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.”

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.