Reflections on Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution
– Doris Tennant, Esq.
A few years ago I heard Diane Musho Hamilton, a Zen teacher, mediator and facilitator, speak about how her son with Down syndrome taught her to be present with things as they are. Her stories about Willie’s often profound expressions of humor and insight revealed a woman who had learned to hold her seat in the face of disappointment, trauma and uncertainty.
Everything is Workable (Shambhala, 2013) is Hamilton’s book about how to live consciously in a world sated with conflicts. Hamilton states that our most basic moral obligation is “simply being present to each other” as a non-judgmental witness. She acknowledges that learning conflict skills asks something of us: “The more intimate we become with human suffering, the greater our compulsion to serve others.”
The book caused me to reflect on how my own work is energized by that compulsion, which has grown out of eyes wide open to the suffering of others (including my clients). When a client is relating to me from a place of blame, I opt to stay present by not expending energy on self-protection. I am open to what is happening and what may be behind an aggressive comment. As Hamilton teaches, “This profound presence to what is frees us of our need to change or manipulate anything,” transforming the “energy of aggression” and bringing discipline to conflict resolution.
In a recent mediation of the conflict that arose between two professionals appointed to co-lead a long term initiative, I quickly saw that facilitating new ways for them to work together was not a solution. So I made a deliberate decision to hold the space in the room, being vigilant of their pain and mindful of breathing the same air. I did not rush to fill the silence, though I made a few observations and occasionally reflected back what I was hearing. A bit of openness arose in one, inviting it in the other–tentatively, but with gradual momentum. We were able to structure a plan that gave them just enough encouragement to experience greater spaciousness in their relationship and begin to find ways to work with their conflict, rather than being overwhelmed by it.
I am grateful to those clients and to the others who have taught me that I can trust in the integrity of my own nature, and drop the effort to protect my reputation or the image of myself as a miracle worker. I am a student of conflict as my clients are, and I can learn best from conflict when I am, in Hamilton’s words, “more present, more fearless.” It is from that place that I can most effectively employ the conflict skills she teaches, including the ability to reframe an attacking statement and bring to light a “compelling truth.” It is also from a place of presence and fearlessness that I can notice the “shadow” in conflict—which Hamilton recognizes as the hidden perspectives no one will claim—and the need to acknowledge these ignored tensions in order to facilitate difficult conversations.
Hamilton prods me to remember “the dimension in which we are the same”—we’re all trying, we’re all afraid, we all want to feel okay in the world—and respect conflict as “an expression of our profound and inextricable relatedness.” That relatedness can be messy, but it is the only place to start if we hope for conflict resolution to go beyond defending individual fears and desires.