This is a brief description of a method of self-transformation designed to help us become the most complete human we can be in the realm of interpersonal relationships.
Self-care is a primary motivation of all living things
Anything that is alive acts on its own behalf. Amoeba move from the hot dry places toward the cool wet places. Plants grow towards the sun and become dormant when conditions are harsh. When we act in a healthy manner we make choices that create what we need.
For most of us in the developed world the arena in which we can make the biggest gains toward greater safety and satisfaction are in the relationships we build with each other. The health and harmony of our primary relationships are the biggest determinants of our wellbeing.
There are no relationships that are free of conflict. Indeed, the most perplexing and hurtful conflicts arise in the relationships we have with those with whom we are closest. Nevertheless, when we
- determine to address conflicts with others,
- are able to name what the issue is for us such that others can agree that this is a problem for them as well,
- are willing to state what is true for us and can hear what is true for them even when it is not what we are experiencing,
we can move to a place with them where we find shared needs and can each commit to action on our mutual behalf.
When we do this we find our relationships strengthened.
Still, this doesn’t mean that we look forward to conflict as a way to strengthen our relationships. Instead we flinch. We back away from connection. We fear that conflict will actually harm us and the relationship and so we try to hide it.
What we must cultivate for ourselves is greater confidence in our competence to resolve conflict. JustConflict is intended to do just this.
Conflict Resolution is a creative act
Every act of creation is the result of the resolution of conflict. This is hard to recognize because much of what we do in the midst of conflict is destructive.
Sometimes we get confused about the nature of conflict and what it means to resolve it. We have to recognize a distinction between the conditions that bring to awareness the presence of the tension—the arising—and the strategies we use to address the conflict—the arousing.
We sometimes use the term conflict to speak of the strategies we use to address conflict, as in, “I decided not to say anything because I didn’t want to start a conflict,” or “Conflict has subsided in South Sudan,” which only means the shooting has slowed. For our purposes in learning JustConflict, conflict is the condition of experiencing that others are acting in a manner contrary to our interests or that we are perceived by them as acting contrary to theirs…or both.
Some of the ways we address conflict don’t work, in fact, many things we habitually do just make things worse. Most of these are ways we have learned to address conflict because of values and attitudes held by the broader culture. There are three that are particularly prevalent and pernicious.
- We try to create what we need by making others lose. This is sometimes overt as in a fist fight or a war, but more often it is subtle as in choosing not to talk about something because we are afraid the other will prevail. Let me be clear here that sometimes strategies that make the other lose are the only thing we can think of to do to protect ourselves from harm. It is not that making others lose is always wrong. But we have to remember that we can’t win if we make others lose. Making others lose will not create what we need; it will at its best only protect us from further harm.
- We try to get others to do what we want. We think we have power when we control the choices of others. We are told that this is what successful people do. But when we are in a conflict with another and we have decided that our goal is to get them to change, all they have to do to make us lose is to continue to do what they are already doing. What could be easier? In truth we can hardly change ourselves, much less get others to change, especially if they don’t want to be the way we demand that they behave. The greatest power is not to change others but the ability to transform ourselves.
- We don’t pay attention to ourselves because we are so afraid of being seen as selfish or self-centered. When we don’t know what is going on with us we don’t know what we actually need. The best we are able to do is to decide what we want but even then we are largely responding to what others are telling us we should want. To actually create what we need we have to be exquisitely attentive to our own interior experience…to our feelings. That requires that we be centered in ourselves. As it turns out, the opposite of being self-centered is being centered in ourselves.
These three are high on the list of things we do when we experience conflict but which are actually destructive of our needs. Instead we want to learn to use the power of conflict to create. We do this by aligning ourselves with The Law of Three.
The Law of Three
The Law of Three is a bit like the Law of Gravity. No one passed the law. The Law of Three is more subtle than the Law of Gravity so we often miss it but it is similarly present everywhere all the time.
This law observes the fact that creativity arises when we hold three things in tension. When we have only two things we may have a stable system, but we don’t allow for transformation. Generically the law refers to the three things as the affirming, the denying, and the reconciling.
A common example is a sailboat. The affirming is the wind, the denying is the keel, and the reconciling is the helmsman that holds the sheet and the rudder in tension that creates movement. Under the right conditions the boat can move faster than the wind.
