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Being Mindful in Confrontations

Mindfulness Teacher and Author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness

IP Interview
Published on April 30, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • The role of pause in conflict
  • The role of creativity in conflict
  • Noticing and disarming unproductive automatic responses to difficulty
Executive Bio

Ed Halliwell

Mindfulness Teacher and Author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness

Ed is a UK-based mindfulness teacher. He has written three books: Into The Heart of Mindfulness, Mindfulness: How To Live Well By Paying Attention (published in a new edition as Mindfulness Made Easy) and (as co-author) The Mindful Manifesto. He is an associate of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and Sussex Mindfulness Centre, and regularly speaks on mindfulness-related topics, in the media and at conferences, festivals and other events. He leads public mindfulness courses, workshops and retreats in London, Surrey and Sussex, and has introduced and taught mindfulness in workplaces such as Accenture, UNICEF UK, Imperial College Business School, and the Houses of Parliament.

Interview Transcript

What about conflict? Could you talk to us about the relationship between mindfulness practice and a skillful approach to handling conflict?

Conflict is difficult and triggering. Perhaps the first way is to recognize the difficulty of conflict. When there is a mismatch between what someone else is wanting, thinking, feeling and behaving and how we’re experiencing all of those things, there’s a jar, isn’t there? This will, inevitably, activate the threat system within both of us. The threat system, as we know, reacts quickly and not always in a very accurate way. Therefore, all of our past histories will likely come up. All of the ways that we’ve learnt to deal with stresses, will come out into this conflict. Then, perhaps, we’ve not just got the conflict about whatever is happening right now, but we’ve also got our historical ways of either avoiding or trying to quell stressful situations in us.

Imagine all of that going into the mix. It’s really tricky, really difficult to stay grounded in the present, in the midst of that and, indeed, to appreciate what’s going on. The first step is to know that it’s difficult. To be interested in our own reactions to the conflict, to notice, what’s going on with me; I’m noticing my heart’s beating really quickly or I’m noticing that my hands are beginning to tense up and I’m really wanting to either get the hell out of here or I’m ready for a fight with this person. To notice how those threat reactions come up in us and to know that’s okay. It’s like it’s inevitable. It’s not wrong that that happens. It’s a protection and preservation mechanism. But it may not be helpful for this moment because, actually, in human conflicts, it usually doesn’t help to try and kill the person or just run away from them, for all sorts of obvious reasons.

If we’re actually wanting to negotiate the conflict and find a way through it, then we’re going to need to stay present. So, first step, awareness. What’s going on, for me? The second step being, perhaps taking a pause. These tools of grounding ourselves. I’m sitting down here, so I ground myself by just feeling my body on this chair. If you and I were in a conflict, internally, I’m wanting to come and strangle you or I’m wanting to go out of the room, because I really don’t want to spend another minute in the room with this person. That’s the kind of desire to fight or flee and I will, likely, feel that in my body, in all sorts of ways. The adrenaline starts going round my body and I can’t think, because it’s all in a mess and a jumble. Maybe what I do in that moment, if I remember, is to say, okay, come into my body. I may even ask the person, can I just take a moment; I’m noticing I’m a bit riled up here. I just need to pause, maybe put my hand on my belly. It maybe that we can’t do this with the other person, so we might just do this, internally, for ourselves, just for a moment. Maybe we say, I’ll get back to you. We’re not going to resolve this now, can I have think about this?

So giving ourselves opportunities to pause. They don’t need to know that you’re going to practice mindfulness. Actually, we may find that people are very responsive to being given the courtesy of being reflected on. Very rarely will someone say, oh no, you can’t have 10 minutes to think about this. We know, at some level, that that is an act of courtesy. I’m going to reflect on this; I’m going to give this my time and we’re treating each other with respect.

Having grounded, noticing what’s going on, we might also just take a moment to reflect on what might be going on for the other person, recognizing that they’re, maybe, not just bringing the present moment conflict, but all of their previous conflicts to bear on this situation. Without judging them or trying to tell them what to do, because that probably wouldn’t be very well-received, or indeed, appropriate, but we might recognize, that like all human beings, we have our automatic ways of dealing with difficulty.

Then, perhaps, engaging, staying present, when we want to run or fight. So staying really well grounded in the conversation and getting interested in their perspective. Tell me a bit more about where you’re coming from here. I’d be really interested to hear, and whilst, at the moment at least, I don’t agree with you, I’d really like to understand what’s going on here, so that maybe we can start to have a dialogue about it. Not ignoring the conflict or getting into a fight, but seeing if there is way in, for a sense of mutual understanding. Maybe there is a way through and maybe there isn’t. Maybe, at some point, you agree to say, no thanks; we’re not going to work together in this way. If it’s an impossible situation – let’s say, it’s your boss – maybe it’s time to leave your job.

It’s not to say that it’s, necessarily, going to lead to resolution. If we can let go of resolution and move more into, how can we be creative here? What would be skillful to get to where’s possible with this, by going on the journey of the conflict. That’s really easy for me to say and it’s really difficult to do. It’s certainly not the case that I can do this all the time. But it’s a direction of travel so maybe we can also see this as a direction of travel, an art that we can give ourselves to and it’s got a lifelong training. Each time that we end up going into our habitual patterns, we can learn from that. I know you were going to ask about failure so, I guess, this is leading into that.

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