After much blue-sky gazing over myriad cups of coffee, I have come to the conclusion that, with regard to conflict, there are some truisms at the core of the human condition. Not often recognised, these truisms nevertheless deeply affect how we deal with one another.
Problems do not exist independently of humans
People speak of ‘problems’ as if they are universal whereas each problem has an owner and is unique to that person. This is because each person has a unique set of beliefs around how the world operates. By way of a simple example, if two people each suffer a leg broken in exactly the same manner their experiences will be quite different.
If there were no humans there would be no problems!
2. We never understand another person’s problems
Directly because of (1), we never fully understand the problems of others – no matter how hard we try. Obviously, it is well worth trying but do not delude yourself that you really understand.
And yet, we keep on saying, ‘I understand exactly where you are coming from’
3. ‘Solutions’ are the source of much conflict
This one is totally counter-intuitive and requires a longer explanation.
The assumption here is that ‘solutions’ have to be good for you – and the more the better!
Yet, unless there is agreement on what problem the ‘solution’ is trying to solve, and agreement on the preferred situation, different, competing, ‘solutions’ will lead to argument divorced from resolving the actual problem.
All too frequently, a preferred ‘solution’ is put forward in the guise of a problem, for example, “The problem is that the buses are going too fast“. This implies a need to slow the buses down – clearly a solution, not a problem! I imagine that the actual problem could have been ‘People being injured by buses‘, in which case there are many other possible solutions (getting rid of the people springs to mind…)
Another, very common, difficulty with ‘solutions’ being offered in the guise of a problem is that, if a particular ‘solution’ is adopted without agreeing what it is trying to solve, in this case people being injured by buses, then the offered solution will end-up being treated as if it is ‘the problem’ and the discussion will shift on to different ways to slow down the buses – as if slowing down the buses was ‘the problem’. The unfortunate result of this is that the many other possible options for tackling ‘People being injured by buses‘ are cut out of consideration.
An easy way to flush-out a problem disguised as a solution, is to ask, ‘If what you suggest was implemented, what would change?’
When you understand where you are (the problem), and where you want to be, possible solutions will readily present themselves.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
So starts Jane Austin’s ‘Pride and prejudice’. But, does being ‘Universally acknowledged’ make something a fact or is it just true.
The word ‘truth’ is bandied around quite a bit as if it were a solid ‘thing’, something final, something that ends an argument: except that it isn’t and it doesn’t.
‘Truth’ (and its opposite, ‘Falsehood’) is not interchangeable with ‘Fact’. Truth is the product of what people believe, and manifests itself as an assertive statement.
There are no ‘universal’ truths (beliefs), that is truths existing independently of people, but there are widely shared truths. However, the fact that many people believe something to be true does not, of necessity, make it true.
In short, if there were no people in the world there would be no truths or falsehoods but things would still exist or happen – ‘things’ that could also be described as ‘As it is’.
Seeing that we do have people in the world, we can apply empirical, plus rational, assessment to verify that these ‘As it is’ things exist or have happened, in which case they will then become established ‘facts’: points that we can then use as a foundation upon which to establish other facts. And, contrary to Kellyanne Conway’s assertion, there are no ‘Alternative facts‘ regarding an ‘As it is’ : various ‘truths’ but only one version of the facts!
So, for Jane Austen, it might be a universal truth but that doesn’t make it a fact.
If a country has a corrupt political system, a corrupt judiciary, and a corrupt president plus its government blatantly and continually attacks the media, teargasses peaceful protesters, withdraws from widely recognised and accepted world bodies, such as WHO and UNESCO, directly targets members of the ICC and refuses to be held accountable for war crimes, is it a ‘Rogue State’?
The first time I came across that saying, I thought ‘Yeah! Some hippie-style, deep and meaningful observation suitable for contemplation during meditation’. Having thought some more, I now see it in a different light.
The illusion is that we don’t see the world ‘As it is’, instead we perceive it through the tangle of beliefs that we hold around how the world operates. We construct a ‘make-believe’ world in our head, a world comprising layers of meaning around perceived actions (or inactions).
In our unique world, there are actions and words that we interpret as wanting to help, deceive, insult, love, snub, judge and so on: trouble is, no-one else can see these barbs and hurts. At best, other people are only vaguely aware of what is going on for us – also, they are busily living in their own creation!
