The Vibrations of Conflict [Excerpted from Kenneth Cloke, The Magic of Mediation: A Guide to Transforming and Transcending Conflict (to be published) © 2003]
How strange the change From major to minor, Every time we say goodbye.
Cole Porter clearly got it right. But what exactly is it that changes from major to minor when we say goodbye? What permits music to express and stimulate our moods so precisely? How does it ignite or dampen our spirits, make us feel romantic or cynical, lighthearted or blue? Why do simple sequences of musical notes or complex symphonic strains cause us to weep with sorrow, waltz with elegance, march in disciplined military formations, or swirl sensuously across a dance floor? And what does any of this have to do with conflict?
The Music of Conflict
In a brilliant comedic sketch on the 1950’s “Your Show of Shows,” Sid Caesar and Nanette Fabray pantomimed a marital spat to the strains of the Overture to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Words were wholly unnecessary, as music gave the audience everything it needed to recognize the flow and commiserate with the futility of their argument.
It has often occurred to me, sometimes in the middle of a mediation, that even the most prosaic conflicts have a subtle musical quality about them. In the first place, there is the explicit music of the parties, reflected in their contrasting tempos, pitches, inflections, timbres, and tones of voice. There are solos as individuals hold forth, duets as they discuss, and dissonance as they argue and interrupt each other. There is fortissimo, pianissimo, diminuendo, and crescendo, mirroring the stages of their dialogue and transporting them from fear and rage to forgiveness and reconciliation.
Second, there is the mediator’s calming, measured, propitiating, yet hopeful tone, using tone of voice to draw the parties together. There is the refusing of invited counterpoint, the offering to each side of a solo or aria, and the prompting of a duet or chorus. There is the soprano of injury and distress, the baritone of bitterness and injustice, the bass of hopelessness and depression, and the tenor of optimism and resolution. There is the interplay of score and libretto, moving toward a single harmonious and satisfying finale. Throughout, there is the mediator, trying to orchestrate and harmonize the diverse instruments and blend them into a single symphonic whole.
Third, there is the emotional attunement of the listener to the music that transmits the emotional experience of the storyteller, allowing the listener to resonate, and thereby empathize and approximate the experience of another. Empathetic resonance allows the music to vibrate inside the listener, who experiences secondhand what the speaker experienced, and thereby discovers internally what it might have felt like to have experienced it firsthand.
Historically, it has long been recognized that music stimulates intense emotions. Plato distrusted the emotional power of sensuous music and saw it as dangerous enough to justify censorship. Schopenhauer recognized the deep connection between human feeling and music, which “restores to us all the emotions of our inmost nature, but entirely without reality and far removed from their pain.” Nietzsche described an Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy in music, representing form and rationality versus drunkenness and ecstasy. For Nietzsche, music was the sensual, Dionysian art form par excellence, which could be used to convey all the emotions for which words would never be enough. Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva declared that “The heart: it is a musical, rather than a physical organ,” and Austrian Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein maintained that “Every word strikes an emotional tone.”
These observations help us recognize that every emotion, attitude, and mood in conflict possesses a signature frequency and amplitude, a unique rhythm that is communicated as much through tone of voice, pitch, pace, and timing as through verbal description. These unique emotional frequencies are also communicated through body language and gestures, choice of words, and the narrative structure of conflict stories to listeners who are asked to resonate, empathize, evoke, and experience what happened to the speaker within themselves. The mediator or facilitator in this scenario can be thought of as a tuning fork, grounding the conversation in a tone or musical theme with which everyone is asked to resonate, and, if possible, combine into a single all-encompassing, harmonizing melodic strain.
It is clear that different musical rhythms evoke radically different moods. There are rhythms of control, as with marching music; rhythms of exploration as with jazz; rhythms of sadness as with the blues; and rhythms of devotion as with gospel. Each style of music evokes a different set of emotions, memories, and spiritual or energetic responses. Can we then use rhythms of speech to elicit sadness, anger, or fear? Can we counter these dusky tempos with lighter, upbeat rhythms in order to elicit joy, affection, or courage? What are the qualities of vibration that impart these special, substantive meanings? What, for example, is the vibratory quality of a sincere apology as opposed to an insincere one? And how do we know the difference between them?
