Practicing Co-operative Opposition

Practicing Co-operative Opposition


“The aim of yoga is to calm the chaos of conflicting impulses.”

B.K.S. Iyengar (the most influential yogi of modern times)

What if your yoga practice could help heal distress and resolve interpersonal conflict?

It can. Cooperation between opposing forces is the key to reaching peace. It’s not about erasing differences but balancing both sides. This is true on the yoga mat and at the negotiation table. Tensions in your body and conflict between bodies can’t be realistically resolved by getting rid of differences. We don’t want dark and light to blend into grey. Best results follow from maintaining yet balancing our differences.

Research confirms that balancing opposite forces on the yoga mat has a dramatic power to calm the mind. Calm minds solve interpersonal problems more creatively.

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The Economics of Accountability

My job as a conflict mediator is built on skills I learned as a high school owner and teacher.

A few years ago I had a student and his mother in my office one morning, glaring across at each other.  The school day had not yet begun but they were already hard at it, locked in stubborn conflict. 

Mom: “He doesn’t do a stitch of homework, any more than he helps out around the house.  And that’s zero.   I swear, if it wasn’t to eat and borrow the car he’d probably never come home.”

Son: “Which might make all of us happier.  It’s a madhouse when I am home.  I don’t get any freedom and all you do is nag.”

Mom: “What else can I do?  You’re in this expensive private school so you can get into university.  If it wasn’t for my nagging you’d never get accepted.”

I stepped in, “Let’s look at what you’re both saying.  You’ve described a perfect lose-lose arrangement.   If you are correct, Mrs. Wilson, then even if Evan gets acceptance, the credit will go to your nagging, and he’ll be set up for disaster when nobody is there to nag him.  And Evan, you’re so angry at your mom you’re prepared to sabotage your own success. ”

I continued.  “This is a classic vicious circle.  It can actually get a lot worse, or we can make an agreement right now to spin it the other way, into a positive spiral.”

“Really?” He asked, “What are we talking about?  Brain transplant?”

“More like a behavioural transplant,” I answered.  “But it has to be both of you.”

“I’ll try anything,” the mother said.

“What about you, Evan?  Be honest with me, do you actually want to go to university, or is that your mother’s ambition?  I know you’ve got the brain, but unless you care about being there you’d be happier setting your sights in a less academic direction.”

“Yes.  I do want university.  I’ve wanted to study science since I was a kid.  I always intend to work.  I just go nuts and flip out when she won’t leave me alone.  Then I can’t think or work at all.”

“So the more she nags the less you work, and the less you work the more she nags.  That about it?”

“Pretty much,” he smiled.

“Then let’s turn it around.  It’s time for you to grow up, Evan, and time for you, Mrs. Wilson, to let him.  I want you both to think of being a student like having a job.”

“What do you mean, “like a job”?” he asked.

“I’m talking about getting paid in privileges, one of which is not to be nagged.  Prove to your mom that you CAN do the work on your own, that you’re actually ready to earn the freedom you want.”

“Mrs. Wilson, you need to leave him alone.  Give him one month.  Check in with his teachers for academic updates but don’t pester him.  Pay him with the car and other luxuries only when he’s earned his paycheck by doing his schoolwork and chores.  

Think of this as a contract to adulthood, or as I call it: the economics of accountability.”

A Book Is Born

On a winter evening not long ago I was having a beer with some friends after my weekly game of outdoor hockey.  I was at a table with Jason and Pete, middle-aged men who, like me, had separated from their wives.  Jason began to describe his divorce battle.

 “She’s trying to take it all.  She’s in a fury, won’t talk to me, and her lawyer just eggs her on,” he said through clenched teeth. “But there’s no way I’m giving in.  My lawyer says her claims are bogus.  She won’t let me into the house but I’ve been told I can force her to sell it.”

 “Don’t your kids still live there?” I asked.

 “Well that’s just it.” Jason said.  “I care about them but I’ve also got to get my share.  I don’t want to force my kids to move, and look like a jerk, but no way I’m going to pay and pay while she lives like a queen in the house I bought.”

 “Can’t you find a compromise?” I asked.

 “I tell you, she’s gone nuts.  There’s no middle ground.  We only talk through lawyers.”  Jason went on.  “I’ve already paid thousands of dollars.  So has she, or even more, I bet.  It’s been going on for close to two years and we’re farther than ever from a solution.”

 Pete had been nursing his brew across from us in silence.  “Same with me,” he said, “for two years going on three.  I’m self-employed and hardly make any money.  She’s got a big job.  Just up and walked out on me.  Now I’m looking after my son and have to fight her for alimony.  How am I supposed to do that?   I don’t even know what she wants.”

 I had just signed the legal documents finalizing my own divorce which, from beginning to end, had taken under five months and 3.2 hours of legal bills.   

 “Listen guys.  It doesn’t have to be like that,” I said.  “There is a simpler way.”

 “Yeah, right.  Good luck trying that with my ex,” Jason growled. 

 “Have you tried talking with her calmly?”

 “Dude, you jest.  Sure I’ve tried.  But I open my mouth and we end up screaming at each other.”

 “Then shift your reactions.  Let me describe the strategy I used.” I said, and began to outline how co-operative opposition works on yoga poses and at the negotiation table.

 I explained that the key was to “park ego at the door” and to seek the best for both sides.  I described how a mindfulness practice could strengthen the body and help resolve conflict by respectfully balancing opposite forces.

 Pete in particular was intrigued and wanted to know more.  I realized from this conversation that many couples could benefit from putting these simple strategies into practice. 

