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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