We appear to decide these issues by combining sensitive, even subliminal information from multiple resonating sources, including inflection, body language, eye contact, auditory signals of stress, and other signs that are often too faint to distinguish consciously, yet are perceived subliminally. Much of what we think, feel, and do in conflict is grounded in these microscopic, subliminal, nearly unconscious messages that are often beneath the level of conscious awareness. In one experiment, for example, volunteers were shown a video with peaceful visual images punctuated by a car crash that produced a characteristic stressful response in the brain. Researchers then sped up the video so that none of the subjects could recognize that there had been a car crash, yet their brains continued to respond as though they had.
The vibrations we receive from others tremble, sway, and oscillate subtly inside us. The consequence of this internalization is that all our conflict responses, from rage to reconciliation, take place within us, and do so at a level that is below that of conscious attention. We routinely make subtle assessments, such as whether we feel respected or discounted by the other person based on the vibratory quality of their speech, or their posture, attitude, or quality of presence as these resonate within us. We make these assessments by paying attention to how we feel when we are with them. As the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:
‘What if a man cannot be made to say anything? How do you learn his hidden nature?’ ‘I sit in front of him in silence, and set up a ladder made of patience, and if in his presence a language from beyond joy and beyond grief begins to pour from my chest, I know that his soul is as deep and bright as the star Canopus rising over Yemen. And so when I start speaking a powerful right arm of words sweeping down, I know him from what I say, and how I say it, because there’s a window open between us, mixing the night air of our beings.’
Indeed, there is rhythm and refrain, euphony and cacophony, not only in music, but in sight, touch, smell, taste, and thought, which are subtly present in every conversation. Unfortunately, we spend so much time and energy focusing on the relatively superficial literal meanings of what people say that we miss much of what they really mean beneath the surface of what they are saying. If we discount the words and simply focus on facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and the ways their conversation affects us, we may gain a far better understanding of what they actually mean. We know that music strikes people in different ways, so while these effects may be experienced and encouraged, they cannot be predicted or calculated. For this reason, it makes no sense to think of conflict as being created by others without our active participation. When we describe conflict as a tango, we suggest not only that a dance partner has selected us, but that we have selected them, and agreed to sway together to an agreed-upon piece of music. Yet this fact implies that we can stop the dance or change the music whenever we decide to end it, or respond to a different strain of music. Science as Metaphor
Once we recognize that every conflict has emotional, energetic, and spiritual overtones, we can go deeper, and explore the subtle, invisible, vibratory lines along which it, and much of reality, runs. By paying attention to the music of ordinary communication we can discover a hidden fulcrum that can be used to nudge a conflict from impasse to resolution. We can use scientific understanding as a metaphor to find this fulcrum, and consider, for a moment, the part scientists believe may be played by vibration in the universe as a whole. Since Einstein, physicists have been clear that our universe consists of matter and energy which translate directly into each other, and are therefore simply different expressions of the same thing. Matter, which is merely energy moving very slowly, behaves at a quantum level like a wave. Energy, which is matter moving very rapidly, takes the form of a field whose invisible lines of force are revealed, for example, through patterns that can be seen in iron filings sprinkled on a sheet of paper covering a magnet.
