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  • Jessie Brennan, MPH

Conscious Conflict

Like much of the country, I have spent the last couple of weeks on vacation, jet setting across the country on what I’m calling “The Grandparent World Tour.” The trip has got me thinking about…conflict. I believe it was spiritual teacher and yoga guru Ram Dass who said “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” It comforts me to know I’m in good company in my familial struggles.

Conflict is something we all experience, whether it be conflict with family, friends, colleagues, bosses, or staff members, conflict is something that is bound to periodically erupt. I think this is important to accept, especially as leaders. There is a certain amount of composure that all mindful leaders strive to maintain in their staff interactions. In the world of mindfulness this is called “equanimity.” Equanimity is defined as mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. There is a false perception that if we approach situations and people with equanimity, with the utmost composure and professionalism, we can successfully avoid any and all conflict. Trust me, you can’t.

That’s why conflict management is considered a key competency of leadership. As leaders, not only does it fall upon you to manage your own conflict, but also manage the conflict of your staff members. This applies to both constructive conflict: the kind of conflict that causes intellectual friction, and destructive conflict: the kind that causes social friction. Managing destructive conflict is something that, depending on the personalities involved, can feel like the challenge of a lifetime.

Jim Dethmer, author of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, defines destructive conflict as “anything that interrupts your experience of the oneness.” When it comes to our family, or intimate relationships, conflict is anything interrupts our feeling of closeness, and on teams conflict is anything that interrupts our experience of high performing collaboration. Dethmer shuns the idea of managing conflict, and suggests that there are ways to dissolve conflict quickly. All it requires is a little conscious effort.

The key to beginning this process is a true willingness to dissolve the conflict. There is a difference between wanting to dissolve it (which you probably do, because who wants to be in conflict?) and being willing to dissolve it. Willingness means that we are willing to let go of the conflict, which really boils down to being willing to let go of our need to right. If we’re not ready to do that, the conflict remains in our hearts.

Bring a conflict you are currently engaged in to mind:

Who is the conflict with? What’s the conflict about? Are you willing to dissolve the conflict?

When you get to the point where you are willing to dissolve the conflict, Dethmer describes the next step as locating yourself- are you above the line or below the line? At any moment in time, you’re either below the line-in a threatened state, or above the line- in a state of trust and safety. When you’re below the line you are closed, defensive, and committed to being right. When you’re above the line you are open, curious, and committed to learning. The first key to consciousness and the first key to conflict dissolution is the ability to locate yourself as where are you in this moment. This act of self-awareness is always the gateway in.

So, around this conflict, are you above the line or below the line?

According to Dethmer, if you’re like the vast majority of people, the answer is below the line. Most of us spend the majority of our time below the line. It’s not bad, it’s human. We have 70,000 thoughts a day, 90% of them are repeated thoughts from the day before, and most of them cause us to contract. Self-criticisms, judgements, fears and anxieties. All of these little thoughts create a contraction, they move us into a threatened state.

When you’re below the line you’re really committed to proving you’re right. Your ego is very identified with the issue. At the core of most conflict are two parties committed to being right- and if I’m right, you’re wrong. This is where we experience the disconnection with the other, because if we’re more invested in being right, we’re less invested in being close. We’re more committed to being right, than resolving the issue, whatever it is. However, in the realm of consciousness, getting to prove you’re right is what the last place winner gets.

In that conflict are you trying to prove you’re right? What are you right about?

Another key to dissolving conflict is shifting your perspective about the conflict, seeing the conflict as being for you. It’s for you in that it’s an invitation for you to expand into the highest possibility of who you can be. Would you be willing to see it that way? It’s your choice. If you choose to see the conflict as an obstacle, as an impediment, you will relate to the conflict a certain way. If you choose to see that the conflict is for you, you will relate to it a totally different way. If you see the person you are in conflict with as a threat, certain parts of your brain will fire. If you see them as an ally, as a teacher, a different part of your brain will fire.

Would you be willing to see that person, and that conflict as for you?

From this place you can begin to appreciate the other person. Everything they’ve done has allowed you to face yourself, and your own contractions. It has given you the opportunity to rise to the occasion, to grow. From this place you can begin to experience connection with the other person. Now, this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to address the conflict with the other person. Go into the conversation with the intention to reveal your feelings, and the things that you intend to work on around the issue. From there you can make a request about what you’d like them to work on around the issue. All of the steps above work to soften you towards the other person, get you out of your ego, and into your heart, which creates an opening for honest, above the line communication to happen.


The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, Jim Dethmer


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