What is the purpose of conflict? Can it be useful? Most of us would not seek to be in battle with a loved one or even an acquaintance, yet this very battle often presents to us the path to heal those parts of our selves that are most difficult to reach. It is through interpersonal conflict that we are given an opportunity to look most deeply within ourselves—and do the work that we are not able to do on our own. Conflict arises in different arenas in our lives: in the home, in the workplace, in the community. Reasons are assigned to the conflict such as feelings of personal betrayal, misunderstanding or deceit; changes in policy or work schedules; or disagreements over money. Regardless of whom we are in conflict with, and what the conflict is over—the conflict is ours to own.
As mediators, it is important for us to examine our beliefs about conflict, and about the possible outcomes of conflict conversations. A possible outcome of a mediation session is that both parties will leave the session with an agreement they can live by. Another possible outcome is that both parties will leave the session having gained a hold in their position. Are these outcomes limited? Is there a purpose for mediation beyond that of an alternate to litigation? Can mediation help parties gain access to their own humanity and that of their adversary? Can mediation play a role in cultivating peace? I propose that mediators can hold an expansive view of the outcome of mediation — one that sees beyond the party’s story and opens a path of lasting personal healing.
In this article, I suggest that parties engaged in interpersonal conflict attach to their “stories” of right and wrong. The story serves as a mask and prevents disputants from seeing within themselves to the likely cause of the dispute — their unmet needs. Further, many of us are conditioned to feel shame with regard to our needs, and the behaviors that may result from having unmet needs. Thus inner conflict and conflict towards others can arise from our shameful discomfort in witnessing the needs, and consequent behaviors, of others. Thus, the war on the outside finds its roots in the inside.
As a guest lecturer at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the United Nations, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi said "Peace is not just the absence of war and conflict; it goes well beyond that. Peace must be fostered within the individual, within the family and within society. Simply transferring the world's nuclear weapons to a museum will not in itself bring about world peace. The nuclear weapons of the mind must first be eliminated."
What is the nuclear weapon of the mind that Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi speaks of? In a painful situation the mind is quick to judge; "What is the cause of this unpleasant feeling I am experiencing?". The nuclear weapon of our mind is its desire to judge the enemy outside of us, to view it as responsible for our experiences. Rarely, do we look at our own arsenal, and begin the disarming there. The mind rarely understands its power to mitigate our experience of the situation that occurs outside of us.
In most disputes, each party wishes to tell their story (their interpretation and judgment of what happened), sometimes with volumes of data. Most often each party believes their position is “right” and the other party is “wrong”. The mediator provides a service when s/he is able to hear and reflect each parties “story” without judging that there is a right and wrong party. Unlike a Judge (judging mind), the role of the mediator is that of a Neutral. With grace and respect for the painful position each sits in, the mediator can help each side to turn the looking glass towards the inside — first to help each to see their story as just that, a story. Once parties are able to drop the “right/wrong” paradigm, new options for viewing the situation at hand can emerge.
According to the authors of Landmark Education, “it is a human tendency to collapse what happened; with the story we tell about what happened. This collapsing happens so fast it becomes hard to separate the two, and we think of them as one and the same. Almost immediately, and certainly over time, the story we tell ourselves becomes the way it is – the reality we know. It limits what is possible in our lives, robbing us of much of our joy and effectiveness.
When we are able to separate what happened from our story or interpretation, we discover that much of what we considered already determined, given and fixed, may in fact not be that way. Situations that may have been challenging or difficult become fluid and open to change. We find ourselves no longer limited by a finite set of options, and able to achieve what we want with new ease and enjoyment.”
As the Neutral mediator begins to focus away from the stories, and away from judgments of right and wrong, s/he may then begin to explore deeper truths. What’s left when the story goes away? If in our role as mediators we are able to help parties to see beyond the right/wrong paradigm we may be able to help them gain an understanding of their own humanity and help them to uncover their own needs that may be the cause of the underlying in the conflict.
Being Human – From Shame to Acceptance?
As dispute resolution practitioners we can ask ourselves “Does my understanding of the conflict serve the parties highest good? Have I truly understood the source of the conflict here?” Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life suggests that “underlying all human actions are needs that people are seeking to meet, and understanding and acknowledging these needs can create a shared basis for connection, cooperation, and more globally — peace”. Rosenberg suggests all feelings including anger, rage, and frustration arise from unmet needs. We often see these behaviors, or accusations of these behaviors, in mediation sessions. If in fact unmet needs are the underlying source of the dispute, then the dispute itself serves as a catalyst for self -discovery. As mediators we can support this process with our diligence to remain free of our own judgments, evaluations, and interpretations.
Yet self-discovery requires courage. So many of us wish to look good and be “right” at all times. We deny our basic humanity. As humans, we are all capable of many behaviors. We each take a turn at behaving with greed, jealousy, deceit, zealousness, anger, and fear. Even if these behaviors stem from unmet needs, it is not easy to accept these behaviors in us or in others. We move to blame the “other” yet the other is only the temporary enemy; showing us what is possible within ourselves.
S.N. Goenka explains the human condition “I become very unhappy when I find someone behaving in a way which I don't like, when I find something happening which I don't like. Unwanted things happen and I create tension within myself. Wanted things do not happen, some obstacles come in the way, and again I create tension within myself; I start tying knots within myself. And throughout life, unwanted things keep on happening, wanted things may or may not happen, and this process or reaction… makes the entire mental and physical structure so tense, so full of negativity, that life becomes miserable.”
In her article “The Work of Byron Katie in Mediation” published on mediate.com, attorney and mediator Stephanie Bell does an excellent job describing a process that mediators can use to help the parties (and sometimes even the mediator) draw a new perspective on the issue causing them pain. Ms. Bell describes a process called “The Work” developed by Byron Katie, which includes four questions designed to lead us to self-inquiry and ultimately a “turnabout” in our position of what we believe to be so “right” or so “wrong”.
As dispute resolution practitioners and as individuals in our own disputes, what if we sought to examine the inner wars? Would this aide in resolving conflict? In this journey, we might find that the mind is actively assigning someone out there to blame for the stories of right and wrong. This notion of right and wrong serves as a deterrent for deeper responsibility and love within us. Once we are able to look at the perpetrator free from right or wrong, we may begin to see the enemy’s wounds as our own, and begin the most profound healing.
S.N. Goenka, Art of Living : Vipassana Meditation (public talk given by S.N. Goenka in July in Bern, Switzerland, 1980), http://www.vri.dhamma.org/archives/gbern.html
Marshall Rosenberg , PhD., Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Encinitas, California: Puddle Dancer Press, 2003)
Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Living In Harmony: The Role Of Religion In Conflict Transformation (speech given at Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious & Spiritual Leaders, delivered at the United Nations General Assembly, 2000), http://www.amritapuri.org/amma/un2000/harmony.php