Peace and paradox: resolving inner conflict

“Peace….is the willingness to acknowledge that conflict will always exist, but it is how we handle it that matters” – Kindle Project Blog, April 2011

The how of living with, and moving through, conflict is what I have dedicated my life to – from high school civil rights activism to decades of organizational consulting, leadership coaching and couples counseling.  In my experience, one intense and poignant challenge trumps all the others:  Until we become just as committed and willing to live with and manage internal conflict, our passion and skill in resolving conflict with others will often prove insufficient.  Sometimes we’re lucky, and we find others around us who are able to hold the complexity of multiple interests and feelings simultaneously, and subsequently can act as a mirror for us.  But “trite” sayings often become popular or over-used because they are true:  “Let peace begin with me.”

I can hear the outcries in response:  “We don’t have the luxury or the time to do personal work.” “The urgency is too great; we have to stay focused on the transformation of _____ (the economy, women’s reproductive rights, etc.).”

Building on Kindle’s quote above, I’ll add Niels Bohr to the mix: “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox.  Now we have some hope of making progress.”

When I am in “either/or” thinking about how I should act or respond in a situation, I am usually lost in my own internal conflict.  It may not feel like conflict; in fact, it often feels familiar, comfortable and right.  “Of course, I’m going to argue with this homophobic person in front of me; she’s wrong.”

Yet, if I am able to notice my assumptions and beliefs and be curious about my reactions as well as those of the others involved, there is indeed hope. This is the kind of hope that bears the fruit of authentic connection.  Through authentic connection, we can either resolve our conflict or at least come together in shared understanding and anguish about the particular dilemma we’re facing.  Mourning together is in fact one of the most reliable precursors to resolving an ongoing, seemingly entrenched conflict.  Those of us who have witnessed or participated in restorative justice processes can attest to the profound transformation that occurs through such shared mourning.

What I’m on my cyber-soapbox about right now, however, is pre-emptive transformation; the kind that we take personal responsibility for, so that we can truly “walk the talk” of managing complexity within ourselves. We are then better equipped for navigating the external complexity of managing conflict with others.  Those of us who work with groups in conflict need to hold even more complexity at one time – which is all the more reason for us to do our internal “housekeeping.”

This means continually practicing whatever methods we have discovered that work for us to increase our self-awareness, specifically in service to building our capacity to be present with seemingly opposing internal experiences.  Can we identify and then be with both the pain and joy of a given moment, both the desire to run away and the longing to stay?  Building this internal complexity “muscle,” we slowly but surely come to acknowledge that even in the face of an intensely gripping and perhaps self-righteous clarity about a particular topic, we have multiple feelings, thoughts and interests occurring at the same time.   We become as familiar with this holding of complexity as we used to be of our habituated patterns of reactivity.

This internal awareness-building practice translates to more flexibility and conscious choice when in the midst of conflict.  We have an increased ability to respond rather than react.  We become more skillful in discerning which specific aspect of a conflict to attend to, moment to moment.

Such self-understanding and observation skills take time and commitment to build, especially since we humans are hardwired to make quick decisions for survival.  The amygdalae, the primary ‘traffic controllers’ of our emotional reactions, are not set up to look for subtleties when we perceive a threat or danger.  It sends the flight/fight chemicals through our nervous system immediately so that we can achieve safety as soon as possible.  However, we also can learn to work with these physiological cues, so that we have more choice and power in any given situation.

In short (and once again, somewhat paradoxically), we become more flexible in our thinking and more rigorous in our choice-making.  This builds connection and shared understanding rather than alienation and escalated misinterpretations.

Once we have the capacity to hold conflict internally, the actual conflict transformation skills in our toolkit become more potent.   Generous, empathic listening is more possible, because we’re practicing this within ourselves.  Authentic expression becomes more skillfully focused to meet the needs of the situation, rather than simply be in service to our own desires to be seen and understood.  And finally, we are able to be more transparent and effective facilitators as we help others build understanding and incremental agreements without becoming “blindsided” by internal, hidden agendas.

This then speaks to why self-awareness practices are not a “luxury.”  They form the foundation for creating the conditions of sustainable transformation.

I’ve found this inner journey to be agonizing at times; our familiar patterns don’t “like” to be challenged.   Self-criticism sometimes clouds my sense of forward progress or perspective.  But then, since I “walk my talk” about holding complexity, I can just as assuredly name the confidence, wonder, contribution and gratification that have resulted from staying the course of “living with complexity.”

Returning to the initial Kindle quote:  Below are some links for further reflection on “how we handle” the “conflict that will always exist” within us, as well as with others, acknowledging that it’s “how we handle it that matters”.

Originally published at

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