Without digressing too far from our topic, many physicists now believe that all matter is composed of vibrating 10 or 11 dimensional strings or “branes,” that vibrate at different frequencies to produce all the known elementary particles. A super-symmetrical unification of all known forces and particles within a single vibrational framework would tell us that the universe does not consist simply of lumps of matter separated by vast reaches of empty space, but of a constant translation of matter into energy and back again, that is expressed through vibrations, waves, fields, “spin” and similar qualities that have no discrete corporeal existence. Particles, which we usually think of as matter, are a tiny part of the universe, separated by unimaginably vast distances. To illustrate, if a proton in the nucleus of an atom were the size of a tennis ball, its electron would be circling two miles away, and the strings scientists theorize would have the same size compared to an atom as an atom has to our solar system. Yet our focus and attention are attracted to particles, or by analogy, to the substantive issues in conflict, with little dedicated to the energetic or vibrational fields created by polarization.
If these speculations by physicists are correct and we live in a world that consists not only of particles of fixed matter, but waves of vibrating energy; if we ourselves inextricably express that world; and if our emotions and spirits are partly explained by thinking of them as wave-like, vibrational, and energetic, we are drawn to consider how our view of conflict and efforts at resolution might shift by treating them as vibrations or waves, rather than as static or particulate. There are many deep and profound issues related to the physical nature of the universe that have had a significant impact on how I think about and respond to conflict. It has been useful to me in mediation, for example, to recognize that I cannot pin down someone’s position and at the same time be precise about their momentum; that my uncertainty about them imparts a kind of structure to the mediation process; and that there is a complimentarity to conflict that allows it to be both fixed or particulate and flowing or wave-like. It has been my experience in mediation that if anything vibrates or resonates, it can be tuned to less adversarial and destructive frequencies. I have found it useful to recognize that in mediation, as in physics, there is no absolute or fixed frame of reference for the perceptions of parties, and when I am able to open heart-to-heart communications, previously hostile combatants merge to form a new, unified, collaborative state, much like a Bose-Einstein condensate in which, at temperatures near absolute zero, individual atoms lose their distinctness to form a single integrated whole and a new state of matter out of thousands of otherwise discrete parts.
I have sometimes found it useful to adopt a geometric analogy that views the parties perceptions of time and space as relative, elastic, and warped by their gravitational attraction to some emotionally massive invisible black hole of pain, around which they rotate at rapid speeds; or to think of impasse as a vacuum in conflict space, and not empty, but seething with polarizing energy that I can borrow for an instant to create something new. These diverse, seemingly inapt physical perspectives have helped me improve the way I think about and articulate what I do, and in the process, led me to new techniques that draw on these understandings.
While these physical examples are metaphoric, they point to underlying unities and relationships. Thus, if I begin with Einstein’s proof that space and time are part of a single equation; that mass bends the shape of spacetime, and that this elastic geometry of spacetime tells matter how to move, I can predict that the greater the density or mass of emotion surrounding a conflict, the greater the distortion it will create in the relational spacetime geometry that connects and separates people, and the greater the gravitational tug, which may result in their going into continuous orbit around each other, or fall more rapidly toward its’ center. Following this line, it helps my understanding of conflict to shift from linear, particle-like, mechanical theories of causation to complex, wave-like, relativistic fields with multiple interacting causes and effects. Developing a field theory of conflict will allow us to recognize its’ complex movements and energetic fluctuations at different points of time and space. Similar changes in our understanding take place when we shift from assuming conflict is regular and predictable to seeing it as chaotic, self-organizing, and sensitively dependent on initial conditions.
Geometry can also be used to enhance our understanding of relationships, since conflict is above all a relationship – not only with others, but with ourselves, the past, present, and future, and the environment in which it occurs. Space, then, translates into relative qualities of distance, angle, and trajectory, while time translates into relative qualities of speed, frequency, and direction, and the angle by which one approaches or examines something. Examining the angle of our speed and position relative to others can help define the meaning of our conflict.
Similarly, we can learn from evolutionary biology and computer algorithms about the competing and collaborating elements that are responsible for the evolution of conflict as a complex self-organizing system. Just as gravity was reduced by Einstein to the flexible geometry of spacetime, so species differentiation was reduced by Darwin to the adaptive process of evolution, in which birth and death, competition and collaboration, change and conservation combine to produce a continuously fluctuating natural selection process that carries useful lessons for conflict resolution.
