Saturday, June 23, 2007

Being Present with Feelings

What makes conflict so difficult? Its the feelings, stupid. Every conflict produces feelings, usually strong, and they are not happy ones. Anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, and unhappiness are most common. These feelings are too powerful to remain bottled up and will be heard one way or another. If not handled correctly, they will make healthy conversations difficult.
Many people are unaware of their feelings moment to moment. They have feelings, but really do not pay much attention to them except to experience and react to them. In conflict, this can be a liability because the reaction can be explosive. Furthermore, in an unaware state, we tend to project or blame our feelings on someone else. "You did that to me!" and now I am angry at you. Feelings very easily masquerade themselves as judgments, accusations, and attributions.
We work with feelings as peacemakers in two ways. The first way is to engage ourselves in a two or three part analysis of what we are feeling in the moment.
The two part way has us acknowledge our feeling and the unmet hope that goes with it. For example, "I am feeling sad and hoping that we can be friends again." This little trick requires us to label what we are feeling and to identify the hope that if fulfilled would make the feeling go away.
The second way slightly different. We acknowledge our feeling, then state the need that is not being met, and then make a request of the other person. For example, "I am feeling sad right now because my need for respect from you is not being met. Would you be willing to listen to me without interrupting me all the time?" Again, we acknowledge what we are feeling and put a lable on it. We identify the need that is not being met that seems to be generating the feeling. Finally, we ask for a specific action that will help meet the need. Of course, there is no guarantee that the other person will agree to our request. The fact that we have identified our feeling and need, however, goes a long ways towards honest and open communication in conflictual situations.
The great underlying secret to all of this is sincerity and authenticity. The moment you speak your "feelings" from a smarmy, insincere stance, you are doomed. If you cannot be vulnerable and honest about how you feel, the conflict will persist and probably escalate. Being vulnerable by opening up your feelings, hopes and needs, if done authentically, however, is an extremely powerful tool of de-escalation. You will also find that being vulnerable in this open, honest way gives you great power in the conflict. Try it and let me know what happens.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Presence and Peacemaking

As Eckhardt Tolle tells us, presence is the ability to be conscious of the moment and be in that moment all the time. In conflict, presence is a very hard state to find. I have been wondering about this difficulty and had an insight during today's meditation.
Our brains are designed to pay attention to what is going on around us. At a primal level, we are interested in finding sex, food and water, and shelter. We are also interested in detecting and avoiding threats. We have inherited this neurobiology from our ancient predecessors, and I suspect that our ability to focus on our environment was a strong evolutionary adaptation.
The sacrifice we make for this outward focus is a natural and easy ability to focus inward and be aware of our emotional states as they shift moment to moment. I think that the lack of inward focus may be a substantial cause of conflict.
In conflict, I am focused on what the other person has done and its effect on me. If I am aware of my emotional state, my awareness is from a state of reactivity. I am not present with my emotions, but am intent on what the other person is doing and thinking. I may be anxious, angry, hurt, or frustrated. I will experience those feelings without much thought and they will drive me to behaviors that will likely escalate the conflict.
The reason I am not able to be present with my feelings is probably because of limited cognitive resources. The brain's ability to think, analyze, and interpret information takes up a lot resources. Consequently, splitting awareness between the external conflict situation while monitoring and being present with my internal state is almost overwhelming.
I say almost, because I think that we can train ourselves to focus on the outside while remaining present on the inside. This strikes me as an essential skill for anyone wanting to be a peacemaker and may be a skill that can be taught to those in conflict. If people were present with their feelings rather than being reactive to their feelings, they may be able to make better choices about responding to the dispute. I intend to try this out myself in the next few weeks and see what happens. Perhaps I will have another tool for my peacemaker's toolbox.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Faith, Spirituality and Peacemaking

I received a really interesing email question from the Reverend Sam Propsom of Alberta Canada. His inquiry and my answer follow.

Good afternoon Mr. Noll.

I hesitate to write, as I am sure you have a much better use of your time than to answer my questions, but as Jesus said, "You have not because you ask not." So here goes!

I am writing a short review of chapter seventeen of your wonderful book, Peacemaking.... for a Doctor of Ministry course on conflict management.

In my paper I have done an evaluation, but am now stuck a bit, because in the next section I am supposed to "comment on your chapters' compatibility with a biblical worldview."

While reading the chapter I found numerous biblical parallels, yet you don't explicitly refer to any spirituality influencing your thinking. I've researched your life on the internet and there is a reference to having done BSF [Bible Study Fellowship] and being married in a Lutheran Church, but other than that your faith-life is held kind of closely. (By the way, I appreciate people who simply live their faith).

