Tag Archives: Way of Conflict

The Four Seasons of Tough Times

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun… Ecclesiastes 3:1

The belief that every challenge has four distinct stages has occupied a ridiculous amount of my attention over the past dozen years. This is because I am convinced it is one of the most helpful truths for navigating difficult circumstances. Yet, when I seek to explain (stage 1) how tough times begin, (stage 2) what the middle of the journey looks like, (stage 3) how to adapt and (step 4) how to get to the end…I feel like I get too many blank stares. I want to exclaim, “Trust me! This is important, it will save you,” but instead I wonder if I’m making as much impact as the ill-kempt man wearing the sandwich board on the street corner pronouncing the end of the world. Both passionate and neither of us getting our message across.

So, to not lose you, my fair readers, as I try to pass along this jewel, I’d like to propose the following analogy to describe the four-phased journey concept and its importance:

Just in the northern climes of North America, tough times can be seen as moving through four distinct seasons. During difficult circumstances, we start in the autumn. Things begin to “fall” apart — leaves break away from the trees, plants freeze and die and what we had counted on to feed us all summer ends. In tough times terms, the trees we had been going to for fruit could be a marriage, a friendship or good health — we watch them crumble and hope that we can find a way to make it last — but if it’s time is up, no amount of vigilance will stave off the end.

So, then comes winter, or the messy middle of tough times. It seems impossible that something will grow again during this season. It’s dark, inhospitable and can be really depressing.

If can wait out winter, spring comes again with a promise of new beginnings. There is more light and optimism. Time to till the soil, decide what to plant and ready for the growing season. And, if we are courageous enough, we will plant seeds and do the work to create a new garden (i.e. work to create a new relationship, job, or home). We must care for the new seedlings, get rid of the weeds to get back to a stable place once more.

Earlier this month, after presenting a keynote lecture on thriving through tough times, a soft-spoken grandmother approached me. “When you talked about approaching tough times like an old Montana rancher, I got it,” she said. After raising children and crops in New Mexico and northern Canada, she told me that recognizing the stages of each difficulty had saved her. “When the kids were young I copied and pasted a passage from Ecclesiastes on my cupboard to keep me sane through the years,” she added and began to recite, To everything there is a season, time for every purpose under the sun. A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”

During bad circumstances, it really helps to remember that there is a time for sowing and a time for reaping. For each set of tough times there is a minimum suffering period. With a death of a grandparent, it might be a year for example. But, not acting appropriately during each tough times “season,” you can maximize your imprisonment in difficult circumstances.

In the winter, or the messy, chaotic middle phase, trying to plant new seeds wastes your resources. Ask any rancher. Winter is when you rest. You sharpen your tools and nurture your stock. You want to slow down, take care of yourself and your home. You can’t plow the fields and trying would be silly. Rushing around is a foolish, and in the depths of January, can be a dangerous activity.

The advice for the winter of difficult conditions is the same. When something has ended, be it a job or a relationship, trying to quickly create something new is counterproductive. We need to recover. We need to take stock in where we stand. Rushing around and using up our resources is foolish and can be dangerous as we exhaust what collateral or energy we have in a harsh, dark climate.

There is a time to rest and there will be a time to risk. During a challenge’s spring and summer, we will need to be rested and ready to act. Where after a loss, we must be brave enough to wait through the winter, we must also be bold enough when the time comes to choose to try again.

Each season presents unique tests. Not acting seasonally appropriate circumvents the process. Rushing around and trying to plant in winter means that we won’t have any reserves to take advantage of spring. Not getting to work in the spring will also have us missing or not taking advantage of prime growing season.

Meanwhile, we live in a culture focused only on action. It believes that when things are not going our way we need to think positive, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Yet, this is not global wisdom. For example, like Ecclesiastes, Taoism is based on discerning in which season we reside and acting accordingly. It is said that by going with the natural flow of each challenge, Taoist masters exert minimal energy and are able to live well past a hundred years old. There is a time to wait and a time to move. Knowing the difference allows us to flow effortlessly through each major change back to stability.

