"Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasurers." —Rainer Maria Rilke
(Click here for Lessons From The Green Line: Part One)
I walked the beach late into the night going over and over in my mind what had happened to ignite the conflict that almost overtook the meeting I was helping to facilitate on the protection of core human rights in the Middle East.
The openness that was demonstrated during the introductory assignment in the large group had been impressive. It appeared that the barriers to dialogue had fallen away in the face of personal narratives.
What was it, I wondered, that allowed such openness that morning? And what turned two friends into adversaries in the afternoon? There were the obvious answers: the need to win, the need to be in control, the need to protect turf, the need for justice. There was still a missing piece, though, something intangible that affected people's willingness and ability to connect with each other.
The water was warm as I walked through the surf; the sand was soft underfoot. I could see the Larnaca Fortress lit up in the distance. It had been built in the 1600's by the Turks to protect the harbor. Alone on the beach, I contemplated the irony of the island's history: such beauty, such conflict. Lazarus had lived here after his resurrection. He was buried, for the last time, under the Church that bears his name in the center of the town. I wondered how he felt about being summoned from his crypt by Jesus? Did he think it was a miracle or was he cranky when he woke up? I also wondered if the good will that had been present at the beginning of the dialogue could be, like Lazarus, resuscitated?
If the dialogue in the small group hadn't been difficult enough, I was further perplexed by what happened during an open forum at the end of the day for the full group. There was a succession of speakers, each emphatically advocating for an issue or cause, punctuating their remarks by punching the air. They spoke in Arabic. I asked staff member of the sponsoring NGO what they were talking about. Just the usual, was the response. They're denouncing the United States.
These were the very same people who had been engaged in open and friendly conversation at the start of the sessions!
Conflict occurs when fear or anger hijacks our emotions. It can arise over a difference of ideas, principles, perspectives or aspirations that when unresolved, lead to hostilities. That had certainly been part of the history of this island and of the region. It has also been a constant visitor throughout human history.
Conflict is a perennial truth of human dynamics. It is an announcement that flexibility and inclusivity has been lost to fixed perspectives and rigid positions. As stress and pressure mounts from creative tension, the atmosphere turns volatile. In such conditions, the propensity for violent response is elevated.
Conflict is a testing point for every individual and group. It reveals where we are rigid or flexible, clear or confused, generous or penurious. The destructive side of conflict is fueled by fear, pride, and personal ambition; but conflict can also lead to breakthrough solutions when creative tension is held successfully. Success can only be accomplished by modulating the temperature of the discussion, I thought. The dialogue I had witnessed that day was heated. Too much heat will produce an explosion. On the other hand, too little heat usually signals disinterest and lethargy.
When dialogue becomes overheated, advocacy takes over the process of conversation. As the talk speeds up, conversation turns into debate. Scoring points and winning becomes more important than understanding other viewpoints. This often results in people feeling that they are being dismissed or that their personal boundaries are being disrespected and transgressed. This is precisely what I had witnessed in the small group that I had facilitated earlier that day. The two friends were so intent on dominating though the force of their arguments that they were no longer willing or able to take responsibility for the impact they were having on each other or the rest of the group.
What was even more astounding to me was that both gentlemen were conflict resolution specialists!
The philosopher Ken Wilber wrote, "As an individual draws up the boundaries of his soul he establishes at the same time the battles of his soul." Surely, this was the corollary of Rilke's observation about dragons and treasures. I was now intensely aware of the boundaries between people at the conference, if not always certain where they resided. It struck me that those boundaries weren't just physical. The boundary lines of the Middle East conflict were geographical, spiritual, political, social and psychological. All of these divisions mattered. And, when borders are transgressed battles result. The ongoing dynamics between Israel and her neighbors seemed to bear this out. Lack of agreement about borders, territorial control, freedom of movement, ownership of land and resources, military action, and the plight of refugees were just some of the issues that had fed disagreement, anger and horrific violence over many, many years.
