Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

I know a woman who created a winning design label in her cellar at night while navigating the stormy waters of marital disintegration.  She would put the children to bed, clean up and then go downstairs and cut, match, sew and assemble pieces of fabric until the early hours of the morning when she had something to show for her labours and her head was “clear” of the nagging questions and worries that beset her days.  It was when she was focussed on a specific task, working out the practicalities of making a zipper disappear into the folds of a pair of trousers or a dress float like gossamer that her mind would switch off and she could distance herself from the gnawing worries of an unravelling life.  And it was often at the end of a long night of working that bingo! – she had the answer to the next sticky question:   “It would just pop into my head, as though someone was talking to me” she said,   “I had no idea where it came from but it was always surprisingly enough, the best next move for me.”

My personal refuge in such challenging times is generally the kitchen and although I love both cooking and baking, it’s preserving fruits and changing them into jewel-coloured jams and marmalades that is my refuge of choice for truly creative conflict resolution.  The wonderful smells of sugar and fruit marrying to form a heady perfume banish all negative thoughts while the activity of washing, cutting and paring fruit, sterilizing and heating jars,  getting out the sugar thermometer and then watching over the process until the setting point it reached, takes care of the rest.    I take no short-cuts and no recipe is too difficult or time-consuming. I seek to lose myself in jam-making nirvana and yes, in the process of switching off I am always able to let go of the problem that besets me and almost always find solutions popping into my head that I had simply never thought of before.

So what is it about throwing oneself into creativity that fosters great conflict resolution?

  • Psychiatry has long known of the benefits of crafting and creativity on mental health.  World War I soldiers suffering from shell shock were taught to knit and knitting remains one of the most popular therapy crafts used in managing depression today
  • Creativity and crafting switch activity from the left, problem-solving side of the brain to the creative, right-hand side of the brain.  In so doing, the pressure to think is literally taken off the cortex, heart rate, blood-pressure and breathing slow down, the amygdala’s fight or flight response ebbs and we become physically and mentally quiet and peaceful.
  • The often repetitive patterns and the focus on detail required in a lot of crafting activities are deeply calming and require us to be “fully present in the moment” as is the case in practising meditation.  In doing so, we are able to distance ourselves from worries about the future.
  • Crafting is also a source of pleasure that brings with it a sense of accomplishment.   Creating something to share with others heightens this pleasure even more. This activates the pleasure centres in the brain that flood our bloodstream with beta-endorphins, dopamine and all the good vibe chemicals that make us feel great.

So instead of focussing all your mental energy on actively solving problems, try gardening, baking, doing woodwork, putting ships into bottles, sewing, knitting or whatever it is that gets you going creatively.   Reap physical and mental health benefits in abundance and surprise yourself with some of your best decisions yet.


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Ever found yourself in front of a store in the early weeks of a new year faced with a sign reading: Closed for Stocktaking?  Annoying as it is, part of me admires the process happening behind the locked doors – a kind of counting your chickens and getting your house in order that seems both simple and wholesome and that has in essence, despite today’s electronic scanners, hardly changed over centuries.  The process of stocktaking enables businesses to get more than a general overview of where they stand.  It allows them to see what is good and what is amiss on their shelves or behind their computer screens and on the basis of that, to adjust, correct and fine-tune with a view to optimizing  business in the year ahead.  In short, stocktaking is the essential groundwork for change, for setting goals and for realising potential.

At a personal level, the end of one year and the beginning of the next, offers us all a wonderful opportunity to reassess our values, to look more closely at the problems that beset us and to align the wheels of change for our future growth.  Making personal stocktaking an annual event to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to adjust the path on which you are travelling is a hallmark of mindful living.

From a conflict management point of view, what are the factors involved in personal stocktaking?  The following 10 questions will give you a good idea of how you stand in your management of interpersonal conflict be it in the workplace or in private relationships:


So, instead of the ubiquitous,  off-the-cuff New Year’s Resolutions, why not close for personal stocktaking this year?  Take half a day to assess where you stand as regards conflict management and make whatever adjustments are necessary to ensure that at the end of 2012 you are able to add conflict competence to your list of personal achievements and satisfying personal relationships to your capital gain.  

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Christmas like no other holiday, raises the bar when it comes to expectations.  Unfortunately, it also often ends for so many of us as the season of disappointment and unmet expectations.

