(Whether or Not They Come Along)
by Tree Bressen
As an avowed process junkie, it’s easy to have a belief that everyone should work out conflicts. And from there it’s easy to fall into thinking that everyone should be willing to work out conflicts in my preferred mode: direct, verbal discussion—what people in alternative culture often refer to as “processing.”
However, it seems like every group has members who characteristically dread processing and strenuously resist engaging in it, regardless of explicit agreements to the contrary. And even those of us who are willing to process in that mode still want control over when, where, how long, and in what style we engage. Realistically we aren’t always going to be in sync with others around these desires. So if you want to talk and someone else isn’t willing yet and may never be, or you don’t want to talk but you’re still tired of feeling crappy about your issues with someone, what are your options?
I don’t think there are any one-size-fits-all solutions, but here are some exercises you can try for working on a conflict yourself, regardless of the other person’s participation. Some of these suggestions draw on the methods of process-oriented psychology (also known as process work), as pioneered by Arnold Mindell. His books Deep Democracy of Open Forums (see pp. 71-73 on “innerwork on stalemated conflict”) and Working on Yourself Alone (chapter 9 on “relationship work”) are useful sources for this approach.
Feel free to contact me with feedback or success stories, and if you have other ideas for exercises please send those in as well (see email at end of article). And keep in mind that the most important starting place for any of these exercises is to be compassionate with yourself in your time of struggle.
1. Get yourself settled in a quiet space. Breathe & center for a few minutes.
2. Think of someone you feel in conflict with. Picture them in your mind. See their ways of moving and speaking, their way of being in the world.
3. Now let yourself become that person for a little while. What are they like, how do they move?
4. What is it about them that bothers you? Can you express that sense in a movement? What would it look like? Can you distill that movement down to its essence?
5. Now ask yourself what essential quality that movement expresses. Is there something about that essence that you are needing more of in your life? Let yourself meditate on this for a little while.
6. Come back into your regular reality and reflect on what you experienced. Did you learn anything?
Follow initial directions as in Exercise #1, substituting the following at steps 4-5: What about this person is similar to you? How do they remind you of yourself? Do you shun it in the other person because seeing yourself reflected in that way makes you uncomfortable? Is there a way in which you are needing more of that quality in your life?
Again, follow directions in Exercise #1 above, and this time at steps 4-5 ask yourself: How am I unfree? What keeps me from following my instincts and impulses with this person?
This exercise relies on the theory that if we have an experience we are stuck about, we can create shift by choosing to route our experience into a new “channel.” Channels are ways of taking in and processing information. For example, most Americans rely primarily on the visual channel. Other channels include sound, movement, proprioception (your inner felt sense of your body), and relationships.
Think of a time someone made you angry. Stop and feel what is happening in your body as you sit with this. Is your heart beating fast? Are you having hot flashes on the back of your neck? Do you feel like running away, like strangling someone, like what? Now switch to a different “channel” while conserving the process. For example, make a picture of your feelings, or express them in noise, or act them out in movement. Then sit and reflect on what you noticed.
1. Imagine a confrontation between yourself and your opponent.
2. What is the main thing you are trying to convey in this situation?
3. Why is that important to you? Dig underneath a little. What is the essence of your message?
4. Now ask yourself, what is the main thing your opponent is trying to convey? What is the essence of their message, and why is it important to them?
5. Ask yourself, Is there some little bit of truth in what your opponent wants to convey?
6. Also ask yourself, if our last confrontation became highly charged and dramatic, is there a reason it became so? Answer the question, “We got dramatic because . . . ” (for example, “she got dramatic because she felt ignored,” or “I got dramatic because I was afraid the co-op would fail”).
7. Reflect on this.
If you are feeling fearful of encountering someone at a meeting or occasion, it may help to ask yourself what is the worst that can possibly happen. For example, perhaps the worst thing is that you blow up at her, or maybe it’s that she blows up at you, or maybe it’s that you embarrass yourself in front of the group. Sometimes sitting and imagining how that would really be and what would happen next can be helpful, because often even if our worst fears did come to pass, we would survive, and maybe even something good would come of it (for example, if others witness your dynamic they might have insights or support to offer afterward).
Taking this further, you could enroll a friend to play the part of the person you are in conflict with, giving them enough information so that they can play the role effectively (if all of you are part of the same group your friend will probably be able to do this quite well). Then practice different scenarios, so you can try out different responses in a safe setting and build up your confidence.
If you are having trouble letting go of upset with another person, there is probably a reason, perhaps something else you can learn from the situation. Try to be open to that message. If you sit and meditate on it and it’s not coming to you, maybe you feel blocked or numb, then consider getting some help by consulting tarot, I Ching, runes or a similar tool to help your unconscious self communicate with your conscious mind, or help your soul communicate with the universe. Ask an open-ended question such as, “What do I need to learn from this situation?” or “What is my next step here?”
Consider doing a ritual to help you let go. Personal rituals are as varied as the people who design them. The common thread is connecting with something larger than yourself.