Category Archives: Conflict Skills

Encoding a Better Future

The Early DaysI began my  career as a software programmer at IBM. With a mathematics degree and just enough computer science classes from University of Wisconsin, I was chosen to write support tools for a new Federal Aviation Administration computer system. Thirty years ago, we coded in Ada on a main frame computer and would have to wait so long for a program to compile that I knit sweaters while I waited.

I continued in this world for the next 12 years, soon moving into program management (I am way  too extroverted to be a coder) and supported the release of healthcare software, including one of the first Hospital Electronic Medical Records programs.

Today, meanwhile, I have been considering how our belief systems affect our perception of reality. I witness students whose personal stories determine their success or self sabotage. I ache for young people who believe that they don’t deserve happiness or kindness. I see others, in contrast, who are wired for success. I will not be the first to call our stories “software of the mind,”  but am struck how our internal beliefs take in the data around us and spit back whatever results we seem programmed to expect.

As a program manager and as a coder, I lived in constant fear of severity 1 errors. When you release software for testing or to the public, when a program breaks, the error is given a severity level of 4, 3, 2 or 1. A severity level 4 (“sev 4”) error is a cosmetic fix that is rarely  resolved or maybe you would work on it during  the days when only you  had to work since we were a newbie you had long used up your vacation. Sev 3’s were more important, but didn’t affect overall operations and Sev 2’s had a work around, but were serious enough that you’d need to work a night or weekend to resolve. Sev 1’s took down the system and you weren’t going anywhere until they were fixed, especially if the software was out in the field.

I have applying this same error designation to my internal software and conflicts that affect my system. My brain seems to perceive most challenges as Sev 3 or  4 errors and if I have time to reflect on a lazy day, I might refine my belief systems a bit to incorporate.

Really surprising news I seem to log as Sev 2 errors and respond by heading to a journal, a wise friend or counselor to suss where I now stand.  I have had some Sev 1’s in my own mental software where life shocks have stopped me in my tracks and notice that I use those moments mark the end of an old identity and emergence of a new me.

Some times we as the coders would negotiate severity levels with clients when they identified an error. What seemed cosmetic to us would be considered critical to them. Playing with this analogy, I wonder when and why we incorrectly log the error severity levels within our mind software? Angeles Arrien would caution to pay attention when we might normalize the abnormal or abnormalize the normal. When do I engage in denial or overdramatize? Looking through a conflict resolution lens, where am I missing discord and not appropriately engaging in the change process? Or, where am I getting stuck in a victim stance or overwhelm needlessly?

I return to the Art of War for guidance here. When discord occurs, we are counseled to step onto the battlefield like a Sage Commander and survey where we stand. Objectively assess, who are my opponents? What resources do I have at my disposal? What does this battlefield look like and what might I be missing?  What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Returning to the software analogy, how can I be a sage customer service representative who listens carefully to a problem as it is described and be willing to return to my belief system coding team and calmly explain where we might need to do some updating?

May you find each problem that arises as an opportunity to create the best darn mind software available. You’ve got a large market waiting; we could use your help in processing the data we receive daily from these polemic times.

Awash, a wash, in love

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Head, shoulders, knees and toes

I recently supported a conference in Morocco for Middle Eastern and North African university students. They were reconvening to commemorate a shared 6-week summer experience in the US where 120 young university leaders participate in an intensive leadership and civic engagement program in host universities across the US.

After the conference closed, my son Cameron and I went to Fez to visit a past State Department teacher fellow who had spent two months with us at Montana State University. We toured the city and its environs with our friend and accompanied him to teach an evening English class to 11 middle schoolers. They were learning body parts and health issues, so we brought in the old camp song, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes.” Since there was an odd number in class that night, I became the partner of a bright 11-year-old girl we’ll call Zalfa.

Zalfa seemed to be in those magic moments of girlhood where confidence and self-awareness have not been yet touched by the claws of adolescence. The movie “I am Eleven” captures this oasis well. Ramrod straight and self-assured in her responses, Zalfa volunteered to speak in front of the class with an impeccable braid pointing down her back. According to our teacher friend, she is called “the genius” at her regular day school. She instantly captivated me.

Listening to her presentation, I recognized that I would probably never see Zalfa again. Her possible paths ran as scenarios within me — would she live out her life in Fez, eventually wear a veil, travel abroad, follow that intelligence to its peaks, or would she be required to marry young? It became clear that I had just this class to support and encourage her potential. I couldn’t protect her, nor shouldn’t, from the challenges that just the next decade would yield.