Why does any of this matter? It matters because, we assign meaning to the actions of others and then act on those interpretations assuming them to be true. For instance, you are walking along the footpath and you see a friend approaching, one with whom you recently had a minor tiff. As you get close to your friend, s/he crosses the road and carries on walking. Clearly, this friend could not have missed seeing you (after all, you did give a little wave) and deliberately snubbed you, probably in retaliation for the earlier tiff. Now you are primed for endless ruminating over what happened and, more importantly, what to do next. Incidentally, your friend crossed the road to take a short-cut home and hadn’t seen you because her glasses were being repaired.
You are now in a self-fulfilling cycle, one in which you have two opportunities to effect change: a) change your beliefs (the long-haul) or, more immediately, b) interrupt your self-talk to reach a new position regarding what you will do next and thereby create the next moment.
Peter Ustinov observed “If we are destined to live out our lives in the prison of our mind, our duty is to furnish it well”. We are each totally responsible for ‘furnishing our minds well’ – and for what happens from this moment on, terrifying though the thought may be.
A conversation with a friend alerted me to the situation regarding the proliferation of gated communities in the US (and elsewhere), in particular, large gated communities
Even in relatively small gated communities there are strict rules regarding what you can and cannot do, items such as the mowing of lawns, house maintenance, parking of cars, access, security requirements and so on. And, the rules seem to become more intrusive as the wealth increases.
Within these communities live the wealthy and privileged, those who likely value their individual rights, resent the intrusion of the state and the paying of (what they see as) excessive taxes. They have chosen to opt out of the day to day happenings that influence the lives of the majority of people so as to create a miniature world of their own.
Curiously, a large number of US citizens actively work to ‘minimise the intrusion of the state into their daily lives’ while, at the same time willingly submitting to gated community contractual arrangements that allow for very close intrusion into their everyday living.
These communities comprise like-minded people who have agreed to operate in a certain way for the greater good of the whole community – they enter into a sort of social contract. So, what do they see as the difficulty in applying the same concept on a grander scale?
Perhaps these communities could be expanded to include a group of people willingly occupying a country in which everyone agrees to abide by a set of rules that offer security, comfort and shared resources for everyone in exchange for the agreed loss of some personal freedoms.
Gated communities, coupled with private health care, private security, and the occupants’ desire to pay the least possible in the way of taxes are an expression of people opting out of their obligation to the wider community in terms of providing health care, roading, security, parks, inter-state highways and other facilities that benefit everyone – including themselves!
In short, people living in gated communities are eating away at the underpinnings of civil society.
Some years ago, a young woman was out walking when she was brutally attacked by a man with an axe and killed. A short time after this tragic event, her parents were being interviewed for a news item when they surprised the interviewer by volunteering that they had chosen to forgive their daughter’s attacker.
When I saw the interview, and given the enormity of the crime, I could hardly credit anyone considering, let alone choosing, forgiveness – and yet they had. It was said simply and deliberately and the action clearly came from a place of inner strength.
The interview reinforced my notion that how I view the world directly influences how I experience it. That what I ‘experience’ (my feelings and emotions) drives my subsequent actions which, in turn, leads to my next ‘experience’ – each step a part of a ‘Self-fulfilling cycle’. Driven by what I believe to be true about how the world operates, the cycle is rather like a library of millions of little recordings in my head, each waiting to be played in response to situations that I encounter.
That tragic event also drew my attention (once again!) to the unpredictability of everyday life. On a daily basis, I am confronted by events that are unexpected in their nature, size and timing, hence the saying ‘Life is what happens while we plan our future’. Many of these events are hugely unpleasant with things happening to people whom I believe do not deserve them (and the other way around). I also see how brutal life is for millions of people around the world – wars, disease, crime, famine, earthquakes, floods, and so on. In short, I get drawn into pondering what life is all about: ‘Is there some “Universal purpose” and so forth.
It could be argued that such a gloomy portrayal of the state of the world only leads to a point of quiet despair or disengagement with life, however, I think that a thoughtful ‘pondering’ usually leads to a fork in the existential road, one at which I can choose to disengage with life or choose to deliberately engage with it. Choosing to engage with life, notwithstanding the many unpleasant things that go on, stimulates me to step back, take stock of what is happening around me (factually rather than judgementally) and shed or modify those of my beliefs that lead to my unhelpful experiences.
