“I will do everything in my power to resolve every conflict, however small.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
I think I am not alone in nursing the fantasy that if I only got the “right” people in some “right” configuration, we would essentially have no significant conflict. Of course I know better. From personal relationships to organizations, conflict is an integral part of life. Still, when conflict arises, especially for the first time in any particular grouping, I recognize in myself and know in others a kind of disappointment, a loss of some hope that maybe this time we can have it be different, perfect.
I think about these things a lot. I am blessed to have some very few relationships which are, essentially, conflict-free. What makes it possible, I keep wondering, and why is it not replicable in other instances? Is there something present in these relationships that’s missing in other places? So far, I’ve identified two main ingredients for this magic. One I call the assumption of innocence, which is about a fundamental, implicit trust of each other. In these unique relationships, when one of us does something the other doesn’t like, we nonetheless trust each other’s basic care; we assume the best about each other’s intentions. The second ingredient is that when conflicts do arise, we attend to them. The two aspects reinforce each other. As we get to understand fully what the situation meant to each of us, we get to know ourselves and each other better, and the level of trust between us increases. At the same time, the assumption of innocence makes it easier to engage with each other when in conflict.
Why would this be the exception? What is it that makes it so easy for people to jump to conclusions about each other while at the same time keeping them from approaching a friend, colleague, or family member when their actions are not to their liking?
Many people view conflicts as fundamentally unsafe, and it’s the main reason they cite for why they don’t speak up, address conflict, or tell each other what’s really going on. Because I see withholding truth in this way as diminishing the quality of personal relationships and potentially destructive in communities and organizations, one of the key practices I want to bring to people and to the world is the choice to tell the truth even when painful, even when we are scared about consequences, and even when we are not sure how to do it.
By habit, we respond to fear by contracting and withdrawing, sometimes by lashing out against others, all in the name of creating safety. Protection of self is the only avenue many of us know for maintaining a sense of safety. For myself, after years of being on the path of vulnerability, I have learned a different kind of safety that comes from knowing I can survive that of which I am afraid. I have learned that opening up to whatever comes my way increases my strength and allows me to recognize that I am not in any real danger. The next time becomes easier, and over the years speaking truth and engaging in conflict have become commonplace for me. Often just naming the fear tends to open up the possibility of dialog. Verbalizing the vulnerability or shame that live in us takes away some of their power to hold us back. At least it transcends the paralysis that comes when we hold the pain inside and call upon safety.
What I am longing for, always, in creating community, is to be joined in the awareness that safety is ultimately an illusion, and that our preoccupation with it limits our freedom and our ability to grow, to learn, to transform ourselves, and to be able to collaborate deeply with others in pursuit of a livable future. More than this, I am aching to have the company of others who are willing to experience the fear and walk forward anyway; to experience pain and loss and speak of it in order to restore the sense of togetherness; to open up to the unknown recognizing that we cannot control what will happen once we speak; and to choose to speak nonetheless. I want a community of people who won’t let the illusion of safety stop them.
What can we do to support ourselves and others in taking the steps forward in those moments of acute pain that feels impossible to handle? How can we maintain the longing for openness and truth alongside the commitment to attend to everyone’s needs, including the person who feels afraid? This is no simple task. In the context of a group, the expression of lack of safety has an effect on others, too. As a facilitator in those challenging moments, I know that my response also has an effect on everyone. I have learned, in my years of facilitating groups, that if someone says they are not safe, trying to get them to continue, no matter how much empathy I use, does not communicate care. I also know that backing off leaves a hole of unease within the group. What I am learning to communicate in those moments, whether in words or simply in my presence, is that I am committed to having love and tenderness toward the person who is unwilling to speak as well as toward everyone else. As much as I want to be joined on the path of courage and vulnerability, I also want to release any residual attachment to this desire. I know that the fear people speak of is completely real and often feels like a threat to their survival. I want to ensure that no one says anything out of a sense of pressure. Togetherness, in those moments, arises from the capacity of the group as a whole to hold the moment, ourselves, and the person who is struggling with love. I hold some hope that as we learn to do this, we can gradually increase everyone’s capacity to walk those moments with grace and to recover the capacity to engage in conflict. Perhaps then we can come to accept conflict as an integral part of life and welcome it as an opportunity to get to a deeper level of knowing how to make things work for everyone.