Conflict-Avoiders Anonymous

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.

3 Rosenberg.

4 Wheatley.

Also see:

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.


A homily for Membership Sunday

Did you enjoy junior high school?  Seventh and eighth grade?  Just thinking about those years makes me shudder.  One of the worst things was how mean people were to each other.  Even so-called friends constantly competed to see who could come up with the worst insults, who could win in a war of words. Looking back, I think it was the strategy of the utterly powerless, our way of trying on power, because the adults never taught us healthier ways of being together, or of using our power.  And so each day we all slunk home miserably after having all of our flaws pointed out in great detail:  the crooked teeth, the knobby knees or the dimpled ones, the acne or the dry skin, the body odor, the voice that changes pitch at the worst moment–all the agonizing bodily problems of adolescence.  Some kids got support and nurturing at home, and came back to school able to handle the taunts.  But some, like me, didn’t.  My alcoholic father didn’t speak to me except contemptuously, and during the small amount of time that my mother was home, she criticized the way I had done the laundry or the cooking.  So, what kind of self-image do you think I had, with those kind of mirrors?

Human beings are obligatory social mammals. We need to be physically cared for by others, and we also need to interact in loving ways with them. As babies, we need to be held and talked to and smiled at. Several dreadful experiments in the past few hundred years have demonstrated that if you do not do this with babies, they die. We are obligatory social mammals. We have a deep, innate need to belong, to belong to a group that cares for us.

Part of what enables us to belong, or perhaps what makes it necessary for us to belong, is our mirror neurons. These are cells in our nervous systems, spread throughout our bodies, that activate when we see another person doing something, or expressing a feeling: they activate just as if it were our own bodies doing that thing, or feeling the feeling. These mirror neurons give us our capacity for empathy, to feel what others feel. This is useful from a survival standpoint in at least two ways. One is that empathy is the basis for mutual care and concern, for love. When we know we are loved, when others reflect our own light back to us, we thrive. When we thrive we contribute to the well-being of the group, the whole, and in turn that well-being contributes to our own well-being. It’s a positive feedback cycle.

Another way empathy is useful for survival is that it enables us to make predictions about how the others in our group are going to behave toward us. If we see that someone is directing anger our way, we might change our own behavior to try to lessen the anger. We might placate the person. Or, we might show a greater display of anger than the other person, to try to make them back down.

So our mirror neurons help us survive. And they also make us vulnerable. Again, if the people in our group are positive and loving mirrors, we thrive. But if not…if the culture around us is angry and hateful and superficial, and the people in our close family group are unkind and the people we work or go to school with are uncaring or mean…well, we end up where I was in junior high. Where many people are in this world: lonely, fearful, believing we are ugly inside and out, believing we are unworthy of love and kindness.

It is no wonder that so many people are isolated and unhappy today. And that this isolation and unhappiness is causing our larger social systems to break down, which worsens the isolation…a different positive feedback cycle.

But what if we could break the second feedback cycle and substitute the first one? What if we could form communities where people loved and accepted each other and mirrored each other’s best qualities, where they encouraged each other’s growth toward their best selves? What if we could help people raise families in which children are loved and valued from the very beginnings of their lives, by many generations in the group? What if the people in such a community experienced so much love and caring in their own group that they could not help but act together to bring more love and caring into the larger world?

I have a dear friend whose group of college housemates wanted to create just such an intentional community. They spent months formulating a vision. Finally they invited all their friends and their extended families for a huge celebratory dinner, where they unveiled their plan. They said that at first they had thought about buying an apartment building or a really big house where they would all live and raise their children together, but they had rejected this. Instead, they had decided to live scattered throughout the city, so each could be a leader in their own neighborhood, coming together for inspiration at a common house a few times a week. In this common house they would share meals. They would teach their children. They would meet to explore new ways of living, ways that were sustainable and creative and full of beauty and love. They would make music and art. They would share their deepest longings and their biggest questions, their spiritual journeys. And they would organize for the kind of social change that would make a life of abundance and beauty available to all beings, everywhere.

Well, after the young people had shared their vision, one of their grandmothers stood up to speak. She said, “What you have described here tonight is beautiful. It is just what this world most needs. And it already exists. It is called church.”1

I went to many churches as a young person, longing for this kind of deep community. But I could not and would not accept the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that people are born inherently wicked. I did not need more reinforcement of the idea that I was worthless. So I gave up on church and found solace in nature. By losing myself in communion with the hills and woods and water each day, I survived some truly terrible things. But like all of us, I am an obligatory social mammal. In order to do more than just survive—in order to thrive, to heal and flourish and make positive change in my world—I needed a human community. I needed a group of companions who would love me just as I was and inspire me to continually grow. I needed a community who would welcome my deepest spiritual longings and questions. After trying church after church, I finally walked into a church that was Unitarian Universalist.

That church embodied our UU theology about what it means to be human. The members there reflected my own worth and dignity to me and I reflected theirs to them. They loved and accepted me not despite my flaws, but because of who I was in my wholeness: a complicated, imperfect person with both gifts and problems, doing her best to muddle through. As I began to live into my own worth and dignity, I began to heal. I began to grow and to transform into a new person. I began bringing other hurting people into the congregation. I began participating in social activism. I began to contribute my own gifts to the congregation, which itself was then transformed. Something that had been very good became even better.

Then–oh, then–came my first congregational fight. It was a biggie. People shouted at each other. They accused each other of all sorts of nefarious dealings and motives.  It was so painful.  But then the congregation called for help from the district, and the conflict became a learning opportunity. After it was all through, we realized that our relationship had deepened. We now knew much more about each other. We had more confidence in our relationships because we had been through something difficult together. We knew how committed we were to working things through. We began to truly cherish one another.

But while the conflict was going on, some people left. Some felt profoundly disillusioned. They didn’t think UU’s should fight, that we were somehow different or better than the rest of the world. Or they thought that church shouldn’t have any unpleasantness. Or, they left because the conflict reminded them of conflicts in their families, and they just couldn’t deal with the pain.

Well, I would never dismiss the pain of another person. I respected those people’s need to leave. But as far as thinking church should never have unpleasantness, or that UU’s are different from everyone else….to be disillusioned means you had illusions in the first place. Congregations are made up of people, and I have never yet met a person who is perfect. Imperfection is the very nature of human life and so it is the very nature of congregational life.

Of course when we first fall in love, with a person or a faith community, we do have illusions. We project our ideal of what we think the person or congregation should be onto what is. And so that first fight, that first disillusionment, is all the more important. It is necessary, because it allows us to get behind our dreams of perfection, to what is real. And it is only when we are real together that our shared life has any meaning. It’s only then that genuine growth and transformation can take place. It’s only then that we truly embody our theology.

And that theology, our theology, says that each of us—each of you—is worthy. Whether you are 3 or 13 or 93, and whatever your self-image, you are worthy. And so is everyone else. And we are all connected in a vast interdependent web of life, so that everything we think and say and do in this life matters. It all matters.

So this is why what we do in church is so important, and why membership is so meaningful. We are forming an intentional community that embodies the revolutionary idea that human beings can live together in love; and not only that, that we can live together with the whole community of life, in love. We might disagree sometimes, we might fight, but when we are truly committed to the health of the whole, we can work it through and be transformed by the process. We can live together in love.

May it ever be so.

Blessed be.

1Rebecca Parker in Buehrens, John and Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st Century. Boston, Beacon Press. 2011.