Tag Archives: Conflict Skills

Repeat after me

Become a student of change. It is the only thing that will remain constant –Anthony J. D’Angelo

Eighteen women gathered last weekend for a  “Thriving through Tough Times” workshop I offered in Bozeman. Not the lightest topic, yet one that elicited lots of shared laughter from the group. Ranging in age from twenty-nine to timeless grandmas, everyone had valuable advice to contribute. When we spoke about first finding ourselves in difficult circumstances, one of group elders wryly added, “When times get tough I tell myself, ‘Things might get better (long pause)…or they might not.’”

The grounded optimism of these words summed up a workshop theme. Many of these women had overcome some very tough times. They explained how they had gathered fantastic opportunity and learning from their experiences, modeling how life can indeed improve through adversity. Yet they were realistic, when you lose a child, or your best friend at midlife, things might not get better.

The journey through personal challenges in the Buddhist tradition is sometimes referred to as a “little death.” Our current job/marriage/situation ends or “dies”, we enter into a dark time of transition, and if things get better…or not, a new career/relationship/life emerges. These little deaths are seen as valuable practice to prepare us for the big one at our physical end.

Around the world, we are counseled to be calm and focused on the path ahead whether meeting a little or big ending. Many cultures strive for a “good death,” or one that is conscious and peaceful, since they believe this will supports us getting to the best next destination possible.

Repeating phrases like Theresa of Avila’s, “All is well and all will be will,” is very common global technique to foster a good death and rebirth. We might chant prayers over and over to comfort the dying, reminding them of the life yet to come. For example, in the Catholic tradition, the prayer “Hail Mary…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” is repeated, while Hindus sing devotional prayers and chant Vedic mantras throughout the process.

When we face little deaths, repeating favorite sayings can both calm and ready us for the adventure ahead. Another workshop participant offered her father’s favorite motto, “Everything happens for a reason.” Explaining how these words provide her solace and courage she said,  “By repeating this phrase I accept my circumstances and I figure I better start looking for that reason.”

Mantras are like a verbal opening bow to the opponent, “Tough Times.”  When this adversary appears I like to say,

  •  “Good teacher” – Borrowing the martial arts belief that our opponents are our best instructors. This reminds me that I can learn something and become wiser (a big personal selling point!).
  • “Opportunity, lots of opportunity” – That’s my version of “Things might get better…”
  • “I get to be here” – Recalling that this might be my only opportunity — in this body anyway — to have this experience.

In the above phrases, notice I invoke attitudes of learning, hope and gratitude. Interestingly, all three of these responses are processed in our neo-cortex or the two hemispheres residing on the top of our heads. This is the portion of our brains best equipped for complex problem solving. When the neo-cortex is engaged we have access to our creativity and can consider future implications of our actions.  We play best when this brain region is in charge. I am thus suspicious that the most effective mantras engage this highest cerebral region.

So, what might be your calming phrases or sayings?



Are they playing well?

Madoff, Blagojevich and now Denmark’s Stein Bagger. A month ago I wouldn’t have recognized, nor known how to spell, these names. Today, however I believe I can include them in a post with no explanation. The cast of characters in our new global drama expands weekly as a widening swath is cut to reveal what lay underneath our financial abundance. Here’s a short clip to dish up a visual metaphor:



The charges of corruption, deception and run away greed are not considered good operating strategies by any culture I have studied. Yet, before the latest revelations, we might have seen these leaders as top players in finance and politics. They were successful. Famous. Powerful. Made themselves and others lots of money. They were adept, quick and creative. Some might have said that these guys were “playing well” in their selected field.

Madoff, Blagojevich and Bagger’s alleged actions help me to further clarify what the tag line “playing well” means from a cross-cultural perspective. To what should we aspire and what should guide our actions?  Two seeming paradoxes appear when I seek to explain how to play well: 

1)    It’s not if you win, but it is all about winning and losing.

2)    It’s not how well you play, but it’s all about the strategies you employ.

It’s not if you win, but it is all about winning and losing. When we play well we are not focused on winning at all costs. When I am willing to forgo my internal or universal values, even if I have won, I lost. The treasure at the end is seductive, but I have yet to find an example where the bounty is worth what is exacted internally. Sounds preachy, but this is also practical for self-survival. By no longer following the base code of conduct for our tribe, we effectively cull ourselves from the herd. For example, abiding by the Model Rules of Professional Conduct as a lawyer, I would have the legal community standing behind me if I were to be questioned. Focused on winning at all costs and betraying those rules, I would find few watching my back.

It’s not how well you play, but it’s all about the strategies you employ. When I started studying conflict resolution, my initial interest was to be graceful under pressure. Frankly, I wanted to “look good” when times were bad. It didn’t take me long to realize I had chosen the wrong goal. Studying those who truly played well, I noticed that they were focused instead on learning and finding solutions that would support the greatest whole. Those who play well often get to look good as a byproduct, but that is not the accomplishment they seek.

In my experience, the top players’ objective is to seek a solution where all can win. Sounds lofty, but again it is very practical. Since you are in the community, you win too. Also, if I’m working for your good, and I abide by a solid code of conduct to get there, you will probably stand behind me if I am ever in trouble. The bigger net we cast, the larger community within we then reside and are nurtured. Win-win solutions can appear to be impossible, yet even in the seeking we plant seeds for future opportunity. An obvious example is Martin Luther King playing well forty years ago and creating new paradigms that are still emerging today. When we play well, we take care of not only our community and ourselves, but potentially generations to come.