 Simple they are. But not easy.  We most urgently need to make calm decisions at those times when being calm is most difficult – in the midst of emotional crisis.  When stakes are highest we feel most triggered to attack. For the sake of our children, our wealth and our personal well-being, it’s worth the effort to work past negative emotions, and put ego in its place.  

 I decided then and there to put these suggestions into a book.  The Yoga Of Divorce is being published by Friesen Press in the winter of 2016.

7 Steps To Agree Despite Uncertainty

Last October when the CBC fired radio host Jian Ghomeshi for allegations of sexual misconduct, I noticed how quickly and strongly many people reacted to the news.  They were outraged.   “How dare a public corporation invade the private life of an employee.”

(Not So) Blind Justice

Those certainties evaporated shortly after when a number of women came forward and spoke of the violence they experienced at his hands.  Public opinion then swung just as quickly to the opposite certainty: he must be guilty. 

He likely is guilty, given the number of women who have spoken out.  I’m not arguing one side or the other, just observing how quickly people claim certainty. 

You can see similar patterns in other public scandals, such as Mike Duffy and the Canadian Senate seeming to be victims one day, culprits the next.  On a broader historical scale, unfounded certainties have obstructed the search for truth and justice from Galileo and the rise of science to the woman’s movement and civil rights.  As a society, and as individuals, we tend to cling to the comfort of certainty, often without bothering to examine the evidence.

If you reflect you will likely see the same pattern much closer to home.  As a mediator, trained to help people resolve interpersonal disputes, I notice that at some point in most conflicts the path to resolution is blocked by an unfounded certainty.  Consider the last interpersonal conflict you had.  Did the other party have a mistaken belief about your actions, intentions, or motives?  Or did you about theirs?  If the conflict got resolved, it’s likely because someone bothered to clear up enough of the misunderstanding to make room for trust.

I’m referring to honest conflicts, when both sides genuinely believe they are right.  In other words, most disputes.

In those situations, the story you tell yourself to justify your own position is probably fine.  After all, you know your own viewpoint.

Danger lies in the story you tell yourself about the other person’s motives.    You might think you know.  But you really don’t.   Once your interpretation becomes a conviction, you are half way toward demonizing your opponent.

Here are 7 steps to get you past unfounded certainties and help you reach agreement.

1.      Challenge your convictions.  Identify which ones are assumptions, not facts.

2.      Avoid assuming your opponent’s motives are less worthy than yours.  It’s healthier and more honest to adopt a neutral, open stance.

3.      Inquire.  Ask your opponent direct, open-ended questions about his or her actions, feelings, motives, goals.  

4.      Listen without challenging, contradicting or defending yourself.  (You’ll get your turn)

5.      Show them you understand their point of view.  (This doesn’t mean you share it, just that you “get” it)

6.      Express your truth calmly, taking responsibility for your actions without casting blame.

7.      Identify common interests and shared goals.

Now you are both ready to begin brainstorming for solutions based on understanding, not assumptions.

Stress Lessons Taught By My Body

I was at a stormy period of my life with my business in trouble and my marriage a minefield.  On a stool in my garage I sat rocking back and forth with my jaw in my hand, suffering from an excruciating toothache.  Almost absentmindedly, as if to distract myself from the pain, I began to massage under the ear, around the jawline, even under the tongue.  The pain was electrifying.  Then suddenly it vanished.  It completely disappeared, and never returned.

That marked a turning point.  I realized my toothache was not a dental problem, but a mental problem.  Stress. MY BODY WAS SPEAKING AND I DIDN’T KNOW THE LANGUAGE.

I vowed to learn it. 

I began to read up on recent research in alternative health and to take classes in body work.  Discoveries I made changed my life.

I learned that my tendency to freeze under stress is a well-documented phenomenon, called a neural hijacking.  It happens when the thinking part of the brain shuts down because the ancient, emotional brain, is on hyper-alert.  Under sustained stress the emotional brain, on survival mode, effectively short-circuits the slow, thinking part of the brain. 

Thus, learning to reduce and manage stress is essential to remaining clear-headed and alert, particularly during times of trouble.

Happily, there is a positive flip-side to this body-brain connection. Research proves you can “rewire” your brain to change the mental, emotional and physical habits of a lifetime. It's called "neuro-plasticity" - and it is very good news.

But positive rewiring of old habits isn't easy.  It requires sustained, mindful intention.  By “mindful” I simply mean being aware of whatever it is you are doing, while you are doing it.  This can include paying attention to your internal thought-loops and emotional states as well as your physical posture, depending on what it is you are trying to improve.

The first lesson I learned from my body, on the day of the toothache, was the intimate connection between body and mind: the brain can cause physical pain.

That led to the second lesson – which I learned later from yoga class – that intentional, mindful physical activity can help manage emotional stress. I was lucky to discover Iyengar yoga, a practice that focuses on slow, precise alignment within each pose.  The teacher provides detailed, individualized corrections as students learn to send precise intentions (that is – to rewire) each part of the body.

I can personally vouch for the benefits.  The daily practice on my living room floor not only gave me greater strength, flexibility and vitality, it calmed my mind.   When I attempt a pose, sending a precise intention to each part of my body, my mind is completely absorbed. My brain is too busy to be anxious.  I don’t think about dinner or financial problems or conflict at work.  Without realizing it I was doing meditation-in-action.

The mindful yoga practice did not fix my problems at home or work.  But I was no longer frozen.  I was able to respond decisively as issues arose, and from that, to feel strong. 

You can’t control life’s storms or calm the ocean waves.  But you can take your board out on the water and learn to surf.