This is a book review of Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution by Diane Musho Hamilton.
A few years ago I heard Diane Musho Hamilton, a Zen teacher, mediator, and facilitator, speak about how her son with Down syndrome had taught her to be present with things as they are. Her stories about Willie, and his often profound expressions of humor and insight, revealed a woman who had learned to hold her seat in the face of disappointment, trauma, and uncertainty.
Everything is Workable (Shambhala, 2013) is Hamilton’s book about how to live consciously in a world sated with conflicts. Hamilton calls our most basic moral obligation “simply being present to each other” as a non-judgmental witness. She acknowledges that learning conflict skills asks something of us: “The more intimate we become with human suffering, the greater our compulsion to serve others.”
The book caused me to reflect on how my own work is energized by that compulsion, which has grown out of eyes wide open to the suffering in the world, including in my clients. In addition to being my livelihood, I have come to see my work as an attorney, practicing Collaborative divorce law and mediating family and workplace matters, as service.
Not long ago I was speaking to a friend about how I continue to look for ways to contribute to the world. He pointed out that my work is itself a contribution. That was the permission I apparently needed to move from viewing my work as merely an ethical way to support myself to service for the greater good. That subtle shift in perspective made me appreciate my work as my practice in being genuine.
When a client is relating to me from a place of blame, I must be aware of the desire that arises in me to defend my ego. I can stay present when I am not expending energy on self-protection. I can be truly curious about what is happening in the room and what may be behind an aggressive comment. As Hamilton teaches, “This profound presence to what is frees us of our need to change or manipulate anything,” transforming the “energy of aggression” and bringing discipline to conflict resolution.
Recently I was mediating a conflict between two professionals who had been appointed to lead a long-term initiative in their company. They had been close friends for years, but co-directing this program was putting enormous strain on their friendship and professional relationship, so much so that each was considering resigning. I saw fairly quickly that facilitating their arriving at new ways of working together was not a solution—they had tried everything they could think of, and I had no rabbits to pull out of my hat. I felt a creeping inadequacy as they covered old territory and felt frustrated at getting nowhere. I could hear them thinking, “What are we doing here? Isn’t it her job to get us unstuck?”
I knew all was lost if I let myself be ruled by those judgments, so I dropped the urge to explore solutions. I made a conscious decision to hold the space in the room, simply being vigilant of their pain and mindful of breathing the same air. I had no agenda and did not rush to fill the silence, though I made a few brief observations and occasionally reflected back what I was hearing. A bit of openness arose in one, inviting it in the other--tentatively, with starts and halts, but with gradual momentum. My attention to them, not to my misgivings, was imperative. We were able to structure a simple plan that gave them just enough encouragement to experience greater spaciousness in their relationship and begin to find ways to work with their conflict, rather than being overwhelmed by it.
I am grateful to those clients, as I am to so many others, who teach me again and again that trusting in the integrity of my own nature is the resource I can rely on , which means I can drop the effort to protect my reputation or status, or secure an image of myself as a miracle worker. Indeed it is in the bareness of the moment, when I truly am left with nothing to prove and nothing to defend, that I have anything to offer.
Hamilton describes her experience as a mediator with the rare clients who “understood that the meeting was part of a precious day in their lives and that how they conducted themselves mattered,” and who had the capacity to express their own point of view as well as to hear an opposing one. Those qualities are not different from those of dispute resolution specialists who can both inhabit and model multiple perspectives and have come to know that defending their egos is “far less interesting than working creatively with the challenges that arise.”
I am a student of conflict every bit as much as my clients are, and I can learn best from conflict when I am, in Hamilton’s words, “more present, more fearless.” It is from that place that I can best employ the conflict skills she teaches. Among them is her emphasis on the mediator’s ability to reframe an attacking statement so as to bring to light a “compelling truth,” deepening the attacker’s perspective by getting to the nub of the matter, so that he sees more than what he saw before. It is also from a place of presence and fearlessness that I can notice the “shadow” in conflict—which Hamilton recognizes as the hidden perspectives no one will claim—and the need to acknowledge these ignored tensions in order to facilitate difficult conversations. Similarly, I can be aware of my own reactivity as I work with conflict, and be brave enough to dig down to the shadow in myself--something that I have disowned and may be projecting onto my client.
Hamilton prods me to remember “the dimension in which we are the same”—we’re all trying, we’re all afraid, we all want to feel okay in the world—and respect conflict as “an expression of our profound and inextricable relatedness.” That relatedness can be messy, but it is the only place to start if we hope for conflict resolution to go beyond defending individual fears and desires—for me as well as my clients.