Have you ever gotten into an argument with someone you lived with about housework? How long were you upset before it all blew up? Did you try to overlook things, but then go around in a constant state of irritation? Or maybe you both bottled unhappy feelings up for months and then suddenly exploded, and brought up everything either of you ever did wrong, and accused each other of being terrible people? Or maybe you just complained to your friends about the situation, while never actually talking to the person you were really upset with? That’s called triangulation, by the way—when two people get together to talk about a problem with someone else, but don’t speak directly to the person they have a problem with. (This happens a lot in churches).
None of these ways of dealing with the situation feel very good, do they? And none of them are particularly effective, either. It would be a lot better if we could talk directly to the person involved, about little things, as they come up. But for many of us that is really hard. We are conflict avoiders and we just don’t want to go there.
Why do we avoid conflict so? Well, many of us grew up in families where it was not safe to express our own truth. If we disagreed with our parents, we were severely punished. And our families reflected the larger culture: it could be a dangerous proposition to disagree with the way things are. We were taught that in order to remain safe, we must go along with the flow and be “nice” to others. “Nice” meaning superficially polite, while underneath harboring all sorts of different feelings. We were taught to comply, even if we knew in our bones something was wrong.
Alternatively, and at the very same time, we were taught that success in life depends on winning at competition. And the way to win is to totally dominate, to send the opponent packing with tail between legs—like the singing cats were trying to do earlier. Remember the fights we had with siblings or playmates as kids? How winning meant humiliating the other person, making them cry, making them give up on wanting to play with us? And remember the “Shock and Awe” campaign, when we bombed Baghdad?
So, on the one hand it’s important to never rock the boat, and on the other, if a fight does happen, we have to win at all costs, or be totally destroyed. No wonder we avoid conflict! It’s terrifying under those conditions!
But what if we saw conflict in a different way? What if, instead of seeing it as something that endangers us, we saw it as the natural expression of diversity in healthy systems? What if we understood conflict as the means by which systems adjust to change?
You see, this is how living systems work. Change happens all the time, and systems need to adjust. Your body, for example, is made of organs and circulatory systems, which are made of cells. Each cell has its own needs and its own job. If a need doesn’t get met, the cell can’t do its job. It sends out messages to the other parts of the system, and the whole system gets sick until the need is met again. So, if our cells aren’t getting enough water, they send out little distress signals that are picked up by our brain, and our brain tells us to drink water. These little messages are feedback.
If we respond to the feedback properly and drink water, our cells get better and they stop sending out the signals. If we suppress feedback, and don’t drink water, we can get very sick, or even die. The system collapses. The tricky thing is that our needs for water change constantly, depending on how hot or cold we are, how active we are, what size we are, and so on. But our bodies are so finely tuned that unless we’re sick, our cells tell us just how much water we need to drink.
This is how all living systems work, from the tiniest microorganism to the whole planetary ecosystem. Feedback is how the system adjusts and adapts to change, which happens all the time.
Now, human beings live in interdependent systems with one another and with other forms of life. And human beings, like all organisms, have needs, and our needs change. In order for our systems to be healthy, we have to be able to express our needs so we can get them met. And we have to respond to each other’s needs in ways that keep the system healthy. We need to have ways to give each other feedback. And that’s all conflict is: feedback. It’s people expressing wants and needs that are different from one another’s.
We can handle the feedback by making adjustments to keep the system working, which would be the healthy thing to do—or we can suppress the feedback. That’s what happens when people respond violently to other people’s needs, or fail to express their own needs. And just like if we don’t drink the water we need, that can cause the system to collapse.
So how can we express and respond to needs in ways that bring about wholeness and beauty rather than violence and collapse?
Oh, what a question. What a question. This is really the central religious question. How do we live together with all beings in love and peace, as we are called by the divine, by the Spirit of Life, to do?
Sacred texts and oral traditions of all religions give us deceptively simple advice. Replace fear with love. Replace hatred with compassion. But these are not simple things. So religious traditions teach spiritual practices that help us, over the course of a lifetime—or many lifetimes—achieve these goals. They teach us to meditate. Contemplate sacred texts. Pray. Practice mindfulness. Make music. Worship. And anyone who does these things knows that they do help—but often, we still can’t seem to tell each other that we’re upset about the housework!
Perhaps this is because historically, many Eastern and Western spiritual paths involved withdrawing from family and civic life in order to practice. The idea was that only by leaving the ordinary world with its ordinary attachments could religious seekers attain enlightenment.
But I believe that ordinary life is spiritual practice. I believe that it is in ordinary life that we can best learn how to live in love and peace. And so I offer you now a practice that can only be used in relationship with others. It’s called compassionate communication. Some people call it nonviolent communication. Here’s how it can work in a marriage. Let’s return to the old housework argument.
(Two spouses are onstage. She is looking angrily at him, hands on hips, while he avoids her gaze, looking a different direction.)
The two spouses turn to one another, in love.
(The two spouses turn to face one another).
They tell one another their stories. But they do this in a particular way. The one who is unhappy begins by describing the physical events she has observed. Then she describes her thoughts about the events, her interpretation. Next she tells what her feelings are about this interpretation. Then she expresses her needs, and finally, she makes a request for change.
At each stage, her partner reflects back to her what he hears. He then tells his own story in the same way, and she reflects back what she hears. Then the two brainstorm together how to meet both their needs.
