Three Agreements Needed in Conflict

Recently I sat with a group of eight people. Zoom style, each of us in our respective living rooms, kitchens, commandeered bedrooms, and other private places reachable with wifi. It was a deliberate two hours with invitation to work through a conflict that had grown to something more festered. The conflict was primarily between two people. Hurt feelings. Altered meanings. Tension. Blame. Good will. It was all there. I was invited to witness, I suppose that being what all of us were doing. We needed container. Ah…, circle.

My point of writing today is not the detail of the evening. It wasn’t a complete resolution. It wasn’t a complete undoing of hurts. But it was enough expression of affection, and hurtfulness to unstick something that was getting more stuck. When the tires spin, it’s wise to take foot off the gas and get out of the car to change the approach — rather that spinning deeper to gripless ruts.

I learned something from that experience and a few others over the years. Something became more clear that I’m clarifying as an orientation and critical part of covenant to do good with one another in times of conflict, which of course we will all face. I’m thinking of these as agreements of orientation, as commitments, as ground rules that need some explicit attentiveness so as to welcome good with each other.

The first is willingness to step back to a broader conversation. It’s critical to be able to go further upstream. It isn’t our responsibility with one another to understand the full detail of another persons background (i.e., not possible), but it is our responsibility to know that an “upstream” does exist. Of course there are triggers, land minds, quicksands, and hot stoves woven into our respective emotional landscapes. We’ll never know it all of another. And, truth be told, we’ll never know if fully of ourselves. We can however, learn to enter more relationship with our selves and each other. There is a broader conversation. Willingness to step back to the broader stones can often be the wisest and kindest thing we can do.

Second is to expect that there is mystery involved. There always will be. And it is not for us to impose or try to win with reduction of meaning, even though our emotional selves will often persistently insist. Words are very important to share in times of conflict. Because they can create connection and witness. But the details are inherently obscured — this is important — because words are not the experience just as the map is not the territory. It’s really important for people in conflict to grok a bit of not getting the detail, but moving in a direction of turned toward rather than apart.

Third is to be willing to explore with as much authenticity as possible. This is about genuineness. This is about humility, more fully accepting that our personal stories are not the only stories. Exploring is rarely about finding the smoking gun, that piece of evidence that convicts. Exploring is rarely about forcing square pegs to round holes with triumphant proclamation of success. Exploring is becoming more curious together, and, well, a willingness to explore deeply inner aspects of ourselves that can render compassion rather than dismissive judgment.

In all of the above, the goal is often unstuckness so that relationship can return us to a kindness with one another and with ourselves. The goal is sometimes a few breaths together, that can point us in the direction of a few more breaths together held in harmony.

I loved being with those eight people. I loved the knitting that I saw among them, having the courage to share hurts, but also surrender to the mystery of it. I loved the way that circle provided form that encouraged re-connection and the willingness to follow a path forward.

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