Whether it be young children drawing up their wish-lists or adults racing through the retail industry’s tinsel-trends to find the perfect gift for a loved one or the obligatory gift for the not-so-loved, we all buy into the expectation that by jumping onto the Christmas bandwagon we stand in line for peace, harmony, love and good cheer.  How disappointing then when we find ourselves faced with grumpy relatives, bickering children, ungrateful recipients of our bestowals and gifts that are not what we wished for or that don’t have the desired effect.  Little wonder that for conflict practitioners the world over, Christmas is the holiday in which families and relationships experience the highest tensions and conflicts despite (or because of) all of our seasonal expectations to the contrary.

So how do we turn the holiday period around and get our share of good cheer despite such sobering conflict statistics?   How do we manage Christmas so as to come out of it feeling some of the love, peace and harmony? The secret is to give the truly personal gift – the giving of oneself instead of or in addition to the wrapped offering under the tree.  Any or all of the five gifts below will go a long way in making this holiday season wonderful and memorable and in the process, benefit not only the recipient but also the giver:

  1.  Step back and let conflict pass you by this holiday season.   Ask yourself whether the irritations of the day will matter in a week, a month or a year and create distance to the small irritations that so easily trip us up.  If visualisation is your thing, take a bird’s eye view of your festive setting and distance yourself mentally from the conflict encounter.  Take “time-out” in whatever way works for you – it’s often all we need to deal with tricky situations more constructively.  By engaging with conflict you become part of the problem; by stepping back you become part of the solution.
  2. Listen:  there is no greater gift than being well and truly listened to.  If you want to be remembered as someone  special this Christmas  – listen to those around you.  Whether it is your wife complaining that she’s been on her feet all day or your father-in-law discussing the markets, listen consciously, ask questions that show your interest and allow them the space to feel heard and understood.  Deep listening creates an expectation of understanding and a true willingness to reciprocate. In addition, the enormous physiological benefits of feeling listened to,  calms waters and creates natural harmony.
  3. Speak for yourself:  preface your statements by using the “I” word and only speak about how things make you feel.  If you assume to know what the other is thinking or feeling without them telling you so expressly, you’re way off track and heading for trouble.    Make a gift of inviting and opening up discussion by allowing others the space to speak about their own feelings or thoughts and observe how your conversational skills put everyone into a feel-good space.
  4. Change your perspective by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.   Allowing yourself to imagine the unbridled excitement of a child or the exhaustion of a parent takes the edge off any irritation at their behaviour that you might otherwise feel is inappropriate for the season.  Walking in someone else’s shoes is a sure way to soften our expectations and to open the door to compassion.
  5. Give the gifts of acknowledgement and gratitude. Say thank you for all you receive – not only physical gifts but the effort that has gone into preparations, the wonderful meal that has been laid out, the time that has been spent searching for a gift or the effort that someone has taken to be with you on this day.  And remember to say thank you for the gifts of companionship, sharing, support and love that are made to us by our friends and family throughout the year – acknowledging these everyday acts takes your connection to an even deeper level.

And if, despite our best efforts, we do fall prey to holiday conflict, remember the value of a well constructed apology and the power of forgiveness and make this holiday season one in which we surprise ourselves and those around us by meeting their deep-seated needs for connectedness, compassion, understanding and respect in a way that exceeds all expectations.

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I recently heard of a girl whose mother – formerly a highly acclaimed scientist –  suffered from disposophobia, the pathological hoarding syndrome in which the affected compulsively hang onto every little thing that comes into their homes – including the household trash.  Carrying that burden of shame so deeply within her when she was growing up altered the  daughter’s behaviour in ways directly related to the shame that she must have felt living in that highly dysfunctional environment. Her body language and social behaviour said it all: she kept her head down and her eyes downcast, was withdrawn and reserved, always on the edge of playground happenings and yet compliant, willing, quick to return a smile, friendly when called upon but just as ready and able to disappear into the woodwork.  She made no waves and kept herself unobtrusive and low-key, never invited anyone home and was not invited in return and in that way, managed to keep a tight lid on her shameful secret for many years.
“Hot”, “burning”, “dark” and “secret” are adjectives that we commonly attach to the concept of shame.  This opposites of “shame” are “pride”, honour” and “respect”. Shame can be imposed on us through the “shaming environments” that are sometimes part of certain models of upbringing, we can “be shamed” publicly because of our beliefs, religious or political affiliations or we can become contaminated by shame because of early experiences such as those generated in dysfunctional settings like the disposophobia described above, abuse, neglect, abandonment, addictive surroundings to name but a few.

