignore the unpleasantness, we resist the unpleasantness, or we grasp for something that will distract us from the unpleasantness. When practicing RAIN, we avoid these temptations and allow the experience to be.

A useful skill when practicing this step is to use a word or phrase to support your intention to allow the experience to be as it is. Branch notes that mentally saying “yes” to the experience is a way to express your consent to the sensations, feelings, or thoughts that have arisen within your awareness. This expression both reminds you of your intention in practicing this process and also plants a seed that you are not the experience – a  theme addressed in a later step.

Investigate.

The third step in the RAIN process may not always be necessary. You may have regained a sense of mental balance through simply recognizing a difficult experience and allowing it to be. Other times, the first two steps are not enough. This is especially true for recurring difficulties like marital problems or entrenched issues with your colleagues. In these cases, investigating your experience in greater depth is useful. You can ask yourself questions like:

  • What is the feeling tone of this experience (positive, negative, or neutral)?
  • What event triggered this difficult experience?
  • Why was that event triggering to me?
  • Have similar events triggered me before?
  • What story am I telling myself about these feelings?
  • What story are these feelings telling me?
  • What alternative stories exist for these difficult feelings?
  • How realistic is the story I am telling myself?
  • What bodily sensations are connected to this experience?

Non-identification.

The final step is not so much an actionable step as it is a result of the process. Non-identification means that through recognizing, allowing, and possibly investigating your experience, you became aware that you were not the sensation, emotion, or thought that was causing you difficulty. It means that you have ceased to identify yourself with your difficulty and instead are able to see the difficulty as a small, ephemeral part of the large mosaic of our present time experience. With non-identification, we have successfully shifted our perspective towards seeing the streaming, constantly changing (however subtly) nature of our experience.

RAIN is a method that, when consistently utilized, can free us from our conditioned, instinctive responses of avoiding, competing, or accommodating. By recognizing, allowing, investigating, and not identifying with the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that lead us towards our conditioned responses, we allow for awareness and wisdom to guide our engagement in conflict.

Sources

  • William Ury, Getting Past No: Negotiating With Difficult People, (Bantam Books, 1991)
  • Rick Hanson, “Let it RAIN,” Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, Last modified 11/12/15 cmk -->

Biography


Ryan O'Connell has worked with a variety of sectors including: health care, legal, staffing, technology, and non-profit firms. In these settings, he has negotiated, coached, and facilitated the resolution of conflicts ranging from agency-client disputes to challenges arising from inter-departmental change. 
 
Ryan's blog, viaconflict, focuses on negotiation and conflict management topics exploring process-centric, practical, and forward-looking ways to deal with conflict.
 
O’Connell is a Tennessee Supreme Court Listed Mediator, holds a Master of Arts in Conflict Management from Lipscomb University’s Institute of Conflict Management, and is a graduate of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee. He has spoken for organizations on the subject of negotiation and mediation and regularly volunteers with the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center, providing free mediation services.


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Website: www.viaconflict.com

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