It seems to me that you are writing as a peacemaker, who happens to be a Christian and whose thinking is greatly formed by biblical categories, but are not writing a treatise on Christian mediation.

Would this be a fair assessment?

Thanks in advance for reading this. I know we all need to be careful about answering emails, so if you can't answer this, I understand.

If you do have the time and the inclination to answer this briefly, I would appreciate it.

Rev. Sam Propsom

My answer:

Dear Sam,

Because the book is utilized around the world in many different cultures and faith traditions, it is intentionally ecumenical. You will find the philosophical principles of peacemaking that I write about in every faith tradition. In fact, you will find me quoting variations on the Golden Rule from 8 major traditions on pages 230-231.

My own spirituality is defined in several ways. I call myself a follower of Jesus. If you were to peg me in a Christian theology, I might be most comfortable with the Gnostics or with the mysticism of St. Frances of Assisi. The Gnostics, of course, were eventually declared heretical by the mainstream Church because they believed in direct experience with God rather than through the intercession of a priest. Nothing like challenging the power structure to get yourself burned at the stake. Assisi was also feared by the Church, but his life was an example of profound Oneness with God. These ideas and others like them have more personal meaning for me than biblical teaching.

Obviously, my practice is deeply informed by my spirituality. One cannot see the transformations I witness on a daily basis and have the hubris to believe that they are solely caused by the presence of the peacemaker. There is clearly a higher presence and power at work in my peacemaking.

Finally, as a professional peacemaker, I am a little wary of peacemakers that label themselves by their faith. Sometimes, I have seen people use the scriptures of their faith traditions to justify and rationalize unhealthy behaviors or to exhort behavioral change in ignorance of the underlying conflict dynamics. I am also careful in considering scriptures in their entirety as texts of peace. For example, the Old Testament is full of war, rape, death, slavery, disempowerment, and destruction, sometimes instigated by an wrathful, retributive God. Not exactly the stuff of peace. On the other hand, the essential teachings of Jesus are fundamental across faith traditions. So I tread cautiously, and I am quietly guided by my own Inner Light and spirituality.

Anyways, I hope this gives you some idea of where I am coming from. My spirituality grows, deepens, and therefore changes as I do this work so you can view this small essay as a snapshot of where I am today. I think your question is so good that I am going to post it and this response on my blog site unless you have an objection.

Thank you so much for your email.

Blessings and peace,


{Note to readers: The book is called Peacemaking: Practicing at the Intersection of Law and Human Conflict. It is a textbook I wrote and was published in 2003 by Cascadia Publishing House.}

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

It's Not About "Show Me the Money!"

So many disputes and conflicts, especially in the business world, seem to be about money. If a debt is owed, then it probably is about the money. In just about every other dispute, money may be important, but it is not driving the conflict.

Last week, I mediated a case that demonstrated this in a classic way. John (not his real name) claimed he was owed $48,000 on a contract. Bill (not his real name either), said , "No way!" They had a written contract with an attorney's fee clause. In California, that means that if you win, you have the right to ask a judge to award you your attorney's fees. By the time the case came to me for mediation, John had spent $38,000 in attorney's fees and Bill had spent $55,000 in attorney's fees. The combined fees nearly doubled the amount they were fighting over!

John demanded his full contract amount plus his attorney's fees. He was not going to "rollover" for Bill. He was owed the money fair and square, and by God, he was going to fight for every last dime. Bill, of course, believed that he didn't owe John anything and had many technical defenses to John's lawsuit. Bill wanted to be paid his attorney's fees to settle the case.

This one didn't settle. Both men were more interested in protecting their own sense of self-esteem than about the money. On a cognitive rational level, they each knew they would spend far more money with their lawyers than they would ever recover. On an emotional level, however, conceding to the other guy's demand would be an unacceptable blow to ego. Since emotions are far more powerful than cognitive rational processing, the fight was not about the money. It was about the need to be right and prove the other guy wrong.

This is a classic conflict pattern found in family disputes as well as in international conflicts. The need to protect face and boost self-esteem is fundamental in all of us. I have observed that people with a strong sense of identity and self-esteem tend not to be enmeshed in conflicts as much as others. On the other hand, those with a lesser sense of identity and lower self-esteem fight when they feel their identities are being threated.

What's really interesting is that giving someone respect costs nothing financially. Yet that can be the hardest thing to do when you feel like you are being disrespected.

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