Using evolution as a metaphor allows us to see that people in conflict face environmental pressures from their partners, families, cultures, organizations, and societies that subject them to the unpredictability of non-equilibrium conditions, and require them to learn and adapt in order to survive. Conflict can then be seen as a series of competitive environmental or ecological crises that require ever more advanced levels of skill and collaboration to resolve.
In these ways, nature provides us with metaphors about symmetries, forms, and patterns that can be used to analyze and affect conflict behaviors. We may then recognize that nature is not “out there” but “in here.” We are nature, perhaps constituted out of vibrating ten dimensional strings, but certainly made up of wave-like quarks, gluons, protons, neutrons, and electrons, all obeying the laws of physics. We are living, evolving organisms composed of organic compounds, bacteria, and diverse collaborating cells. We are primates with a capacity not only for rational thought, self-awareness, and strategic thinking, but irrationality, blinding emotion, and self-destruction. Every part of nature is manifested through us in countless ways that can help us understand how and why we behave as we do when we are in conflict, and lead us to newer and more powerful methods of resolution.
Orchestrating the Vibrations of Conflict
Adopting a vibrational metaphor for conflict allows us to develop our skills by treating communications as though they were waves rather than particles, and working with their elements at a more subtle level. For example, waves possess both amplitude and frequency and can be cancelled by equal and opposite waves, or amplified and increased by adding waves of a similar frequency. We can use tone of voice to stimulate others to increase their empathy, or communicate emotion at a deep level of authenticity, or acknowledge a willingness to settle, or let go of grief and rage. All this can be done not merely by using words that convey precise meanings, but by tone, pitch, frequency, and modulation.
We can stimulate awareness through intentional acts and rituals as by shaking hands, through body movements as by nodding, through tone of voice as by whispering, through repetitive phrasing as by summarizing, through timing as by process intervention, or simply through the vibrational quality of who we are as by spirit and heart-based communications. Each of these, if used with the right person at the right time can create a sense of spiritual connection, relational synergy, emotional resonance, and sympathetic vibration without words. As Rumi also observed:
There is a way between voice and presence where information flows.
By thinking of emotions as waves or vibrations, we can consciously de-escalate our conflicts by lowering or deepening our tone of voice, slowing the pace or frequency of our comments, softening our pitch, using repetitive, modulated phrasing, and emphasizing vowel sounds as opposed to harsher sounding consonants. We can release pent-up emotion by leaning forward, nodding rhythmically and repetitively, taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, using caressing gestures while not actually touching the other person, or using a gentle touch or pat to produce a calming effect. All these vibratory acts intersect, resonate with, and direct the attribution of meaning within the listener.
At a deeper level, it is possible to change the rhythmic patterns of our words. We can significantly alter what is communicated, for example, by repeating key words or phrases, slowing down, or using rhythmic emphasis, as was done to great effect by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy. At a deeper level still, it is possible to make peace and tranquility so powerful within ourselves that without any of these interventions, others intuitively understand that it is unnecessary to act aggressively toward us.
I frequently use vibrational qualities of voice, body language, metaphor, pacing, liturgical repetition, and my own clear, committed, heart-based intention to calm parties in mediation and induce a sense of trust and comfort in the process. To do so, I expand my awareness of what is happening in the present moment and do not get stuck in the past or the future or worry about what I am going to do next. Sometimes, as in deep meditation, I experience a subtle, background vibration that is extremely calming. This vibration does not occur as thought or emotion or body sensation, but transcends them. The phrase that best describes this state of mind is an ancient Zen definition of enlightenment, which is: being available for anything at every moment. When I am in this state, others may become calm effortlessly. In truth, conflict is inherently chaotic and so sensitively dependent on initial conditions as to be unpredictable, making it impossible to plan in advance how to respond. It has been my experience that when I have a pre-set plan it often goes awry because I cannot move naturally, in concert with what people just said or did. On the other hand, when I am able to sense the vibratory, wave-like quality of what is occurring in the conversation and am completely open, present, and available for whatever others may say or do, I am able to respond in creative, unimaginable ways that are far more effective than the best prepared strategies. This does not make strategy or planning irrelevant, but provisional and secondary to experience.