So, when tough times hit, notice:

1) Are structures or relationships ending (1st stage of disruption or “autumn”)

2) Are you in dark times, dealing with loss and no new solutions in sight (chaos or winter)

3) Can you see new possibilities, is it “time” to get moving again (adaptation or spring)

4) Are you called to try new things, be bold, act (stability or summer)

Then ask, what would a wise Minnesotan or Montanan farmer do? For every thing there is a season…

I can’t hear you…

A monk asked Shigui, “What is the first principle?”

Shigui said, “What you just asked is the second principle.”

 — from Zen’s Chinese Heritage

A few weeks ago, I was trying to pass along some information to a friend that I hoped would help resolve a conflict with which she was struggling. She was angry and, no matter what data I provided, I could tell it wasn’t getting through. Every point I tried to make, my friend got more defensive. She wanted out of the conversation and I was ready to give up.

There were clear signs that I needed change my approach. A “fight” (anger/attack) – “flight” (let me out of this conversation) reaction was a blaring indication that she was scared. Fear sits right underneath anger and avoidance.

When we are afraid, we are focused more on surviving than gathering new information. When the adrenaline kicks in, our brain screams, “Get yourself out” and is not much interested in sticking around to learn. So in this state, we don’t hear so well.

Trying to convince another is highly ineffective when she is worried about losing something dear to her. I know this, yet had forgotten as I laid out my well-developed argument…ah yes, teaching what I continue to integrate! After a few tries, I remembered an important cross-cultural rule of thumb, “Ask Questions.”

Asking open-ended questions calms and opens thinking. From a brain perspective, when I need to consider and answer a question, I move from my survival-focused brain stem up into more contemplative neocortex. In that portion of our heads, we can consider past, present and future, be creative, and are more willing to learn.

Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” The better the question, the more it slows the listener to consider it. That might be confusing, but our best inquiries stop others in their tracks.

Favorite questions include:

  • What would you have liked to have been different?
  • What could I do differently?
  • When you have been in your opponent’s situation, what would you have appreciated or needed?
  • Best of all possible worlds, what would you like to happen in the future?
  • What should our next steps?
  • How could I best support you? 

Our conversation shifted when I remembered to ask a question, in my case, the third above. Instead of striving to present positions, I became privy to my friend’s wisdom on practical ways to support another through tough times. We both listened better while she considered her next steps and I provided the information I thought might help. Our conversation, and later her conflict, were transformed.

Ask questions…A remembered mantra in my litany.


Christmas is coming and…

I’ve been wondering if the goose’s weight fluctuation was a result of stress eating. Normally, this is the “Oh-when-will-I-wrap-ship-buy-cook-decorate-call-address-stamp-clean-and-even-celebrate” time of year. It’s about now I start cursing cultural traditions and hope my friends can wait another year to see a photo of our children.

To make the season extra interesting, let’s add a recession. I’ve noticed that not only are folks struggling with budgeting the financial outlays, but also with determining the appropriateness of their actions. Traditions can be comforting in that we do the same thing every year. But this year, do you hang lights outside and spend that extra cash on electricity? Do you make cookies for all your friends or will that put them in an uncomfortable situation? My family is now laughing since I have never pulled off either of the above in good times…but you get the drift of the internal questioning. We’ve added the stress of asking “what’s right?” to “how do I get this all done?” 

About ten years ago, Angeles Arrien shared an analogy upon which I rely. She said, when we are under stress, tired or otherwise preoccupied we should see ourselves as standing on one foot. Precariously balanced we can easily be pushed over and so, in these instances, we must pay careful attention.

Given the season and the current climate, I propose that many people will be standing on one foot during holiday meals. They may be dressed up and putting on the best face possible, but may also be wishing they could be hiding at home. So, how do we enjoy the holidays and the people with whom we are gathered?

