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Tools for Conquering Conflict in Your Life


by Deidre Combs

Sports gurus from around the world know that it is the mental game that rules performance. As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “Half this game is ninety percent mental.”

So often we find ourselves in a rut when it comes to conflict patterns. We might say, “OK, this time I am going to stay engaged, not scream at my husband or run away. We are going to work together and find a solution.” Needless to say, often we don’t work together and find ourselves yelling instead.

Rupert Sheldrake describes nature as governed by habits. Clearly our constant patterns of behavior, from relating to others to making breakfast, are habits. He believes we will continue to repeat our habits until they no longer work. It may be an old habit to use intimidation when someone confronts you. This may have become a habit because it effectively got others to leave you alone. However, you may now realize that you have little intimacy or trust in relationships because of this habitual reaction.

To transform conflict it is critical not only to read about the conflict practices described within this book but also to turn them into new habits. For example, after reading, you may want to become skilled at appreciating your opponents or to pause before responding in a heated argument. The Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita reminds us that no one attains their goal without action. Change takes practice. However, if I consistently tell myself that I am terrible at conflict or have poor appreciation skills while I am trying to learn new skills, these internal battles will hinder progress. The following exercises will assist us in creating mental attitudes that support developing new habits.

Affirmations: The Mind Talks and the Body Walks
We can talk and visualize ourselves into new habits. Our internal conversations or “mind talk” are powerful determinants of our behavior. Olympic sports consultants now spend hours training the athlete’s brain as well as her body. Studies show that if athletes believe that they will win, they often do. In the 2000 Summer Olympic Games Marion Jones would not be dissuaded from her belief that she would win five gold medals. When she left with three gold and two bronze on her chest, I’d say that she was not far from the reality that she had visualized for herself.

The tenets of creative visualization are readily found within the spiritual traditions of daily interrogatory prayer and chanting. Christianity provides us with the wisdom that if we ask for something and have the faith of a mustard seed, we will receive it. Of course, we can tell ourselves that we want to be thin, rich, beautiful, and a Zen master of conflict until the cows come home, and still nothing seems to change. And we can pray for something that never comes true. Experts in creative visualization offer the following guidelines for turning your conflict dreams into reality:

To create a new reality, first begin by finding a quiet place and allow yourself at least thirty minutes to do the following exercise. This exercise focuses on developing a new way of approaching interpersonal conflict, but it can be modified to create affirmations in almost any situation.

Step one: see your goal: In their book Empowerment David Gershon and Gail Straub suggest that to create a new reality you begin by becoming quiet and walking in your mind into the situation as you wish it to be, without any constraints. In the best of all possible worlds, how would you like a situation, a relationship, or yourself to look?
Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and center yourself. Spend a few minutes clearing your mind of all thoughts, letting them pass through. Now imagine yourself walking into a garden. Color it with flowers and trees of your favorite variety. Create the perfect weather and comfort zone for yourself. When you are ready, invite a person with whom you are struggling (imagine him in his best possible state) into your garden. Allow him to sit down and talk with you in this place. Do not limit your vision by saying, “He would never do that” or, “He won’t listen to me.” Imagine the best possible situation just for a few moments.

Now visualize how your best conversation would go. What would you like to be able to say? How would you like to be acknowledged? What would you like to hear? How would you like to respond? After you have spoken, how would you like to leave that person and return home? Again, in this vision, there are no “shoulds,” “can’ts,” or “won’ts.”

When the conversation has ended, return home and spend a few moments recording the internal garden and your conversation in a journal. Include colors, sensations, emotions, and images since these can hold symbolic clues about what needs to be included in the resulting affirmation. Say I have just seen my brother enter the garden and we have spoken about how important our relationship is to each other. We have apologized for past wrongs and made a commitment to develop a deep and nurturing friendship. I would write down the details of our conversation, what my brother and I were wearing, my feeling of peace and gratitude, and how I could hear birds singing in the trees.