Seeing that it is impossible to plan with certainty (even though I may unthinkingly imagine that I can) and that I can never be fully in control of the journey, it is also likely that I will forever be surprised by the next turn of events! However, all is not lost and there is something that I can do to deal with whatever fortune offers next and hopefully – I say ‘hopefully’ because I won’t know until the test comes – my preparations will provide some stability when plans and actions are thrown aside by the whims of fortune.
That ‘something’ is preparing myself mentally by working on my beliefs (views) about how the world operates and then, from this foundation, articulating a considered set of principles upon which to base my operating style. Then I can develop plans to contribute to what life has to offer.
One of the benefits of embracing the unknown and acknowledging that much of what happens just ‘Is’, is that it relieves me of the need to ask questions such as ‘Why me!’ or ‘Why her!’ and reduces the stress that arises from what I expect to happen not matching what actually happens: it also saves the energy-draining need to blame myself, or others for events beyond my control. Notwithstanding all of this, I do keep in mind that I am personally responsible for the foreseeable consequences of my actions – I cannot just put it all down to fate.
Another benefit of acknowledging and contemplating the capriciousness of life is that it increases my empathy for the situation of others by reducing the urge, however well-disguised, to assign blame or opprobrium for their misfortune.
Philosophically, it can be very difficult to make sense of many (perhaps most) aspects of life and, no matter how I reconcile things in my mind, no matter what I settle on as my purpose in life, it will always be from a peculiarly personal perspective, one that others may well consider to be of little value. However, defining this personal reference point is important to me, it gives purpose to my life and prepares me to respond to it’s randomness in a thoughtful and principled manner.
Faced with extreme hardship and extreme brutality, Viktor Frankl concluded that the only purpose life had to offer was that which he gave it. This was one of the insights that enabled him to survive Auschwitz and go on to live a purposeful, highly productive and celebrated life. He also concluded that a lot of mental distress is related to people not having established a purpose in life, their own purpose, and therefore living in an ‘existential vacuum’. The fact that life is brutal for large numbers of people, is not a reason to give up contributing to a better world otherwise our lives really will have been without purpose.
Life can be likened to rowing across the Atlantic in a very small boat, one that, at any moment, could be swamped or sunk by a large wave. To some that journey would appear hopeless, even pointless, but that does not mean that we should stop rowing toward our chosen destination. There is a good chance that I will arrive in good time and in good spirits. When asked, ‘Why did you do that?’, my answer as ‘The rower’ will be uniquely mine.
Shifting my beliefs (my view of how the world operates) is usually a slow and steady, process – akin to leaning on a car to get it moving rather than taking a flying leap at it. Having said that, there has been the occasion where a sudden emotional shock has instantly and permanently changed a long-held belief.
No matter how long it takes to develop new and more helpful viewpoints, the payback makes it worthwhile.
At a leadership development workshop, a participant had the realisation that when we see something ‘As it is’ (as if recorded by a machine), it is not simply a matter of us filtering out what we do not want to see, we also create what we want to see. Through the distorted filter of our fears and fantasies, we change and augment what is available thus creating our very own experience.
This process may not matter too much except that we then act upon what we have created in our head. We treat it as if it were real which leads to the creation of ‘the next moment’ and another bunch of assumptions (unique to us) about what happened.
At leadership workshops (usually quietly and to one side of the main discussion), I have been asked “Do you think women are better communicators than men?”
As you may well imagine, even at the best of times, straying into this area by expressing an opinion one way or the other would be fraught with danger. However, the questions led me to think back to the many people with whom I have worked in leadership programmes and the many stories that have been related to me about workplace and personal situations.
After pondering the question I came to the conclusion that I could not say whether women, as a group, were better (or worse) than men. Furthermore, I realised that many men were far better communicators than many women and that many women were far better communicators than many men. Put another way, I came to the general conclusion that the differences within each gender are greater than the differences between them.
Focusing on the differences within each gender being greater than those between the genders takes the potential heat out of discussions by shifting the focus onto individual action – with the possible bonus that the effort required to change your viewpoint is probably less than that required to change your gender.
Short story: ‘The difference within… ’ approach can be usefully applied to any situation in which you want to move the focus from the stereotype to the individual.