Conflict forms a major part of our lives. In nature, within our bodies and in our minds, in families, relationships, communities, and of course within and between nations. It is difficult to ignore it.
Conflict is usually seen as destructive and as creating suffering, but this need not necessarily be so. It doesn't have to be prolonged or lead to complete destruction. If the factors and forces involved in a conflict can be understood, then it can be managed, channelled in a way that creates change.
Firstly, however, it is necessary to emphasise that there sometimes is a place for destructive conflict, that is when the time has come for something to end or die. Having said this, there is naturally also a place for the complement to destructive conflict which I would like to call creative conflict. In the latter case, whilst there is pain and suffering, it does involve all parties, who ultimately all contribute to the creation of something new, and perhaps more enlightened. It is a principle which I have tried to incorporate in this very articlecombining opposing viewpoints, liberal and conservative, even extreme opposites, so that all the forces in a conflict can be harnessed in a creative whole viewpoint.
I work as a transpersonal psychotherapist, and, as Director of the Center for Counselling & Psychotherapy Education, I am involved in helping people to look at their personal problems and conflicts, but in a way that involves the spiritual perspective, in other words a perspective that assumes there is always a purpose to one's problems and for the existence of conflict in our lives. The purpose being to help us unfold and grow our spiritual potential, become more creative and loving beings. Difficulties in life can open up our perspective on life, they can open our hearts to encompass other people's feelings as well as our own. Victor Frankl*, an eminent existential psychotherapist, speaks movingly of his time in the Jewish concentration camps during WWII, when the darkness and destruction left him with nothing to hold onto but his dreams, his ideals, and a faith in the future. Terrible as it was, stripped of comfort, safety, well-being, beauty, and faced with death all around, his experience opened him to a spiritual depth he had hitherto not known and which at the time changed his life. The suffering he experienced exposed him to a rich inner world, which, rather than serving as a compensation for his deprivation, acted as a real source of hope and inspiration. Later, he was able to make use of his experiences in helping survivors of the holocaust come to terms with their suffering and to create a new life. He became a renowned healer of souls and founded a school of psychotherapy in Vienna after the war.
One of the psychotherapists who trained at the CCPE, who herself was a victim of physical abuse, now works in London with victims of torture from all over the world** (ref Jenny Grut). She helps each person to create their own little garden patch out of barren soil. This creation takes place alongside the telling of their story and may take years. In this context the garden is a symbol of healing and regeneration, whereby the death and suffering of the past, symbolised by the barren soil, can be transformed into something alive and beautiful.
In our western liberal tradition and to the seekers of peace in the world, unpalatable as it may be, there are times when destruction must precede creation. For example, the Roman Empire (which incorporated Greek culture) became a foundation stone for the emergence of a new European culture. However, before a truly German, French or English way of life could blossom once again, the dominance and grip of the Empire had to be broken by the barbarian invasions of Rome. Out of the ashes of that destruction a fertile compost was created in which the seeds of resurrection were sown. When the Renaissance flowered a thousand years later, the freedom of artistic, cultural and scientific expression drew heavily upon the Roman culture and influence.
The extremes of all 'isms' need to be confronted and checked, perhaps even destroyed. Cultish figures such as Jim Jones, Charles Manson spring to mind, along with greater influences such as Adolf Hitler and nazism, Stalin and communism and religious extremism that seek to dominate and control the lives of any non-believerwhether these are Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu or atheistic in origin. All ideologiescapitalism, feminism, and even egalitarianism etc.when taken to extreme become destructive, and need confronting, sometimes even destroying. Dialogue and negotiation do not solve every problem nor resolve all conflicts. The Second World War illustrated that point most painfully and dramatically.
A Process Model for Dealing with Conflict
The spiritual perspective on conflict and conflict resolution in finding purpose in the conflict can best be illustrated by a process model.
This model has four stages and is used as a guideline in our therapeutic work with conflicting couples, families and conflicts within organisations.