Unlike guilt, shame does not attach to a wrongdoing on our part but to the essence of who we are and in that way, defines and shapes our very identity. Guilt allows us to make a mistake, to admit it, to face the consequences and to move on but for a shamed person who feels not that they’ve made a mistake, but that they themselves are the mistake, there is always a heightened sense of vulnerability and a deep-seated fear of exposure. Coming out is not the answer to the shamed– it’s the problem.

From a conflict practitioner’s point of view, shame is a debilitating emotion, generating feelings of deep embarrassment, inferiority and guilt, forcing sufferers to hide, preventing spontaneity, discouraging intimacy and creating deep-rooted insecurity and loneliness.

Adults shamed as children are often slow to form friendships and are cautious and feel excessively vulnerable in relationships. They can be highly sensitive to criticism or negative feedback all of which play  into their sense of worthlessness.  As a result they might tend to blame others before being blamed themselves or at the other extreme, assume responsibility for whatever goes wrong, feeling constantly guilty. And of course the shamed may also use shaming acts to control others:  bullies have field days on other people’s shame and are highly skilled at sussing out exactly where that vulnerable spot is. From a behavioural point of view, shameful adults may also present with addictive or obsessive compulsive behaviours such as substance abuse, workaholism, shopping addictions, eating disorders or gambling.

Shamed individuals bring with them not only shame and its shadows but often further strong emotions such as anger, rage and depression and this is where shame becomes dangerous both for the individual involved and for their environment.

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A client recently came up to me just before the beginning of a mediation session:   “I forgot to mention one little thing on the phone:  could we just stick to discussing the facts and not get into all the emotional stuff?”  As a mediator, I know only too well how anxious people are about dealing with other people’s emotions and how sadly unprepared we are for dealing with our own.  But conflict and challenging conversations are never just about facts, they are also always about emotions.   The challenge is not how to avoid them but how to deal with them successfully.

Emotions are indeed insistent, tricky and unpredictable: they turn up at the oddest times, undermine our best efforts at self-control and can leave us looking foolish and feeling vulnerable. However hard we try to bridle our emotions, to control and to hide them, they have a way of surfacing and bursting onto the scene of our conflict discourse that flaws us time and again and foils all our attempts at staying in control of the situation.

Little wonder then that we would all rather leave emotions well and truly out of it when it comes to resolving conflict or negotiating our way through tough conversations and instead, “stick to the facts” and rely on logic and reason to build solutions.  We hope in this way to appear rational and reasonable, to avoid offending or being offended, to escape the quagmire of messy feelings and scenes and to avoid losing face particularly in a workplace setting.

The truth is however, that emotions are as much a part of our physiology as are our breathing and our heartbeat – we simply cannot avoid them let alone control them. Blushing, laughing, perspiring, frowning and smiling are all driven by emotions as are the butterflies in your stomach and the urge to smash something that the road-rage driver gives vent to.

It comes as no surprise then that emotions are not only at the heart of all interpersonal conflict but are often the very generators and escalators of conflict.  It follows, that without taking on and dealing with the emotional aspects of conflict, there can be no uncovering of the issues at stake and no true, satisfactory and lasting conflict resolution. As Stone/Patton/Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project put it in Difficult Conversations: “Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music.  You’ll get the plot but miss the point”[1]

Understanding the role that emotions play in dealing with conflict, in improving relationships and getting the results you want will form the topics of the upcoming weeks’ writing.   Until then, make a game of it: remember the “don’t smile” game of childhood requiring you to keep a straight face while someone else regales you with jokes and anecdotes to draw the shadow of smile out of the corners or your mouth?  Play it with your family this week, recapture a bit of childhood innocence and observe just how difficult it is to control simple emotional responses.

[1] Stone/Patton/Heen,  Difficult Conversations.  How to Discuss what Matters Most, Penguin, NY, 2000, p. 13.

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I have often puzzled over reports of people who have survived years of inhuman hardship at the hands of others yet  have lived the rest of their lives to the full, have built homes and families and found joy and pleasure in abundance. And then there are those who having experienced the same, have spent their lives in misery, bitterness and hostile regret, blaming and revisiting the injury time and again,  burning up their life-force in  a battle with dark and destructive emotions.

The question to myself has always been – which of the two would I be, if I had walked in their shoes?  Where lies the source of this life-affirming energy in the face of such misfortune? And why do many of us tend instead to build an altar to the suffering and in so doing, to entrench it firmly into our lives?