When the three are held in tension, a fourth arises in a new dimension.
Choosing a place to start
You have probably heard the old saying about how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. JustConflict is a complex set of perspectives and practices and we can start to feel like we are choking if we try to take it on all at once. We need a place to start: the more specific the better.
From one point of view it doesn’t matter where we start. Everything is connected. But we want to start in a place that has available for us the greatest energy for transformation. This is just at the place where we most want things to be different. The bigger our distress, the more energy we will have to alter what we are doing.
Our biggest conflicts are in our most significant relationships. In every relationship there are certain conflicts that arise again and again. So what we are looking for here are those Persistent Patterns of Conflict that arise in our Most Significant Relationships.
By Most Significant Relationship we mean the ones we have with those we spend the most time with, have the strongest feelings about, and whose decisions have the biggest impact on us. In each of these we have certain Persistent Patterns of Conflict. These Persistent Patterns of Conflict may be unique to a given relationship or they may be ones that arise in multiple relationships. If we choose to work on one that arises in multiple relationships we may be able to use what we learn in one to address the others, but we will only address one at a time.
Some people find it very difficult to select a conflict to work on. It may be hard to separate them out. It may be that we fear we are choosing the wrong one. It may be that we are afraid of what we will discover if we really work on this issue. We may be afraid of what we will be led to do if we see clearly what is happening to us. We have many reasons to not choose. But nothing will change for us until we change ourselves.
Connecting to the real
Having chosen a Persistent Pattern of Conflict in a Most Significant Relationship we are ready to get to work. The first step is to do deep research into what is actually going on. As we try to discern what is real we find that we cannot fully pin it down. The best we can do is to approach what is true.
We will never fully be able to grasp the whole objective truth but we can at least find our part of it. And we will find that a part of what is objectively true is that the truth that the other sees is not the same as what we see. If we were seeing the same thing from the same perspective we wouldn’t be in conflict.
If we are to make this process work we have to at least come to an understanding of what we both agree is true. This shared or consensual reality becomes our starting point. From the perspective of the Law of Three this is the affirming. For our purposes we will call it “the arising.”
As we become more and more clear about the aspect of the issue we can both agree is true, we naturally come to see how we are constructing meaning in a different way than they are. We tend not to see this as a choice. We tend to think that what something means is just what it means. But as we explore it we discover that there are reasons…good reasons why we make the meaning we do. It is just that the other doesn’t hold the same reasons that we do and is making different meaning.
As a result we are choosing actions which oppose the meaning they are making or implying. We are reacting to what is arising because of the meaning we make. From the perspective of the Law of Three, this is the denying. For our purposes we will call it “the arousing.”
We already know that what we are doing isn’t working. It isn’t creating what we need. If it were we wouldn’t perceive this as a conflict. So to create what we need, at the very least, we are going to have to stop what we are doing and replace it with something that really will work. We are faced with a choice as to whether we want things to change so much that we are willing to change ourselves in order to create it.
We may well be reluctant to stop what we are already doing until we have something better to replace it with. It may well be that doing nothing is just not an option. But we want the new strategy to be something that will actually work better…to be something that genuinely creates what we need.
In order to do this we have to actually know what we need. This proves to be more difficult than it at first seems. There are two reasons for the difficulty. The first is that we mean three different things by the word “need” and only one of them is helpful.
At times we use the word to mean a strategy, as in “I just need to tell the other how I feel.” While this might be an appropriate thing to do, it may also be something that feels to the other as though we are trying to control their choices or to make them lose. To the extent that this is true, it is the problem, not the solution.
At times we use the word to mean an outcome, as in “I just need others to behave the way I want them to.” Again, it may be true that this is what I want, but as I can’t actually control them and as my efforts to do so will only engender resistance, this is not a helpful way to formulate what I need.
Instead we use the word to mean a quality in the relationship that is missing when this PPC arises. It is the absence of this quality that hurts me and evokes my default response. It is the source of that which is aroused in me. This is what I long for.
The hardest part here is that I will not be able to discover what I long for if I am not willing and able to listen to my innermost self. If I am stuck in the way I want others to see me and can’t get to who I deeply know myself to be then I won’t be able to know what I need and to find something I can do to move toward it.