Stage One: The Ego Perspective
At this stage each party has their own point of view. Neither side is prepared to budge from their perspective, their beliefs or their prejudices. This is the stage we are most familiar with. Unless the parties can move on to the second stage, the conflict will become increasingly destructive, eventually leading to a split and possibly irretrievable breakdown of the relationship.
Victor, a semiconductor company manager, is in conflict with Thomas, a computer programmer in charge of production of operations at their factory. Victor expects Tom to be at work at 9am every day, when manufacturing operations start. One morning, Tom is late and turns up at work at 9:35am. Victor is furious, as a newly developed computer chip batch is now late for deliveryand Victor likes to fulfil his pledge to deliver 'on time.' He shouts and rages at Tom, suggesting that maybe Tom is not a suitable employee any more.
Tom tries to explain that he would normally have been at work on time, had it not been for the fact that his neighbour had a flat tyre and he needed to get to an important interview for a job he has been out of work for some time and this was his first opportunity to get back to work and support his family. Tom is keenly aware of this and instantly responded to his neighbour's plight. Manufacturing, and its priorities, a somewhat impersonal activity, rapidly disappeared from Tom's mind in the face of his neighbour's personal pleas. Tom decides to take a risk and underestimates the amount of time taken to help his neighbourwhich he manages to do successfully.
Victor is even more outraged at Tom's explanation, as Tom's obligations and contract say he starts at 9am. Tom feels misjudged, feels he does other things at work to make up the time anyway. He sees Victor as unfeeling and as someone who has no understanding of people.
Stage Two: Empathy Perspective
At this point, the parties suspend their own point of view and simply listen to the other person's feelings, perspective, point of view and acknowledge that that is a point of view too. Each party has a turn to express their perspective and to listen to the other's perspective.
Stage Three: Appreciating each other's qualities
Once the stage of empathy has been fully explored, the process can move on to having the participants begin to appreciate each other's strengths or qualities. In other words, the participants begin to relate to what I would call the core or essence of each other, even though they may be very different. It's about appreciating the qualitative differences in each other.
Victor is by now beginning to appreciate that Tom has some qualities that he (Victor) does not have much of, i.e. Tom is much more a compassionate man than being just a computer programmer. So Victor begins to appreciate this quality in Tom as a potentially valuable asset too, even though it may detract a little from the manufacturing production of the company. Tom may also begin to voice appreciation of Victor's qualities of being focussed and always honouring what he his contracted to do, to the letter even. At this stage, it is necessary to enable each participant to really see and appreciate that these qualities determine this perspective or point of view. Furthermore, it allows them to broaden their outlook by voluntarily incorporating that perspective (and something of that quality too).
Stage Four: Purpose
Now the purpose of the different conflicting viewpoints can be realised. By incorporating something of each other's quality, a richer mixture, one that is more whole and which can accomplish greater things, is realised.
In a multi-party conflict, such a process will naturally be harder and will take longer to facilitate. However, the principles outlined above are the same and if the four stages are worked through, a very rewarding result will be the outcome.
Often parties get stuck at Stages 1 or 2 and it may be necessary to allow for much more time than what was originally planned for. Negotiations between conflicting countries often take yearsmany yearsbefore stages one and two are completed. However, once completed, stages 3 and 4 are more quickly realised.
You may well ask in what is the spiritual perspective being represented here? It is precisely in the opening of the human heart to each other, transcending our limited viewpoints, that the possibilities of richer qualities, or 'Divine Qualities,' combining is realised. The relationship is enriched by these qualities and can evolve to be more complex and richer in its nature, much like the development of culture in a city where diverse people meet each other.
Director of CCPE Director of the London Sufi Centre British representative for the Sufi Order International
*Logotherapy by Victor Frankl
** The Healing Fields. Working with psychotherapy and nature to rebuild shattered lives by Jenny Grut and Sonia Linden. Published by Frances Lincoln 2002.
for CCPE: Center
for Counselling & Psychotherapy Education
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