As I thought about my day in the hot, basement meeting room of the hotel, I began to realize that conflict was also physiological. It could actually produce organ failure! The ears, the eyes, the mind, and the heart fail in a dispute. It didn't seem to matter how smart, well educated or skilled you were: when you got mad or afraid, your ability to see and hear clearly shut down. Anger makes it extremely hard to think straight and the heart closes.
Fear or Creativity
That evening I spent walking the beach I came to a realization that there were two opposing forces of group work: fear and creativity. Where one was dominant, the other receded. When the small group that I was working with was generous and inclusive, the conversation was filled with creative possibilities. As soon as fear of loss, or some other fear entered the dialogue, it was like a rubber band snapped. Fear produced contraction and the cessation of creative thinking. Seth Godin wrote, "The enemy of creativity is fear...In the long run, the enemy of fear is creativity." I wondered as I walked back up the beach to my hotel what it might take for transition to be a creative dialogue and not fear-driven?
I went back into that hot basement meeting room, back into the small group process that had ended in conflict the previous day. I wasn't sure what to expect. My stomach was in knots. Our assignment was to advance human rights education as a cooperative effort across the region. Everyone agreed that it was a good goal.
Conflict had occurred when a suggestion was made to pursue a grant so that an inventory of existing resources and activities could be identified. The debate about who should and should not be allowed to use the grant money — money that had not even been secured yet — had derailed the first day.
Everyone arrived for the second session, including one important addition. A new gentleman had joined the group from one of the non-governmental agencies (NGO's). He appeared to be well known, and much respected, by the other participants.
We launched into the work for the day. After a brief update from each participant, we turned back to the content that had created such disharmony the previous afternoon. The two gentlemen who had disagreed about who should benefit from the funding appeared ready to re-launch their verbal missiles. Just before they could, the new participant asked to speak. His message was simple: He knew how to get the money for the inventory. It would require a letter. To get the money from the donor, all parties must sign the letter and promise to share the proceeds. Let's do a letter, he suggested.
Great idea, said the two battling friends. Covering all my bases, and under my breath, I said thank you to the deities of all the major religions for this deliverance. Divisiveness gave way to a brainstorming session on what should go into the letter and how much money should be requested. Now the group was working well together, and the two friends who had disagreed, were taking part in an animated and constructive conversation.
When we had completed our assignment and were on a break, I approached the gentleman who had saved the day. I thanked him for his creative solution. He considered the acknowledgement for a moment and then explained that the basic premise of his approach to working in conflicted situations was to search for win-win solutions. Even with the best intentions, people often defaulted to win-lose because that's the way they have been conditioned, he said. Until there is a way for everyone to win — a beneficial and mutual goal — real dialogue is impossible.
He admitted that he had been tipped off to the group's predicament the night before and was ready with a solution for today's meeting. Win-win required careful planning, he confided. Trust could be rebuilt, he concluded, when people had the experience that they're needs could be better met through reciprocity.
I was inspired by that experience of the day and by the words of this skilled mediator. He left an indelible impression on me and ignited my curiosity about trust. Trust, I concluded, is a firm belief in reliability. It is supported by saying what you mean and doing what you say you will do. These are the behaviors associated with integrity. When individuals and groups act from their values and principles, despite the circumstances, a solid foundation of trust is built. I was certain that on the solid ground of trust, solutions to difficult issues and problems, could be found. I had just experienced it.
I had been working with groups in change, conflict and teambuilding for some time. Consistently, the issues facing these groups were the same:
- mistrust of themselves;
- mistrust of others;
- mistrust of circumstances.
Most of the conflicts that I had been asked to mediate in the workplace featured one or all of these deficits of trust. Where trust was not present or had been violated, people were either operating from offensive strategies (win), or defensive strategies (don't lose). I could see how the presence of fear caused or accelerated these aggressive behaviours Yet, here was evidence that one person with integrity could overcome dysfunctional dynamics and restore cohesion and forward progress.