How We Attribute Meaning
The more we listen to our inner voice, the more clearly we can hear the voices of others. Indeed, when we consider how sense impressions are processed, the entire distinction between self and others begins to unravel and dissolve. It is clear, for example, that all our sensory perceptions are based on a combination of unreliable factors, including external objects that produce or reflect waves or vibrations which strike specialized sensory detectors, which transmit electrical signals through neurons to the brain, where synapses are arranged in patterns based on previously experienced patterns stored in memory, which result in our attribution of meaning. Minor errors in any of these maneuvers will result in radically distinct meanings.
Vision is a coordinated, even collaborative relationship between an object, light, the eye, nerve cells, the brain, and patterns of meaning created by our prior experiences. What we see is therefore not actually outside us, but a relationship between what is inside and outside. Light waves of specific frequency and amplitude are reflected off objects at angles that render them perceivable by the eye, but perception necessarily includes the attribution of meaning, which takes place inside us. This does not mean the things we see are not also seen by others and therefore, according to convention, objectively exist. It means that attributing meaning is highly personal, based on individual prior experiences, dependent on multiple variable inputs, interpretations, and choices that can be altered to create equal and opposite meanings. Thus, it can be argued that the people we love and hate are only a complex set of externally triggered internal vibrations we have imbued with special meaning based on past experiences, and that these meanings exist only inside us due to our unique history. While others may experience something similar, it is clearly impossible to say anything about anyone else without simultaneously describing ourselves.
Every attribution of meaning is therefore a combination of sensory perceptions and individual experiences, intentions, personalities, and innermost nature, all of which are communicated through wave-like interactions. As a result, we can chose at any time to interpret our perceptions differently, or recall and amplify a set of experiences we previously ignored, or interpret events differently. We can design fresh experiences that cancel previous wave patterns, recognize that we have selected from a mass of perceptions only those that fit a predetermined emotional pattern, discover the source of this pattern within ourselves, and consciously dismantle it. Attribution of meaning is therefore not fixed or static, but open to change and constantly evolving, as revealed in the following case study.
No More Teachers Dirty Looks – A Case Study
Several years ago, I mediated a dispute involving Rose, a teacher who was being fired for yelling at three other teachers and using what might be considered “world-class” swear words in front of children during school hours. Rose had been chair of the union at her school for twenty years and a strong advocate for teachers. The incidents that threatened her job all began six months after she stepped down as head of the union.
At the mediation, the three teachers angrily described what Rose had said and done to them. Rose responded defensively, first by denying that what she had done was so serious, then by attacking the other teachers for having provoked her, and finally by quibbling over details in their descriptions of each event. The mood was one of entrenched animosity, unyielding blame, impasse, and shared recrimination.
Sensing the determination behind her resistance and at the same time being aware of its’ utter futility, since the Principal had made it clear that without a full resolution Rose would be terminated, I did something I had not planned or thought about in advance. I stopped her mid-sentence in one of her defensive counter-attacks against her accusers, and said: “Excuse me, Rose. Can I ask you a question?” She said “Yes,” and I asked simply, softening my tone of voice, lowering my posture, and leaning towards her until I was at the very edge of her personal space: “Has anyone ever thanked you for what you have done for this school?” Her mouth dropped open and she burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. I decided to deepen the spiritual opening created by her response, and after a moment of warm, sympathetic silence, I turned to her accusers and asked them if they would each tell Rose directly one thing she had contributed to the school, and thank her for having done it. Now they all began crying, and as they told their stories about Rose’s dedication to teachers and the school, the defensive “vibrations” and atmosphere of impasse were totally transformed.