The key to coming out at the other end of much of what human beings do to each other is forgiveness.  I don’t mean the popular admonishment to “move on” or to “get over it”, nor the good fortune of a cheerful disposition or a thick skin but rather, a deep understanding of the meaning and pathways to forgiveness that allows us to leave even the greatest misfortune behind us and despite our suffering, to live well, fully and joyfully.

Is this a matter of spiritual grace, a survival skill or a technique for stress release and if so, why are we so resistant to exploring its potential for restoring balance in our lives?

The reason for our reluctance to forgive lies in the misconception that forgiveness is a sign of weakness, that it requires us to forget what we have experienced, to acknowledge that our suffering was in some way deserved, to relinquish our right to justice and retribution for the wrongs against us, to condone our tormentor’s actions and to let them off the hook.   We are afraid that through forgiveness, we will forgo the recognition of our status as victims of another’s making in the hope that this will bring us relief and satisfy our longing and need to be heard and acknowledged.   This is why many of us hold onto our injuries so stubbornly, revisiting the story they tell time and again and living in a dark state of unforgivness where there is no peace and no joy and where we continue to suffer often years after the actual event.

The truth is that forgiveness does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting, denying or reconciling with our offenders.

Forgiveness in fact is a voluntary and conscious choice.   Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation nor does it require either the presence of or communication with our offenders for it to be effective.  Forgiveness is a personal choice to view one’s life and the events of one’s life differently, it is the decision to acknowledge and then to let go of the injuries caused and to allow compassion to lead us towards a lighter and more joyful form of living.

As is to be expected, a conflict tool as powerful as forgiveness does not come as a “quick-fix”  but generally means a long and challenging process that requires great courage, self-awareness and personal insight as well as the understanding that healing comes from within only through letting go of dark and emotionally debilitating experiences.

Set against the consequences of a lifetime engaged in active unforgiveness, it is a journey well worth the taking – as much for our emotional and physical wellbeing as for the lives of those that we touch along the way.

More next week on how to prepare for forgiveness and the skills we need to see it through.




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I recently spoke to a man whose life has had its fair share of ups and downs:  a difficult marriage, an arsenic divorce and a run of unsuitable partners the last of whom took him to the cleaners rather ungenerously as she left.  When last I saw him perhaps two or three years ago he was reeling from the blow, was bitter, miserable, depressed and very much aged.  To my surprise,  he now walked towards me looking great,  open, full of life and buzzing with energy.  I immediately told him what I observed and he said it was because he was happy since having consciously forgiven his ex and that forgiving her had helped him to turn his life around and to move on even though he was still paying off the debts she left in her wake.  This made me wonder where I could perhaps use a little bit of forgiveness in my life and in return tank up on some visible rejuvenation and energy.

Forgiveness was long viewed as a spiritual matter belonging squarely in the realm of theology and philosophy.   But in the last fifteen or so years, researchers and health professionals have started turning their attention towards the meaning and significance of forgiveness for mental and emotional well-being.  Since then, a veritable science of forgiveness has developed with institutes, research programmes and studies in abundance bearing witness to the realisation that forgiveness is not only important for our spiritual growth  but essential to our mental and physical health and is a major contributory factor  in longevity.

Indeed the results of this secular interest in forgiveness have been astonishing:  The absence of forgiveness is that state which sees us holding onto injuries and hurt, playing and re-playing them over and over in our minds until they have soaked themselves into the very fabric of our being.  In this unforgiving state we harbour and nurture feelings of hostility, mistrust, cynicism, anger, bitterness, resentment and revenge and are in constant red alert at the mere mention,  sighting, or even thought of the individual who has caused us to suffer.

In response, the  amygdala floods the body with stress hormones in preparation for the fight or flight response and keeps these levels high as long as the thoughts and feelings surrounding unforgiveness persist.

In this state, unforgiveness becomes a consuming negative life force, sapping our energy and our joy as we focus more intensely on the pain of the past.  Studies show that the resultant myriad of health problems range from weak immune systems to major heart disease, high-blood pressure, asthma,  migraine, depression, serious mental illness and premature ageing.

The good news is that forgiveness has the power to break this downward spiral and allows us to heal both emotionally and physically,  reversing the dark tide of destruction that these negative emotions ride on.

To me this seems a good enough reason to embrace forgiveness with open arms and yet we are often very reluctant to do so and struggle with the process when we do decide to forgive.  Why this is and how we can move out of this destructive state is the topic of next week’s blog.

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