First, I’d assume that everyone is emulating a flamingo. Don’t expect others to be ready for anything. I’d treat everyone, including you, gently. These are not ordinary times, so if someone loses it, we might want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Next, look for telltale signs of stress and don’t take others personally. In  The Way of Conflict I describe four default conflict styles. Each displays unique and often unsavory characteristics when afraid. So, if someone:

  1. Gets really quiet or stubborn
  2. Becomes passive/aggressive or negative
  3. Impatiently barks at you, or
  4. Regales you with “the real facts,” and your stupidity,

 …recognize that person is struggling. Your dinner party partner is teetering on her one standing leg. As the person falls you might want to give her some room, or get out of the way!

Last, create the right frame of mind.  When we are stressed or terrified we gravitate to the fight/flight portion of our brains. There in our reptilian brain, we lash out as described in the previous paragraph. However, we can trick ourselves into using the calmer and more rational neo-cortex by focusing on learning, gratitude or play.  See my “Tips for Turkey Day” for applying mind shifting to a holiday meal.

Christmas is coming and Hanukkah is here. I hope the holiday season brings you all its best along with some time to regroup and recover. 

Playing Well when We Don’t Know (1)

I’m just home from walking in the fog.

Although I am writing literally, my walk in the fog could have been equally metaphoric. The future seems pretty fuzzy on Sunday, November 2nd with presidential elections in two days, volatile financial markets and heightening tensions in Syria, Pakistan and…and…and…

Fog rarely appears in Bozeman, MT so the weather’s novelty caught my attention. It reminded me how, according to cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, some parts of Africa call times like the ones we are navigating “walking in the land of gray clouds.”

Today it feels impossible to fully predict what our economic, political and social landscape will look like a year from now. While I visited our eldest son at college a few weeks ago, I wondered, “How many of these students will be able to return next quarter, let alone next fall?” I try to guess what’s next and envision positive results, but I don’t really know. 

If my thoughts run wild, I can move to a panicked state pretty easily these days and I’m noticing I’m far from alone. Clients, family, and even strangers all want to talk about the candidates and stock market. The old adage, “don’t talk politics or religion,” somehow has been ignored at every dinner table I’ve visited over the past month.  Friends aren’t sleeping and madly canvassing homes with “get out to vote” brochures. We seem to be in a bit of a state.

So, how does one play well in the fog? 

1. Watching our attitude

As I mentioned in my previous post, “Why is it playing well?” when in doubt every culture I researched suggests you should  “count your blessings.”  Make it a habit. For example, Native cultures, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam prescribe professing gratitude for what is working in your life at least once if not multiple times per day. When we don’t know what’s next, remind yourself what is.

Recent psychological studies show that we are happier and more able to recover from traumatic events if we foster an “attitude of gratitude.” University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory suggests that using positive emotions broadens our attention and ability to perceive a bigger picture. When in a state of appreciation, we are more able to think creatively and gather information on the situation at hand. Her research also suggests that we are more resilient when fostering appreciation, optimism and joy. 

So, taking my own advice as I walked, I thought how cool it is to get to witness such a historic election. I was happy that I get to be alive during these unique times. I went on to enjoy the mist and the temperate afternoon. And my list of my “blessings” continued to grow the more I focused on appreciating my circumstances. I came home calm and more objective than I was when setting out.

When times get really rough,  all I can muster is “I can walk” or “I’m still breathing” to begin my “happy list.” But, starting with those, others appear. Priming the pump with blessings I can’t deny help to move me from my most miserable into a productive mind set. 

So, over the next week, ask yourself daily, “what’s working?”  I welcome your thoughts and results!

In my next post, I will continue with another technique for playing in the fog  – “Watching our actions.”



Why is it “Playing Well?”

Welcome to my new blog!

In this first entry I’d like to explain the name “Playing Well.” Over the past fourteen-plus years, I have been fascinated with conflict or life challenges. Whether you are battling with yourself or another person, frustrated with life or fighting an organization, I continue to be interested. I search across cultures to find common techniques for overcoming tough battles and share what I learn through writing, teaching and coaching. A common theme that keeps appears is seeing any challenge as something we can “play well.”

