Transforming Conflict

By Lyn Fine

Since 1985, I have been associated with the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program sponsored by Educators for Social Responsibility. In this context, I have enjoyed introducing teachers and students in New York City public schools to the practices of awareness of breathing, stopping and breathing while listening to the beautiful sound of the bell of mindfulness, and the Beginning Anew practices of flower-watering and speaking regrets. Sometimes we practice with the Peace Treaty, and set aside a peace comer or a meditation comer. Here are a few of the program's activities which may also benefit Sanghas and other groups. Deep listening is a key element in these activities, as it is in transforming conflict.

1) Web. On newsprint, the facilitator writes a key word, such as CONFLICT, PEACE, or ANGER and circles it. For two minutes, people in the group call out images, feelings, or associations with the key word, with no cross-talk. The facilitator draws lines out from the circle and records each phrase on one line. After two minutes, the group reflects together on the associations.

2) Deep Listening in Micro-Labs. Working in groups of three or four, each person speaks briefly in response to a question offered by the facilitator, with no interrupting or cross-talk. In the first go-round, each person responds to the question: What messages did you receive about conflict while you were growing up? In the second: How do you currently handle conflict? What is your conflict style? In the third: What would you like to change about the way you handle conflict? After the three go-rounds, each small group can talk together for a few minutes. Then, the whole group can reflect on new learnings. Specifics from smaller groups are kept confidential.

3) Listening in Order to Understand: Paraphrasing. One person is a speaker and one a listener. The speaker talks about a designated topic or perhaps, their life. The listener restates what she or he has understood. If the speaker does not feel accurately heard, she or he elaborates, and the listener again paraphrases. The process is repeated until the speaker feels accurately heard. Then, roles reverse.

4) Assertive Speaking. The usual formula for an assertive statement is: "I felt/feel when you ____ , because and I would like ____ Using this formula internally can help transform blaming or attacking mental formations by clearly identifying and naming the feelings. In role-plays, people can practice using this formula in pairs with case-study situations. As appropriate, a person can speak assertively and calmly, directly to a person with whom there is a conflict.

5) Taking a Stand. The facilitator makes a potentially controversial statement about social policy or ethical behavior. To signal agreement or disagreement, people go to different ends of the room or to some point in the middle. Within each group, people share why they chose to stand where they did. Then each group shares views with the others.

6) Peer Mediation. First, disputants agree to four guidelines: No interrupting, no put-downs, intend to resolve the conflict, and respect confidentiality. Then, the mediator asks one person, "What happened from your point of view?" After paraphrasing the response, the mediator asks, "How are you feeling right now?" She or he encourages the disputant to use "I-statements," which express the speaker's real feelings without blaming or attacking. The mediator then asks the other person the same questions. She listens deeply and paraphrases until both parties feel heard and understood.

In the second phase, the mediator asks each party in tum, "What do you think you could have done differently?" and "How are you feeling right now?" The mediator listens deeply and paraphrases the responses.

In the third phase, the mediator asks the reframing question: "How can we resolve this so both parties are satisfied and happy?" Possible resolutions are brainstormed. Other beneficial questions are: "How would you like your relationship to be in the future? What do you want the other party to agree to? What would you like to happen now?" The mediator again listens deeply to each response and paraphrases it. Sometimes, the disputants need to revisit the first and second phases before they can. brainstorm resolutions. When the disputants envision an agreement, they write it down, specifying a time period for experimenting with it, after which they will "check in" with each other and the mediator, and revise the agreement if necessary.

Ideally, mediation results in not only a resolution, but also transformation so that each party feels empowered and respected, and recognizes the "other" as not "other." Comparing mind, blaming, and guilt often trigger societal as well as interpersonal conflict. Unmet needs for respect and self-respect underlie the rigidity with which each party holds its position. Each is a "hungry ghost" yearning to be recognized, yearning for respect and love, and feeling unheard. If the common suffering can be clearly identified and named, a conflict can be not only resolved and managed, but transformed.

Thay has offered us the Buddha's teaching: "Whoever imagines 'I am equal, I am better, I am inferior' will be involved in disputes. The person who is unshakable never thinks she or he is equal, better, or worse." As individuals, we can develop our capacity to transform conflict into deeper understanding by learning to recognize and transform our comparing mind and to name our emotions of grief, anger, and fear. In families, Sanghas, and workplaces, we can practice open-ended questioning, deep listening and paraphrasing, assertive speaking, and mindful mediation. We can include in our regular Sangha practice Invoking the Bodhisattvas' Names, Beginning Anew, the Peace Treaty, and the Four Mantras. Let us also regularly inspire and encourage each other by sharing the fruits of our practice of the fourth mindfulness training "to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small."

As we continue to practice, may our wisdom and compassion, our insight into interbeing, impermanence and the non-reality of all concepts and ideas, be deep and solid enough so that we can offer our understanding, our smile, and our peace for the benefit of all that is.

Dharma Teacher Lyn Fine, True Goodness, practices with the Community of Mindfulness, New York Metro.

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