Let there be Peace on Earth…

(this article originally appeared in the December 2011 edition of the South Shore Women’s Journal)

For many of us, the winter holiday season can feel anything but peaceful. The stress of the holidays seems to invite conflict, such as that underlying marital friction, parenting disputes, and those uncomfortable family dinners. This conflict can contribute to a winter holiday experience quite different than the “peace on earth” sentiment repeatedly expressed in songs and cards. Not surprisingly, the family courts are very busy at this time of year.

As challenging as conflict may be, however, it also can provide wonderful opportunities for growth and connection, if engaged and resolved consciously. Like the alchemist who uses heat to change the chemical structure of matter, we can use conflict as the “heat” of our lives, creating fertile ground for both personal and societal transformation. Because we live in a culture that tends to avoid or encourage conflict, however, the ability to engage and resolve conflict is one that we must cultivate.

Perhaps one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves and others this season is to strengthen our conflict resolution awareness and skills. To help with that task, and perhaps make the holiday season a bit more peaceful, I offer readers a few fundamental conflict resolution strategies:

Actively listen. We are accustomed to multitasking, and this affects how we listen and what we hear. When listening to another person we are often simultaneously thinking about our response to their words, the emotions their story triggers, or about unrelated events, such as what we will cook for dinner. Such distracted listening leads to disconnection. Active listening can remedy this. Active listening involves maintaining the body posture and focus necessary to truly hear and understand the person with whom you are interacting, and then communicating that understanding. When people feel heard, they are often more willing to listen and find commonality.

Cultivate compassion. When we are upset or in conflict with someone else, it is tempting to see him or her as an object, an obstacle to meeting our needs. When we can see that other person as a whole person – with their own complex set of experiences, needs, interests, emotions, and pain that are no less valid than ours – we begin to feel compassion for them, even if we do not agree with them. Even unstated compassion can have a profound affect on the conflict dynamic by creating a connection between the people involved.

Take a balcony view. When we are stuck in a cycle of conflict or an uncomfortable interaction, it is tempting to become so enmeshed that we lose perspective on the circumstances. A remedy for this can be to pan backward in our imagination and view the conflict from a birds-eye perspective, as a movie camera might for dramatic effect. What is your understanding of the conflict from this vantage point? Next, pan back to the imagined balcony and look down on your conflict as though you were a third person. Let this new perspective inform how you view and engage in the conflict.

Breathe. We have all heard “when you are angry, take a breath and count backwards from ten before you speak.” This is good advice–by focusing on our breath we calm our physical, emotional, and cognitive selves, bring our awareness to the present moment, and become more able to listen actively, cultivate compassion, and take the third perspective.

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