The scene was a familiar one.
I had been invited into a congregation to do some Compassionate Communication (aka Non-Violent Communication) based conflict resolution work at a day long workshop. Congregational leaders, both lay and clergy, dearly hoped this day would break through the log-jam of tension and polarization that was fast draining the warmth, goodwill and energy that my colleague had spent the past couple of years so carefully and successfully nurturing.
So successful had this work been, in fact, that the small sanctuary had become filled to overflowing and the inevitably challenging, “Shall we go to two services?” question had raised its multi-hydraed head.
The evening before the workshop I met with the current Board members. Faces and tones were strained as they sought to impress upon me the gravity of the situation.
All they wanted, they assured me, was for the workshop to result in clear resolution on three key issues:
- Would there be a move to two services or not?
- Had the Board’s decision making process thus far been right or wrong?
- What should they do now?
Faces taut with anxiety leaned forward and asked me point blank if I could do that for them.
My face remained warm, non-anxious and relaxed as I leaned forward and assured them that I could not.
And that they didn’t need me to.
We just sat there for a couple of moments in the stunned silence before I went on.
What I could do was to invite them to change the very nature of the way they held conflict: to move from reacting to it as a threat to cohesiveness to seeing it as a necessary and meaningful challenge with the potential to deepen the trust and enrich the bonds of community life far beyond what these had been before the conflict erupted.
And more: I could hold this vision up to the congregation with confidence because I could begin to teach them the concrete skills/spiritual practices that I guide people through on a daily basis in my work – and in my own life – to turn it into reality.
And I could do that without requiring them to be the saints we will never become in this lifetime or to give up any part of their own deepest truth.
Would that be enough?
I told them that the core of this spiritual practice requires translating right/wrong judgments – including of themselves – to understand what really matters to every stakeholder in the situation. What is it that is driving people to do what they do?
Judgments inevitably involve attempts to pass off (or sometimes to take on!) the “hot potato” of blame in an effort to diffuse tension. This never works. Defensiveness, distrust and alienation only escalate from this approach.
What will work is a willingness to set aside the issues for the time being and look underneath the strategies people choose to try to fulfill their hopes to see the beautiful – and universal – human needs that are behind every choice and connect with those from a place of empathy. Separating empathy for people’s needs from our evaluation of the strategies they choose to get those needs met is crucial.
This is the moment everything changes. When it becomes possible to see that the same basic needs drive all human choices, people can join together in mutual understanding and caring as they address the concrete issues which involve how to work together to best meet everyone’s needs, instead of warily eyeing the enemy across the table, waiting to pounce or be pounced on.
At the workshop the next day, it was time to get into the thick of it.
I divided the workshop into two groups which faced each other across the room: “for” and “against” two services with a third group “undecided” at the end.
I watched folks mustering themselves for the debate they were certain was coming.
Then the surprises started to unfold.
First, I asked each group to caucus and discuss not what they wanted to see happen – but why, at the deepest level, it mattered to them. What needs – for themselves or the congregation – would be met if the decision went their way? What values did they believe would be fulfilled by that outcome?
Of course this stopped everyone in their tracks. People know “what” they want to see happen and have a list of “reasons” to back that. But almost no one has thought through how those reasons connect to their deepest needs and core values.
When each group felt they completed their “What needs/values would be fulfilled if the decision goes our way” list, I had them again face one another. Now they were ready for bear! Never had their argument seemed more unshakable! More than a few smirks were evident.
That’s when I told them that the next part of the exercise was for each group to articulate what needs and values were on the other side’s list!! And that was the ONLY thing they were to speak about!
It was – it always is – a “you could have heard a pin drop” moment.
Each group went back into “caucus” – this time to brainstorm about the needs and values that were motivating the other side. And then, slowly, sometimes painfully they spoke their guesses aloud to one another, one side at a time, getting and receiving feedback, getting closer and closer to a shared understanding of what mattered to each group, with the whole of the room staying with the process until we reached completion.
The is the moment when each side can and does say to the other: Yes, you understand. Yes I feel cared about. Yes, my truth has been heard and received with love.
It was, as it always is, a joy to behold, as the magic happened.
Faces softened. Shoulders dropped in relief. Not a few tears fell. “You get it, you finally get it!” was heard over and over again.
At the end, I asked them to look over the “needs/values” lists we’d been creating for the groups and tell me what they saw. ”Why they’re almost the same,” someone marveled. We have different ways of getting there in mind, but we really all want pretty much the same things!”
At the end, one person said to me. “See those two? I cannot believe they are hugging! They’ve barely spoken in a year.”
“We still don’t have a decision about whether we’re going to two services,” one person mentioned almost offhandedly. ”No,” I said, “you don’t. But now you have something more important. Now you have a way to get there in one piece.”