MI had the same experience with the university students in Rabat earlier in the week. After working with the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) for seven years now, I have learned to accept that I will see from only a few after our intense weeks together at Montana State. In Rabat, I watched the MEPI young leaders enthusiastically present follow on projects. Some students I knew and others I just met. Yet, with all, I realized I probably wouldn’t know “the rest of the story.” This loss tugs at my heart where these students have a way of sneaking in.

We only have the present; that’s not new news, but I like to ignore that. Hanging out in Morocco, the Islamic Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi’s words kept sneaking into my consciousness. “And watch two men washing clothes. One makes dry clothes wet. The other makes wet clothes dry. They seem to be thwarting each other, but their work is a perfect harmony.” Traveling on bus and train we passed women cleaning rugs and clothing in streams and buckets. No home is complete without a clothesline of drying outfits. Pass a mosque and see men washing prior to prayer. Washing is a constant theme. One guide we met in Chefchaouen added this Koranic verse, “Cleanliness it’s from faith,” النظافة من الايمان

So many of the women I met were also awash in kissing and saying “thank you” and “Allah is great.” As Cameron and I were served wonderful meals by the mothers of those we visited, multiple kisses and shukrans (“thank you so much”) and hamdullahs (“praise be to God”) punctuated their every interaction. Again Rumi sneaks in, “Water, stories, the body, all the things we do, are mediums that hide and show what’s hidden. Study them and enjoy this being washed with a secret we sometimes know, and then not.”

Those I admire in their elder years seem to wash every situation with love. It’s not what they do, but who they are. They seem to hold a constant awareness that we only get this moment with each other and that they may not see you again. They remind me of this secret that I sometimes know, like with young Zalfa, and wonderful MEPI students, and then not. May you each wash with love and be washed and find that perfect harmony each day.

 

 

You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you. Sarah Ban Breathnach

When I was given the opportunity to provide a Tedx talk in 2012, I wanted to tell the world everything I knew about transforming conflict. There was this technique, and that one, and, oh my, I must tell you about elemental conflict styles! It didn’t take long to realize that with less than a quarter of an hour, I could only share one skill. If these were my lifetime 13 minutes of fame, what did I need to tell the world?

It was quickly clear what I needed to share — I had to discuss gratitude. Simply put, when conflict, or really anything, comes…be grateful.

Watching the included video, you’ll realize that gratitude is a prescribed behavior by both the spiritual traditions and by brain science, but why do I return to it today? Not only we just celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States, but also a recent conversation with a favorite client that reminded me how leadership demands not only us providing consistent gratitude, but teaching its importance.

Entitlement is not a favored attribute within our culture, nor in many of the cultures with whom I get to work. Yet, it seems to be a learned behavior. Be it through upbringing, cultural context, or as a survival skill that got us to demand basic rights, we all have a bit of entitlement within us, and that’s all right in my book. We need to self advocate at times. There are moments when I need to demand what is mine, especially when it comes to basic human rights.

On the other hand, too much entitlement doesn’t serve anyone involved. It sends us into an attitude of scarcity and criticism. We can miss the hidden opportunities in what we didn’t choose. Also, those who are being generous on our behalf miss our acknowledgment, and may wonder why this generosity is deserved.

If I didn’t learn the power and importance of gratitude as a young person, I may need your mentoring as one who understands its value. You may mentor by modeling sincere gratitude and acknowledgment. It may be adding appreciation to your organization’s code of conduct. Working on US State Department programs where we are asking community volunteers to host international visitors, our team has begun sharing the importance of gratitude in US culture during each program orientation. Gratitude has thus become a core leadership skill I now teach after I learned that not everyone was parented as I was to give thanks for every ride I was given home whether it was another mother or my own.

Appreciating a Peruvian patron saint

Extending gratitude to a Peruvian patron saint

How can you impart the power of gratitude to those around you? Not everyone in my experience has learned of its strength. How lucky we are to have you not only to be thankful, but also to remind us how it can support us as an employee, employer, family member or friend.

 

First “Conflict” Once Removed

A favorite game at extended family reunions used to be point out a tribe member and then see who could properly to identify the relationship. My first cousin Charlie was an expert. He would remind me that my kids were his first cousins once removed as well as our aunt due to a great aunt adopting one of our mother’s sisters. I usually was quickly lost when we would play where Charlie could maintain clarity and rattle off the titles of everyone in the room.

Relationship chart

Relationship chart

Charlie’s gift has kept on giving this week as I have been muddling over how to decipher and describe conflict relationships. Using my cousin’s logic, you’ve got your first degree disputes: you and another are fighting over something. If it is a business relationship, you and that person might be the named parties on the mediation documents. At home, the two kids screaming in your hallway at each other would be the clear participants in the battle. In these cases, we know the disputants or the “sides.”