Challenge and conflict is often referred to as a game. As I wrote in The Way of Conflict, “When mapping competition between nations or markets, economists often use the words conflict and game interchangeably. For thousands of years human beings have created every imaginable variety of game. As a species we are drawn to the energy and creativity hidden in games and, thus, conflict. We intuitively know the positive potential of opposing forces meeting and engaging. It is no surprise that the Super Bowl draws the highest worldwide television viewing audience each year.”

A Hasao proverb adds, “When a quarrel heats up, pretend it is a game.” To the human mind games are often equated with fun. Games are “played.” If I say “do you want to be in a conflict” you may cringe or want to run away. But, if I ask “would you like to play a game” I’m suspicious you’ll step forward with some curiosity and greater willingness to engage. If we can simply think of any conflict as a game, we position ourselves in a more expanded mental state.

The theme of playing well continued into my second book Worst Enemy, Best Teacher. To understand this concept we also can look to the martial artist or the mythic warrior. Here fighting is a contest or competition where your opponent is a critical and valuable component of play. “Instead of being victims, they strove to honestly accept their circumstances and improve them. As a result, these combatants became confident, strong and successful.” 

My eventual career in conflict transformation began as a selfish pursuit to figure out how to conduct myself with grace under pressure. Frankly, I wanted to look good when in trouble and figure out a fast resolution! These were good carrots to initially motivate my learning, but after years of study and writing, I found “looking good and getting out” weren’t really the greatest prizes to be had in this game. Today I find myself passionate about understanding how we can fight well, or “play well” regardless of our adversary and actually no matter what the final result.

I am in the process of completing a third book on how to move through our toughest times. It addresses those conflicts when we are fighting with life, or some might say, with God. I found myself returning to “playing well” when I attempting an analogy to describe why I am drawn a cross-cultural research approach. Here’s a brief excerpt from my upcoming book, Standing in a New Life:

“It appears that upon birth we are dropped into the middle of a playing field where an ongoing, crazily complex game is being played. Some participants or “teams” perceive it as a treasure hunt, where others explain it as football match with at least two sides. Over human existence, groups have documented their results after trying different plays; recording their favorite moves and what they think the rules might be. Over the years these become de-facto rules and plays for that self-assembled team and are thus incorporated into their sacred texts and myths.

Across all the teams there seem to be some standard approaches to play. For example, the Golden Rule seems to universally accepted and “telling the truth” can be found in everyone’s playbook.  Yet, there are unique interpretations of what will make a player successful. Some have had success with certain food restrictions for their players where others don’t see diet as a player consideration. Some believe I can forgive you for transgressions, while others say that redemption is between you and God.  

Some teams believe that their sacred rule book/playbook is the only one officially sanctioned by the game’s originator, but I am not sold on that notion. Instead I have noticed that each ancient text brings wisdom, yet comments on the game from a slightly differently perspective. It is as though each culture observes the field from a unique position and thus makes distinct observations about: 1) the game we are playing, 2) with whom we matched and 3) how we win at the end. As someone who likes to analyze the game, I like to gather information from all over the field.

So, instead, I like to read every life rule or play book I can get my hands on and look for clues on how the game might be played well by searching for the common approaches and overall “rule” agreement. If every culture believes it is good to “count your blessings” or that play time seems to subdivide into four distinct repeating quarters, my approach is to suggest these are “moves” we might wish to try to better navigate this mysterious contest.”

I am struck by those who do not focus solely on the prize, but also how they play. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in “A Letter from Birmingham City Jail”:  “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”  It is those individuals who strive to play well, whether they “win” or not that grab my attention. Like Tiger Woods or Dana Torres they advance all our universal potential and our understanding of the game. By focusing on the game and the process, winning seems to be secondary and, paradoxically, more likely!

I hope through this blog we can together practice strategies for overcoming challenges. May it help us to uncover a greater understanding of this wild and sometimes wonderful game whether at work or beyond. In the meantime, “play well!”