Thursday, December 10, 2009


Interpersonal conflict actually always involves at least two encounters: there is the encounter with the other (of which we are usually more conscious) and the encounter with the self (of which we are often only dimly aware at best). Both encounters are a place rich with possibility. One possibility is for these encounters to help you expand or open up, to grow. Another possibility is that these encounters will cause you to contract, to shut down. Both outcomes are equally possible. What determines which way it will go? While there are no certainties, we do know one thing. Whatever happens, it will involve a struggle, a sense of wrestling with oneself, with the other, and with both possibilities.

The Encounter with the Other

The struggle with the other is usually to be heard, to be understood, to be respected, to be taken seriously, to live well together. This encounter is an external engagement; something that takes place outside myself, manifesting in the ongoing, visible interaction between the other and myself. The challenge, to which the lion’s share of conflict resolution literature is dedicated, is to conduct myself on the external plane in a way that does not just beget more of the same. For most of us, this would be enough!

But an even greater challenge awaits. In fact, it is this second challenge we must tackle first. This is the challenge of the encounter with the self. The encounter with the self also involves a struggle, only this engagement is internal. That is, my sense that I am not being respected – while usually beginning with an external momentary encounter with the other – can only ultimately take root and continue grow inside of me, out of sight, apart from the other in my own heart and mind.

The Encounter with the Self

This second struggle is between me and my feelings, me and my thoughts. And the question is, what will this struggle beget? Will I come to see my thoughts and feelings for what they are – worthy of attention to be sure but ultimately no more real than any other momentarily arising phenomena, as a cloud passing in the sky? Or will I lose my mind-fullness (awareness of mind’s capacity for delusion), collapse the distance between my thoughts and reality, and thereby allow those thoughts to run me around? To take me over?

Too often, my thoughts take over. The internal dialogue of recrimination, defense, and counter-attack continues unabated (often largely or even completely apart from the encounter with the other). This can go on for weeks, months, even years. As it does so (with my full if unconscious cooperation), it gnaws away at both my own sense of identity and my sense of the other as fully human, as a person worthy of respect and dignity. It is this, ultimately, that brings me to the extremes of silence or violence, of de-selfing or striking out. It is via this process that we arrive at war, against the self, against the other.

The Parrot – Befriending and “Taming” the Mind

The internal struggle exacerbates the external and vice-versa. Both are critical to engage intentionally if peace is to be built. But because it is in the mind that the seeds of enemy are first planted and germinate, it is there we must begin. The mind – and its inner patterns of self-dialogue – creates the fertile conditions for enemy making or not. One simple way to think of the conditions you create within your mind is in terms of a parrot sitting on your shoulder.

Why a parrot? A parrot is a clever animal. A tricky animal. It can mimic a seemingly human voice like no other. And yet, in the end, a parrot is not a human voice. And it is not in a dialogue. Indeed, all the parrot does is repeat the lines that it has heard. Over time, it develops the capacity to repeat these same lines without even being prompted. Yet this is still not a dialogue, only mind-less repetition of the things we have been saying to it over the days, weeks, months, and years. The parrot sits on our shoulder and repeats to us the thoughts and feelings we have said to it. Many of us mistake this “voice” for something real and – even worse – come to base our decisions, actions, attitudes, and interactions with the other on this so called “reality.” This is very dangerous.

So, what do you say to your parrot? After an encounter with another that began with a pinch moment, a very specific moment-in-time that was uncomfortable, our parrot talk usually begins. It might sound something like:

“Can you believe that?! What a &*^%#! To speak to me like that at a meeting!”
or “I can’t believe I didn’t put him in his place. I should have told him where to get off! Next time I’m going to…” or “Sh**! I am so stupid! I can’t ever get anything right. And now she’s mad at me!”

Over time, our parrot takes over. Our mind, with all its fears, projections, and insecurities continually reinforced, begins to have its way with us. We are no longer in control. The parrot is controlling us. Its dialogue may not be real but its consequences will be.

So what can we do? We must work at mindfulness. We must explore our thoughts and feelings to be sure, but without always taking them utterly seriously. You have heard the expression, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” When it comes to our parrot, we must remember instead, “Don’t believe everything you think!” We must approach ourselves with compassion and humour, seeing our parrot for what it is: an interesting companion to be sure, but ultimately just a funny little bird that does not have the wisdom to dictate our major life decisions and relationships.

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