Last week, I posted a recommendation for three books that have strongly impacted both my personal and professional lives. One of the more challenging concepts I learned from those books comes from The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. In that book, the authors pose the question that I have in the title of this post: Are you at war or at peace?
In this context, the question relates to a condition of the heart and not to a specific skill or technique for resolving conflict. To simply state the concept described in the book:
When your heart is at war, you see people as objects that are either obstacles to your progress or just irrelevant.
When your heart is at peace, you see people as people who have hopes, needs, cares, and fears as real as your own.
This one single concept has completely transformed how I work with, communicate with, and view other people. It’s really a simple question, and it has profound consequences if you take it seriously. Here are some examples to consider.
While working on a business proposal, my daughter asked me to help her with a 4-H woodworking project. The request itself created stress for me. I needed to complete the proposal, and I wanted to invest the time with my daughter. I told her that we could work on it later in the day.
Within 30 or 45 minutes she asked again if I could help her. Caught in the stress of the moment, I felt the flush of anger rising up my spine as my view of her as an interruption and distraction clouded my perception of the situation. Suddenly, on the verge of voicing my frustration with her, I thought: she’s just a young teenage girl who needs her father’s help and attention. As quickly as the anger rose, it dissipated. Suddenly, I saw the situation in a whole new light.
She was no longer an object that stood between me and my goals. She was a person who needed my attention. I moved from anger to acceptance in about 5 seconds, and I went from wanting to “uncork” on her to calmly informing her that I would make time for her at 4:00 pm.
I was sitting in a meeting at my church. Another member of the committee took a position opposed to mine. The same flash of anger that I had with my daughter rose up my spine. I saw them as obstinate and uncooperative, and I sat silent for the rest of the meeting.
In the first scenario, my view of my daughter went from seeing her as an object to seeing her as a person, and my heart switched from war to peace. In this case, the conflict basically evaporated as my heart calmed towards my daughter. This calm revealed itself in controlled speech that protected both my schedule and our relationship.
In the second scenario, I did not make the switch in thinking I did in the first scenario. I viewed my fellow committee member as an obstacle to having my opinion heard and considered. As a result, my “flight” response kicked in and I avoided the confrontation. Unfortunately, I also avoided any further contribution to the meeting because my heart remained at war. I simply did not want to contribute to that “object.” I’m not proud to admit it, but I think the value of the lesson makes it worth sharing.
While I don’t, and can’t, know whether shifting from an at war stance to an at peace stance would have improved the effectiveness of that meeting; I do think that it probably would have. I can say that the tone of the meeting immediately shifted when my heart took an at war stance. It never became confrontational or negative. It just lost something good that it had before I “went to war” internally.
Remember that I confronted my daughter in the first scenario. I didn’t just give-in to her request. I set some boundaries and established some expectations, and I did it at peace with her. My tone was calm. My breathing was under control. My body language was relaxed. My heart rate never raised. In the second case, I avoided a confrontation, and I failed to contribute to the team. The net effect was probably negative.
How many times does your heart go to war towards people. Going to war does not require angry exchanges, raised voices, and clenched fists. It only takes a shift in thinking that allows you to see others as objects. The shift is internal. At war or at peace is not about behavior. It is about heart. It is about thinking. It is about attitude. Others sense it in us more than they see it.
If you want to learn effective conflict resolution techniques, start with your heart and encourage others to do the same. A heart at peace can resolve conflict. A heart at war cannot.
(Originally published in my Resolving Conflict in Teams Blog)
Photo courtesy of www.sxc.hu.