Meanwhile, what about the sister/wife/business partner/friend of one of the folks you would name above? How would you name her? And, more importantly what is her role?

In honor of Charlie, I want to give that sister/wife/business partner a title — 1st Disputant Once Removed or 1DOR.  A 1DOR will be anyone who is one step back from a conflict, but connected due to their personal connection to a direct player.

Being a 1DOR is a muddy role.  If your wife is fighting with another, does that mean you are fighting with that person as well? What can you say? Where, if anywhere, are your opinions best spoken? In the case of the two kids screaming in the hallway, what is the best position for the third sibling who was in her room reading?

Sometimes we can stay out of the battle while it is fought and resolved. Our loved ones can fight with another while we listen and stay out of the fray. We might provide a few words of encouragement or support as tempers rise and recede. Conflict brings opportunity, but it is also messy, risky and can be dangerous, so laying low would be an advised strategy here.

Meanwhile, some disputes linger and battle lines are drawn. The third sibling can’t hide in her room forever. Your family feuds with a neighbor for years, do we wave at the neighbor when you pass him in the car?  Who is fighting in the US with the government of Afghanistan?

I met with a friend last week who shared she has been exhibiting symptoms of anxiety seemingly for no apparent reason. It was disconcerting her, but as we discussed the past months, it became clear that her role as a 1DOR for both sides of an ongoing dispute had been wearing her down. She can’t escape the enduring conflict, she has little power to resolve it and doesn’t want to take sides.  As I listened, I wondered when my 1DOR status has adversely affected me without my conscious awareness? Stepping back, I was struck by how often I have been a 1DOR as a sister, mother, wife, friend, employee, community member and citizen. This called me to consider more deeply how I can best play in that role.

In my next posts, I will cover how we might naturally react as a 1DOR given our default conflict styles and an ancient Hindu practice upon which we can draw for support.

Cues and clues

In February I spent a wonderful week in Istanbul, courtesy of the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative. I attended a reunion with 120 bright, burgeoning student leaders from throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, 19 of whom had also spent 5 weeks with us at Montana State University the summer before.

Blue Mosque of IstanbulMy colleague Janelle and I traveled 20 some hours to the city center to begin our Turkey visit. Bleary but excited, we started in a tiny boutique hotel near the famous Blue Mosque so we could walk to it and some of the surrounding cultural wonders of the world. This also assured that we would hear a call to prayer five times a day as we visited the sites, including at sunrise. Listening to this Islamic ritual is a fun feature of old town Istanbul.

I was putting clothes away in the hotel room as I heard the “call” as the sun set. I learned that on a minaret 50 feet from my window there was a speaker that blasted the call loud, loud, loud and clear. Instead being filled with gratitude I was in Istanbul, I went to panic. You know when you are so exhausted that you’d consider giving a tooth to get some sleep? Well, all I could think of was, “This is going to happen again at 5:50 am and I still needed to eat dinner and I won’t go to bed until 9 or 10 and then I am going to get jarred awake at 5 and then I won’t go back to sleep and then I will spend my first full day crying and OMG that bed in my room looks so inviting”…and, and, and…you know the drill.

The view out the hotel window

The view out the hotel window

The sun rose the next morning with that dreaded call. I came to realize though that the chant actually ricochets around the city. Callers could be heard in the distance and our loudspeaker singing friend very periodically would then seem to reply. I did grab enough shut eye to survive and what started out as a source of anxiety, became a favorite component of my time in the city.

We get busy. We get distracted and miss important aspects of a problem or of our lives.  Cues are useful tools to help us be present and available as leaders, friends and family members. The calls to prayer are reminders to stop, pay attention and give thanks.

We can use all sorts of cues to remind us to show up in our own lives, and for those around us. A wise Buddhist friend has a chiming clock at home that no longer keeps time. Without warning, at 3:06 or 12:49 for example, it will mark time with one to twelve bongs. She loves this clock because it is her ingrained cue to stop whatever she is doing, breathe and assure that she is in the present moment. This once perplexing event has become a welcome practice when I visit.

When conflict strikes, I notice there are words or actions that cue me to recenter. Hearing “you are wrong,” after years of mediating calls me to breathe deeply and go into my conflict readiness stance. I have conditioned myself to ask, “Tell me more…” and I get very aware of my surroundings. The cue that there is conflict gets me very interested in looking for the clues for its source.

What cues can you use each day to bring you back to the present? Is it your watch beeping each hour? Or can you create a persistent cue, like another asking, “How are you?” to bring you back home?