This article was first published by the Missouri Lawyers Weekly.
Parties caught in conflict often hold three fears: the fear of freedom, the fear of taking responsibility for the situation and the fear of loss. Fear of freedom reflects the comfort we may feel in having someone else impose limits on us, tell us what to do, when to do it and how to do it. The alternative – and the source of our second fear – is to take responsibility for our own lives and the important decisions we must make for ourselves. Ken Cloke in Mediating Dangerously 57 (2001) describes the dynamic: “Instead of being free and responsible, we act out of fear, hoping our problems will fix themselves [or that other people will fix them].”
In a conflict with a spouse, employer or third-party, a person typically avoids looking closely at himself or at his true interests and needs. Often a person places the blame for the situation solely on the other person. The conflict, however, often signals the failure of one or both parties to accept his or her contribution to at least a portion of the dispute. Freedom, however, requires us to take responsibility for our actions, our missteps, our dreams, values and ultimately our lives. As Cloke says: “It means we have no one to blame for our unhappiness and failures other than ourselves.”
Efforts to resolve conflict often implicate the third fear – fear of loss. People fear being alone and unloved, of being fired, of being unable to find another job. They fear the loss of moving from a comfortable home or of moving away from friends and family. They fear the loss of abandoning a familiar role, of abandoning an identity that no longer fits, or of acknowledging important values that circumstances have forced a person to ignore. This fear causes people to resist change, to hang on to illusions about the situation and to create false expectations.
Pushing through our fears of freedom, responsibility and loss allows us to change in ways that are likely to resolve the conflict. It allows us to face those aspects of the conflict that find their source solely within us. It forces us to discover who we really are, what we really need and where our dreams may take us. Pushing through the fear of loss allows us to make a new beginning. In the same way an over-crowded closet leaves no room for a well-made silk dress that fits a person perfectly, hanging on to a job that makes a person miserable leaves no room for a job that delights her. Fear of loss keeps a person stuck in this chaotic place, whether cluttered closet or crummy job.
Mediators deal with these fears regularly. Conflict often signals the need for personal change. Yet, making those changes requires enormous courage. In mediating these fears, skillful mediators ask parties to name their fears, to look at them closely, to consider the deeper sources of the fears, to accept the fear as a teacher, to refocus on the positive aspects of the change required, to imagine how the parties will overcome their fears, to take small steps to confront the fears and to assume that the worst aspects of their fears have already occurred.
Two Chinese characters illustrate this somewhat counter-intuitive aspect of conflict. The character “wei” standing alone means danger. The character “gi” standing alone means chance or opportunity. Together they can mean crisis or conflict. Elegantly translated they capture the idea of an “opportunity riding on a dangerous wind.” What fears and dangers must each of us conquer to find the next opportunity and a personal peace?