Step two: dig up the old belief system: Now we look at the limits that we might have wanted to place on our vision and that we have been placing on ourselves or on a relationship. Since we all create our own reality, we have a set of beliefs in place that supports it. Some are often obvious and others, like many of the assumptions we make, are subtler and hidden.

Write down all the reasons that your vision would never work: “My brother is inflexible,” “I always start crying when faced with conflict, I am too emotional,” “I am not good at conflict,” “I don’t know how to explain how I feel,” and so on. Eventually, we often land at “I am afraid I will be hurt,” or “People who are ______ are _____” (fill in the blanks).

For example, I was raised in Minnesota. Just as in any location, we Midwesterners share a set of collective beliefs, some of which can be quite limiting. For example, “emotional people are irrational or not to be trusted” might be one of them. So if I want to approach another person with a full and open heart, I first need to recognize and remove a belief or assumption that limits my ability to create what I want.

Everything is possible; we, and the person with whom we battle, are capable of every trait or action under the sun. Some things might appear to be impossible, for example, having a meaningful relationship with someone who has serious emotional issues. Your initial position of how this meaningful relationship might look might not come to pass, but if you are clear about your underlying hopes and wishes and let go of any stumbling blocks, a new solution can begin to take form. When creating a new vision, affirming what is found underneath our iceberg, or the essence of what will satisfy our longing, opens up all types of possible solutions instead of just one. The power of expectations and vision cannot be overrated.

Now take each belief or assumption that destroys your vision and turn it around. Both versions could be equally true. It is your choice. For example:

  • “My brother is inflexible” might change to “My brother and I are flexible as we create new, innovative solutions.”
  • “I am not good at conflict” might become “I have great abilities when working with conflict.”
  • “I am too emotional” could become “I express my emotions and wishes clearly and effectively.”
  • “I’m afraid I will be hurt” could be “When I speak with my brother, I am supported and safe.”

We will now combine our vision with these assumptions to develop a new way of being.

Step three: develop the perfect phrase: When I look at my hypothetical brother in the garden vision, I see that I want to have a nurturing, open, and supportive relationship with him. I have set up some limiting beliefs about our abilities and how I might be perceived if I present this hope.

Now I need to create a phrase that holds my new vision within it. To make the phrase most effective, Gershon and Straub offer the following tips:

  • 1. Use the present tense. “I will be healthy” puts this reality into the future. “I am healthy” or “I have a nurturing relationship with my brother” affirms that this is a present reality. As the philosophy goes, believe it, and it will be true.
  • 2. Choose positive words. We are more open and receptive to positive images and words. Instead of saying “I won’t hurt my brother,” try “I nurture and support my brother.”
  • 3. I can only control myself. Our declarations must be about our relationships and us. An affirmation that says, “My brother is a patient and doting friend” not only doesn’t work but it also isn’t very empowering. To say instead, “I have a strong and nurturing relationship with my brother” allows your sibling to be just who he is in his own surprising and unique way.

Step four: provide a picture to go with it: Since humans have a great affinity for symbol, add a picture to ground the phrase. If you want great abundance, see money falling from the sky all around you. If your affirmation includes confidence and peace in conflict, see yourself centered and joyful working in a dispute. You may wish to gather symbols from your garden to include in your mental picture.

Step five: say it until you see it: Simply repeating your phrase while visualizing your picture ten times a day can yield amazing results. You may have one to eight different affirmations that you repeat at a time. You are teaching yourself a new story. In the morning, as you awake, and at night, as you are going to sleep, are powerful times to affect your belief system. Say the affirmation until it becomes true. Shakti Gawain, in Creative Visualization, explains, “Rather than saying affirmations by rote, try to get the feeling that you really have the power to create that reality (which in fact you do!). This will make a big difference in how effective they are.” Gawain also offers a beautiful phrase to seal this work that leaves you open to even greater possibilities. After repeating the affirmation she adds, “This, or something better, now manifests for me in totally satisfying and harmonious ways, for the highest good of all concerned.”

