A mother’s wisdom is seldom appreciated when we’re children. It’s only after we get to be as OLLLLD as mom was that we begin to be as wise as she was. Growing up with three sisters (two older, one younger) gave me plenty of opportunity to be in the midst of conflict.
I know I started my fair share of these conflicts, although I’ll never admit that to my sisters! My mother, the peacemaker, always made sure that some timeless principle accompanied her immediate discipline. Because of her faith, those principles were often in the form of quotations from the Bible — although I think Mark Twain was in there a couple of times.
In an age where hyper-contentious conversation seems to be the preferred way of communicating (via social media and even in person), Mom’s wisdom is more cogent, more relevant, and more needed than ever.
My mother’s approach to transforming conflict was rooted in a firm belief that everyone (sisters included!) has inherent value, and a conviction that empathy, intelligence, and persistence are better resources for dealing with conflict than ego, strategic acumen, or deadly weapons. These four foundational principles have value not only in resolving conflict, but also in creating a lifestyle that redeems conflict and brings transformation.
Our language is holographic, and yet we often use it and hear it as though it is one-dimensional. we ignore or fail to perceive all that is meant by what we and others say. Listening must be an attempt to go beyond one dimensional processing of sounds, to a multidimensional exploration of the breadth and depth of context, emotion and thought that precedes each word, each sentence and each paragraph. To do that, we have to take ourselves out of the center of the universe, and give consideration to the totality of what others are saying, feeling and experiencing.
“Put yourself in her shoes” was one of my mother’s instructions. At the time, I usually thought (but never dared say) “they won’t fit!” Holistic listening is first of all empathetic.
And this is exactly where our public and private discourse fails so epically. Empathy is the antithesis of the kind of “I-win = you-lose” competition that is encouraged. Rather than recognize how others are similar to us, our dualistic nature focuses on differences, distinctions and contrasts.
I didn’t fully recognize my own connectedness with others until I regularly encountered people whose life situations were vastly different than mine. They were addicted, messed up, seemingly unsuccessful – and yet they weren’t really any different than me. Their choices had created their circumstances.
As I listened to them, I realized that I too was capable of those decisions, and therefore capable of creating the same results. Unless we deeply acknowledge that we “all bleed red,” we’ll separate ourselves from others with comparisons — and comparisons almost always put me in the category of “better” than the other guy.
U.S. Army Psychiatrist Captain Gustav Gilbert, at the Nuremburg trial of Nazi leaders, made this observation: “Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
Let empathy be the beginning and end of listening.
Empathy should naturally flow into respect, which William Isaacs defined as looking “for the springs that feed the pool of their experiences.” My mother believed that when we acknowledged that others are what she called “significant,” then we will recognize their needs. By honoring the boundaries others set, by making ourselves available to them, and willing to be taught by them, we acknowledge their legitimacy. We grant them significance.
Respect not only gives legitimacy to the person, but also acknowledges their values. The fastest way to alienate anyone is to not acknowledge their values, ideas and boundaries.
This was perhaps my mothers most often cited verse: “Respect what is right in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.” She usually added “and ‘all people’ includes your sisters!”
Hold Your Position — Loosely
We’re often expected to watch movies with a “willing suspension of disbelief,” in which we voluntarily set aside truths, assumptions and expectations, and believe whatever premises the movie puts forth. It’s the only way we can thoroughly enjoy the movie.
In conflict, a “willing suspension of belief” means dangling our opinions openly in a way that lets both us and others examine them. We mindfully acknowledge and observe our own thoughts and feelings as they arise without being compelled to act on them — or to convince others to adopt them. It’s not a matter of NOT having an opinion, and it’s not about devaluing your own opinion. Rather, simply examine your opinion without the normal cheerleading and superiority.
Be Honest…In Love
Listening is important, but it’s equally important to give voice to what is true for you. As Isaacs describes it, it “encourages us to learn to tell the truth about our own and other’s inconsistencies in a way that begins to enable us to transform them. It encourages us to reflect on our own responsibility and to build a culture where this is seen as a strength rather than as a weakness.” If we are speaking to ourselves in honesty, we gain influence even before others listen to us.
My mother put it this way: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects.” My mother emphasized to us often that unless the truth was spoken in love, and unless we first spoke it to ourselves, we could not hope to uncover the weaknesses, deception and injustice around us. To speak the truth without the balance of love, she said, would only cause greater injustices.
But what can motivate us enough to enable us to pursue this when the going gets tough? My mother believed that transformation sprang from a realization that Someone Else had listened to our inner cries, respected our humanity, suspended judgment, and then spoke truth to us with unwavering love. Once this transformation takes place, we can turn toward others in a similar way. We can love, because we were first loved.
Conflict seems to stem from the notion that there is not enough (of anything) for both “them” and “us”, and because of our ultimate self-interest, we will go to any measure to ensure that we have captured enough for ourselves. The fundamental paradigm shift required to transform conflicts is more than simply finding shared values: it is finding a purpose for sharing. The purpose for sharing seemingly limited resources can only come from a spirituality that sees life as bigger than resources, others as more than competitors, and ourselves as less than infallibly right.
It can only come from the redemptive transformation of sacrificial love. It is then that we can follow Mom’s admonition to “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” (Romans 14.19 NASB)