Toward a New Way of Being
When we can be very clear about what is actually arising and see that what it arouses in us is a choice with regard to the meaning we make and in the behavior we manifest, when we can observe that the choices we are making are not constructing what we are longing for, when we are able to soften our grip on who we have been; we may then be able to enter into a new way of being that is more creative of what we need.
This New Way of Being is necessarily something that we haven’t even thought of before. This is nearly always something that is outside our radar. It is not that we can’t imagine it, but that we wouldn’t have imagined that it would feel like a good or helpful thing for us to do. While the New Way of Being is different in every Persistent Pattern of Conflict there are certain aspects that are universal. It is something that we can actually do that
- will move us toward what we need,
- without expecting or depending on the other to change, and
- will in fact not only create what we need but will also create what the other needs.
Acting from the New Way of Being
Because this New Way of Being is surprising to us we will have to give it a lot of attention and rehearse it in our imagination before we will be able to act upon it consistently. For this reason there are three sets of considerations we want to try on.
- What would it have been like if I had come from this new way of being the last time the persistent pattern of conflict arose?
- How will I know when to come from this new way of being in the future?
- What do I need to be doing now to be ready to step into this new way of being?
In order to clarify and solidify the New Way of Being we want to return in our memory to a recent time when this Persistent Pattern of Conflict arose. Bring the event to mind and then imagine what you might have done that would be an expression of this New Way of Being. Again every persistent pattern of conflict will evoke a different expression but there are certain aspects that will always be true. The first is that there is no action that is helpful that is not true…that does not arise from what is real. So begin with imagining what you might have said that was true.
While there is nothing helpful which is not true, there are also some things which may be true which are not helpful. So we imagine speaking the truth and seeing how it feels to say that truth. It is intrinsically pleasing to speak the truth but there also may be a part of us that is uncomfortable. Find that part. What is its truth? How would it feel to speak that truth?
Once you have found a truth that all of you is comfortable speaking, then consider what you anticipate the response of the other to be. You will not know for sure. They will do whatever they choose. But you have a pretty good idea of what the options are. How will those be for you? The issue here is not whether they will be comfortable with your truth but whether you will be comfortable with their reaction to your truth.
Having worked through this imagined scenario for what last time might have been like; we want to anticipate next time. We can’t go back in time, but because this is a persistent pattern of conflict we can be assured that it will arise again. How will you know next time when it happens? What sensations arise for you, what time of day is it, and so on?
And finally, what do you need to be doing now to be ready for next time? What can you anticipate will be in the way of you showing up the way you intend? In order to be as prepared as possible it helps to anticipate what is likely to be in the way.
The deeper we go into the method the harder it becomes to conceptualize it outside of an actual example. The links to blog posts and other articles will help clarify this. You may want to attend one of the classes on JustConflict. But here are some common issues we may discover.
Forgetting to act: We may find that the Persistent Pattern of Conflict arises and we do what we have always done and then a couple of weeks later we awaken to ourselves and are disappointed and even disgusted with ourselves that we didn’t act from the New Way of Being. Cut yourself some slack. This is really hard. But as soon as you realize that you didn’t act, return to the relationship and say, “Remember that thing that happened two weeks ago. Well I would like to talk about it.” Don’t put off acting in your own behalf. You are not only shortchanging yourself, you are also shortchanging the other.
Finding a part of you that opposes the New Way of Being: We may have thought this was a way of being that worked for all of the aspects of who we are, but we discover that there are parts of us that are not on board. Fine. This is actually a really great way to find deep and often unconscious aspects of ourselves that are really hard to discover through other means. This is often spoken of as shadow work as it involves parts of ourselves that “live in the shadows.”
Getting confused about what is going on: We find that we thought we saw very clearly what it was that was going on but once we start to address it, everything gets fuzzy. No problem. You are just working through the layers of the issue and discovering there is some deeper aspect of it than you first realized. Go back to the arising, the arousing, and the longing and see what else you can discover. There is always more.
And finally remember that this is really hard work. It is the hardest work we ever do. It is the work of coming into harmony with our truest selves. And it is the most satisfying work because it promises to improve all of the relationships we ever form for the rest of our lives.