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Sawubona: I See You

Tammy Lenski’s Conflict Zen Blog

In moments of conflict, seeing someone whole is both a noble and a difficult thing. It is a worthwhile pursuit whether we’re part of the conflict or we’re helping them sort it out — because that’s where possibility lives.

In moments of conflict, seeing someone whole is both a noble and a difficult thing. It is a worthwhile pursuit because that's where possibility lives. -
In Zulu, the traditional greeting is Sawubona — I see you. The traditional response is, Yebo, sawubona — Yes, I see you, too.

Sawubona is, in a sense, a covenant: I pledge to try to see your essence; I pledge to look at you wholly and not just at the parts of you that grab my attention; I pledge to see your entire humanity, to bear witness to all of who you are.

In moments of conflict, seeing someone whole is both a noble and a difficult thing. The difficulty of it doesn’t mean we should abandon the quest; indeed, it means we must try harder.

Because it is in seeing whole that possibility lives.

When we look hard for the person we married even in the midst of a terrible row, we remember that there is more to our relationship than the conflict that seems to have divided us lately. When it is tempting to conclude that who they are has changed or gone away, we can instead see that they can be both someone who exasperates us and someone we can still love.

When we look hard for the equal human in front of us even while intensely disliking a colleague whose very presence seems to make our day harder, we recognize that the problem lies in “the between” and not just in who they are. It calls upon us to let go of the easy diagnosing and do the harder work of figuring out the between.

When we pledge to truly see each other, we step into the middle of others’ conflict with a deeply powerful intention — the intention to bear witness without judging, the intention to help them bring all of who they are to the finding resolution, the intention to figure out how we have to be as human beings for them to be all who they can be right here, right now.

I am challenging myself to bring the spirit of sawubona with me to my work and to my life. Perhaps you would like to challenge yourself to do the same. Here is a question I am finding useful: How can I do a better job of seeing them whole right now?”


Yebo, sawubona.

[Hat tip to fellow mediator Jason Dykstra, who first introduced me to the word sawubona.]


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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