Step six: feel it in your body: The use of body movement or positioning can further commit a new viewpoint or discipline to reality. Body prayer, the reciting of scripture or chanting praise taught by many spiritual traditions, brings us this precept from antiquity. We find body prayer arriving in many new and fun forms such as Gabrielle Roth’s Wave Dance, Ananda yoga, and Phoenix Rising yoga therapy.

In Ananda yoga, for example, practitioners do many of the traditional yoga postures with accompanying affirmations. In Tree pose, one stands in the posture breathing and repeats, “I am calm, I am poised.” In Cobra pose, one is asked to repeat, “I rise joyfully to meet each new opportunity.” One way to integrate your new stories or affirmations is to connect them with a body movement. If you are hoping to be more flexible in conflict, bending forward gently to touch your toes might be a great place from which to say your affirmation. If you are working to find more peace and relaxation, perhaps being in a quiet seated position might help your mind and body to remember this truth. Saying your affirmations as you exercise can be another way to remember and connect to your new beliefs.

Teaching Your Way into a New Habit
An alternate approach to integrating a new skill and shifting our mental attitudes is to teach it to another. Maria Montessori based her revolutionary teaching philosophy on this notion. She found that when younger children were placed in the classroom with older ones who were expected to teach learned activities, the older children integrated and mastered skills as they introduced the activities to the younger children.

I invite you to teach a practice or activity from this book to another. Please ask her permission first! The roles of teacher and student should be voluntary; otherwise, we make assumptions about our position and power in a relationship that might be disrespectful. When we are asked if we want to learn something new or if we want to practice a new skill together, it is rare that we refuse. It is when we perceive that someone believes we are deficient that we back away.

Essentially, as the old adage has it, we learn best what we teach. I have found that a student’s tough questions are rallying points to dig deeper into, clarify, and personally integrate what I teach. To be a successful teacher, I must continue to practice and experiment. We also teach best that which we have truly learned. This belief supports our mental game; when we can effectively teach a skill, our confidence increases and affirms positive expectations about our future success using that skill.

Fifty to One Hundred Days of Practice Make Perfect
When I have wished to learn a new habit, teachers have counseled me to practice it for at least six weeks. For example, if you wish to add meditation to your daily routine, schedule it on your calendar for the prescribed period. I find if I pick a distinct time each day and see it as something I deem as important, as, say, a conference call with my boss (which this is, isn’t it?), it gets done.

Ritual can help in this practice. Spiritual leaders have long used rites and rituals to create habits to support their followers. For example, to teach detachment or letting go, the Catholic Church has created a practice of weekly confession prior to communion. The Sabbath meal in Judaism serves as a similar weekly reminder. Fasting, a practice found particularly in many Eastern religious traditions, is yet another ritual that teaches detachment.

You can easily create a ritual to help a practice find its way into your day. One friend wears a rubber band around her wrist to remind herself to breathe! When I enter a room to mediate a dispute, I touch one hand to my head and then to my heart to remind myself that I must listen for both words and emotions as intently as possible. After years of doing this ritual, my hand moves almost without my thinking, I relax, and my mind and body adjust.

When in conflict, I want to stop before yelling at my children! So moving from theory to practice, I created a small ritual to remind myself to slow down. When I feel my anger rising, by contracting the back of my throat, I make a sound much like waves on the sand or like Darth Vader, depending on your perspective! It is a basic centering tool in yoga called “sounding breath” that one begins to do instinctively when faced with a difficult posture, or asana. This breathing has become a habit when anger appears, and without thinking, I now inhale and exhale in this loud manner. It has become a reminder as I hear myself that I need to stop and reflect. It also tells my children that I have reached my limit and need a minute to pull myself together.

Throughout human history we have created and redefined our habits. This is evolution. Be kind to yourself as you attack your old belief systems. We all have the ability to change our attitudes about conflict today.

Excerpted from The Way of Conflict by Deidre Combs. Copyright © 2004 by Deidre Combs. All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $15.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.972.6657 ext. 52 or click here.

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