Once we’ve sorted out our differences, is the conflict over? Or does it leave a residual experience that can drag us down again?
An elderly monk visited the Dalai Lama and asked about doing some yogic exercises that he found very difficult to do at his advanced age. The Dalai Lama advised him against doing them, telling the monk he thought he was too old for those exercises. The monk seemed to take it well and left.
Then the Dalai Lama heard the monk had committed suicide. The monk believed he’d be reborn in a younger body and be able to do the essential yogic exercises.
Years later, when an interviewer asked the Dalai Lama if he felt bad about anything he’d done in his life, the Dalai Lama talked about the elderly monk. American Buddhist nun and bestselling author Pema Chödrön relays the exchange between the interviewer and the Dalai Lama:
So the Dalai Lama was left with regret that he had unintentionally nevertheless been responsible for this man’s death, this man’s suicide. The interviewer was stopped in his tracks and he said, “Oh my goodness, how did you ever get rid of that feeling?”
The Dalai Lama paused for quite a long time and he thought about that and then he said, “I didn’t. It’s still there. I just don’t allow it to drag me down and pull me back. I realized that being dragged down or held back by it would be to no one’s benefit…not mine or anybody else’s so I go forward and do the best I can.”
We have this idea that we either have it or we get rid of it and the question came from that point of view…But there’s an ability to be pierced to the heart by the sorrow of the world and your own regrets without it dragging you down.PEMA CHÖDRÖN, GETTING UNSTUCK
Once we’ve talked through the tension, sorted out the argument, or signed an agreement…is the conflict “done”?
Well, no. It leaves a shadow. We have residual memories of the experience. We have residual emotions from what happened.
What do we do with that residual experience? How do we live with it — without it dragging us or the relationship down again? And if we’re the mediator, how do we help our clients anticipate tomorrow and beyond?
I don’t have tidy answers. I value the questions nevertheless. They come up in my work; people want to know: What now? Should we worry about the lingering tension?
I have some ideas and directions to pursue in addressing these questions. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you.
Conflict can be understood as a state in which we focus on their flaws, their wrongness, their problem. We stop seeing them whole. This way of thinking about someone can become a habit, hard to break even when we want to. We need to replace the practice with something else to create a new pattern. This takes both conscious effort and time.
A very good replacement for the old habit is a conscious refocusing on “perceived understanding.” Research has demonstrated the power of perceived understanding for buffering relationships from the negative aspects of conflict.
Perceived understanding is the feeling that a partner is able to take your perspective and “get” your thoughts, feelings, and point of view, even if they don’t agree with you. It’s this perceived understanding that is key to buffering a relationship against the downside of conflict.Can this key ingredient protect your relationship?
More valuable than new
One way to deal with that shadow is to reframe the condition of the relationship mentally. It is no longer “good as new,” but perhaps it is “more valuable than new,” as I described years ago, comparing post-conflict relationship repair to the Japanese art of kintsugi. Kintsugi, which means “to patch with gold,” is the art of mending broken pottery not by treating the break as something to hide but as something to revere as part of the object’s history.
Conflict in personal, professional, and business relationships leaves cracks and breaks. What if, instead of trying to ignore or hide the damage, we revered it, understanding that “better than new” is more valuable than “good as new”?Kintsugi and the art of mending relationship conflict
Real but not true
Another way to deal with the shadow is to reframe the emotion we carry (regret? grief? resentment? shame? insecurity?) not as something we have to get rid of or allow to drag us down, but as something that is. This was the Dalai Lama’s approach.
We decide it’s not to the relationship’s benefit, nor to ours, to be held back by it, so we go forward and do the best we can. We decide that the emotion is real but not true — it is a real emotion we feel but isn’t grounded in the present (true) circumstances.
Do we respond…based on our residual memories of what happened? Or do we allow the possibility that the present circumstances — our interaction with them right here, right now — may be perfectly fine if we allow it to be?When conflict is real but not true
Neither the kintsugi nor the “real but true” approach is fully satisfying if we seek tidiness. Both approaches require us to do the inner work of conflict resolution that must always accompany the outer work of conflict resolution if we are to free ourselves from a conflict’s clutches. The conflict is as over and done as it can ever be only when we do both sets of work. If others involved aren’t interested in doing that work, all is not lost. We have great power to move forward — and preserve the relationship — by the choices we make for ourselves.
What answers have you found to the question, how do we live with the residual experience without it dragging us (or the relationship) down? Maybe you come at this from conflict in your own life or work, or maybe you come at this as a mediator or coach. Hit me up on twitter with your ideas or your own experience.