Monday, August 20, 2007

The Power of Listening

One of the reasons peace is so hard to find in our lives is because of our "trial lawyer" mentality towards conversation. We rarely listen to each other. Instead, we document, defend, and declare our positions and viewpoints. Our attitude towards others has devolved to a courtroom mentality. We seem to be more intent on "proving" our case than on transforming our conflicts. Even children learn that the goal in any argument is to win.
This "trial lawyer" behavior is sadly predictable. We are bombarded with television shows, books, and films about trials. Cross-examination is considered high drama so we should not be surprised that we emulate aggressive interrogation styles in everyday conversations. Yet cross-examination is not a normal conversational style. Furthermore, the courtroom rules limiting the conduct of cross-examination do not operate in our conversations.
We spend so much time preparing our arguments and rebuttals that we do not have time to listen to others. We are so focused on what we will say next that we cannot hear what is being said to us right now. When challenged, we defend by attacking. All of this makes it easier to let others know what we think than to listen to what others are saying.
Why might this be?
First, I don’t think we are listened to enough. Because we do not have the sense that others are paying attention to us, we struggle to assert ourselves in conversations. We force others to "hear" us. Our own need to be recognized causes us to impose ourselves on listeners, which leads to us not listening to others. Our failure to listen leads to others speaking out, which increases our need to be listened to, etc.
Being listened to is wonderful gift because it is an affirmation of our existence. The story is told of a young mother and her boy in a restaurant. The server approached to take orders.
The boy said, "I’ll have a hamburger."
Mother, ignoring the boy, said, "He’ll have a chicken sandwich."
The server looked at the boy and asked, "Will that be with fries?" The boy beamed with joy. That server had just "listened" the young boy into existence. How often do we act like the mother and how infrequently do we "listen" others into existence?
Second, we take on the trial lawyer mantle to protect our identities from attack. Assuming that the best defense is a strong offense, we are quick to justify, explain, and defend. We are very slow to listen, evaluate, and consider what others have to say. Vulnerability is not such a bad thing, however. In tai chi, for example, the softer one is, the stronger one is; the more vulnerable one is, the more power one controls. These paradoxes are difficult to grasp, but are basic truths applicable to relationships.
Finally, we document, defend, and declare to avoid the anxiety arising from life’s ambiguities and uncertainties. If we can "prove" our case, it must be true! Therefore, we eliminate the gray area, resting smugly on the idea that we are the sole custodians of the Truth. Since truth is relative and subjective, our arrogance can embarrass us or worse, lead us into conflict.
As a mediator, I concentrate very hard on remembering to listen. I am learning, but still have relapses into my old trial lawyer mode. Learning to listen, to pay attention, while not formulating what I will say next, is difficult work. The effort pays off, however. I was working with two business partners who could not talk to each other and whose acrimonious conflict threatened a 30 year old successful firm. I "listened" them both into existence. Almost miraculously, the hostility and rancor dissipated. They were able, with my guidance, to redefine their relationship in a profitable and satisfying way. Had I used the more traditional legal mediation tactics of focusing on risk, cost, and substantive rights, the outcome would have been much different.

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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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