Let’s listen in to see how it works:
Spouse 1: You know, lately I’ve noticed that I have been doing three or four hours of housework a day, and you do about twenty minutes worth.
Spouse 2: Hmmh. You’ve been seeing me do twenty minutes of housework a day, and you’ve been doing four hours’ worth?
Spouse 1: Yes. And when this happens I think you must not think of me as an equal partner. I think you must not consider me as important as you are. I think you must not love me in the way I want to be loved.
Spouse 2: So when I do less housework than you do, you think this means I don’t love you in the way you want to be loved? You think I don’t believe you are equal to me?
Spouse 1: Yes. And I feel very frustrated and angry and sad about this.
Spouse 2: I see. You’re feeling frustrated and angry and sad?
Spouse 1: (Tearfully) Yes. I need to know that you love me and value me as an equal partner. I need to believe that you think of me as being just as important as you are in our relationship.
Spouse 2: (Sincerely) Oh, I’m so sorry. I do think you are just as important as I am in this relationship. I want you to know that I love you very much, and I do value you as an equal partner. What can I do so you’ll understand that?
Spouse 1: Well, I’d really like if we could divide the housework more equally. Would you be willing to work with me on coming up with a better way to do it?
Spouse 2: Yes, I would. And I also have something I need to say here. You know that my work is really physically demanding. You’ve helped me with it sometimes and you know how hard it is. When I come home, I’m so exhausted I can hardly move. I need to rest. And I need to feel respected for how hard I work. I don’t really care as much as you do about keeping the house clean. So for me it would be okay if we just did less altogether. I would rather spend more time doing fun things together and less time worrying about the house.
Spouse 1: So, you are so exhausted at the end of each day that it’s hard for you to do any more when you come home?
Spouse 2: Yes.
Spouse 1: And you need to rest, and for me to respect how hard you work? (He nods). And you think it would be okay for the house to be less clean in general? (He nods). And you’d like to spend less time on that and more time doing fun things?
Spouse 2: Yes.
Spouse 1: Well, I do know how hard your work is, and I know you need to rest when you get home. I do respect you and all you do. It’s really nice to know you want to do more fun things together. But there are some really basic things that we need to do regularly, for hygiene. And we can’t stop taking care of the pets or kids.
Spouse 2: Okay, what if we put the most important things at the top of a list, and we divide those up, and I do more of my cleaning chores on the weekends and less after work? And then what if we do the less important things less regularly, so we still have time to have fun together?
Spouse 1: We could try that.
(The two move in close together and begin making a list.)
So now they’re brainstorming, and once they’ve finished that, they’ll agree on a plan for the future.
This conversation might have sounded a little stilted, maybe a little contrived. But it is an actual conversation that my husband and I had, in a marriage counseling session, after I had been upset for many months over the housework. I had already bottled up my feelings for a while and been generally angry and irritable, and I didn’t like being that person. I had already exploded, in an unloving way, and I didn’t like that either. I had already triangulated with my girlfriends. But none of those things had helped—they had just put distance between me and my husband, where we wanted intimacy. So finally, we went to counseling, and we learned this method of communicating, and it still works for us.
But I have to say I was a little embarrassed because I had been using this approach for years in environmental conflict resolution, but hadn’t thought to apply it to our marriage. I had seen it help loggers and environmentalists agree on how to manage forest watersheds. I had seen it help farmers and indigenous tribes agree on how to manage a river for both irrigation and salmon. A version of it was used after apartheid ended in South Africa, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation process. 2 It has been used in successful mediations between Palestinians and Israelis. 3
This way of approaching conflict works, because it involves, as Margaret Wheatley puts it, turning to one other. People gather in circles. They agree on ground rules to create a safe space. And then they do deep listening. They tell their stories to one another, and express their needs. They reflect back to each other what they have heard. Once people feel truly heard, everything changes. The possibility of healing enters in. One young black man in South Africa, who had been blinded by a white person, said that just telling his story, and having it heard, made him feel like he had gotten his eyesight back. 4 When this kind of healing takes place, people can work together to find ways of meeting everyone’s needs, and enormous amounts of creativity get unleashed.
This is healthy feedback. This brings wholeness and beauty and love into our shared lives. It is deep spiritual practice.
How might your life and relationships be enriched by this practice? May you take many opportunities to find out. May you turn to one another, and see stars everywhere.
Blessed be. Amen.
Let us pray.
Spirit of Life,
O Mysterious Energy that is the source of our being,
help us turn to one another.
Help us quiet our minds
so that we can listen with deep compassion.
Let our hearts be wells of love
into which each other’s words can fall:
Words of anger, and forgiveness,
words of sorrow, and joy,
words of despair, and hope.
Help us not fear conflict,
but see it only as a signal
that something needs to change.
In this season of wild and rampant growth,
help us grow in wisdom and love.
Great Spirit of our changing universe,
we thank you for our lives.
1 Marshall B. Rosenberg. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 2nd Edition. PuddleDancer Press, Encinitas, California, 2003.
2 Margaret J. Wheatley. Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations To Restore Hope To The Future. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 2002.
Kay Lindahl. Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening: A Guide to Enrich Your Relationships and Kindle Your Spiritual Life. Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2003.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, And The World. Free Press, New York, 2003.