After the teachers finished and Rose stopped crying long enough to speak, she apologized profusely for what she had done. She said she cared so much about the school and about the teachers and children, but didn’t know how to show it, and was desperately unhappy about how useless she had become. Her “accusers” supported her by saying they knew she cared about them and about the school, and apologized to her for becoming accusatory rather than reaching out and helping her make what must have been a very difficult transition. Together they decided there was something they could still do – not merely for teachers, but for the school as a whole, by helping everyone learn from what happened, work more collaboratively as a team, and develop new teacher leaders.
I suggested they might start by letting people know how they had resolved their conflict, and asked what they wanted to do to communicate to others what they had decided and help the school heal. Rose said she felt she needed to apologize to the entire faculty and staff, and would start by asking to be put on the agenda for the next all-hands meeting. The other teachers said she should not have to do this alone, and wanted to join her in apologizing for their role in the conflict. Everyone began crying all over again, but this time with joy at their newfound solidarity. I suggested that they go together to ask the Principal to put them on the next agenda, and that they each describe at the meeting what they learned from this conflict about teaching, teamwork, and solving their problems together. They readily agreed.
I again decided to do something unplanned and push the opening just a little wider. Rose said she had gone to one of the teachers after yelling at him, apologized, hugged him, and asked him if she could take him to lunch to make up for what she had done. The teacher said it had shocked him at the time because Rose was not known as someone who hugged people or invited them to lunch. Riding this wave of collegiality, I asked them if they would all agree to hug each other each time they meet, and go to lunch as a group at least once a week between now and the end of the semester. They enthusiastically agreed, and I asked Rose whether she would agree to invite others who also had problems with her to join her for lunch, and find out what they could do together to improve the school. She agreed.
I later heard from the Principal how shocking and transformational it was to see Rose, the tough-talking union advocate, hugging everyone and inviting all her former enemies to lunch. He said the faculty meeting at which they apologized had transformed the culture in the school, triggered a profound conversation about how the faculty and staff needed to care more for each other, and actually resulted in better teaching and fewer disciplinary problems with students.
In retrospect, it is clear that while Rose was thoroughly defended against insult, isolation, and attack, she was utterly defenseless against compliment, inclusion, and acknowledgement. Her toughness was a barrier erected to protect herself against her own vulnerability, which collapsed at the slightest push in the right direction. Analyzed in vibrational terms, the gentleness, kindness, and open-heartedness that were contained in the question I asked regarding acknowledgement conveyed a vibrational frequency that spoke directly to her heart and touched a deep chord that released her pent-up emotions. What allowed me to discover that question was not merely a sense of intellectual futility about the way the conversation was going, or a sense of emotional frustration over her lack of ownership, or the depth of understanding in the teachers’ stories, or even a physical discomfort with the stress-filled accusatory/defensive dynamic that filled their argument, but a spiritual, energetic, vibrational sense of what must lay beneath those layers of defensiveness and rationalization.
By going to my heart and asking a question that came directly from the vibrational quality I wanted to elicit, I was able to touch her heart in ways I could not have done by asking a question from intellect. Although it happened very quickly, the question flowed from intuition, empathetic resonance, and my willingness to place myself in her shoes. From there, I asked what would have made me do as she did, and was able to find a question that would reveal whether my intuition was correct.
These moments of “sublime mediation,” or what is sometimes called “crazy wisdom,” represent a kind of “peripheral mind,” which, like peripheral vision, consists of paying attention to the background rather than the foreground, and empowering one’s intuition. In this state, it is possible to notice the subtle vibrational differences between anger and caring, defensiveness and pain, and within myself, between judgement and empathetic resonance. Intuition is not infallible, and for this reason should take the form – not of an answer, but of a question that might be asked by a three year old. If my intention is clear and I have no judgements, agendas, or stake in the outcome, I may be able to combine innocence and curiosity with directness and honesty in a simple, disarming, heart-based question that suddenly exposes the nucleus of the conflict.