What if all the answers to our problems were in the present moment? Many lawyers, judges, mediators, and others in the legal industry spend a significant amount of time in an adversarial environment, representing or advising clients with challenging conflicts, often for a win-lose decision. The impact of conflict on the body and mind is significant, including limited emotional regulation, “fight, flight or freeze” or knee-jerk reactions, slower metabolic rates, depressive chemistry, and chronic stress.
Mind-body practices like yoga can minimize the stress response or negative reaction to conflict so the body functions better and individuals can make more conscious choices to reclaim a sense of control, or at least a better understanding of the situation.
This article discusses how to engage in conflict and create healthy dialogue with the pneumonic R.I.G.H.T. N.O.W. Not only does the phrase signify being in the present moment, but each letter also represents a word in the process of transforming conflict for deeper understanding.
R for REST
In many legal environments like law firms, rest is deemed the opposite of work. We are either at rest or we are productive. However, significant research indicates that rest is integral to the creative process. The parts of the brain that activate during rest periods, known as the Default Mode Network (DMN), are essential to the development of innovative and effective problem-solving skills.
Rest does not always mean doing nothing. It can simply mean switching from one activity to another to give the mind or body space to assimilate information. Rest can also be necessary to process conflict, when parties have reached an impasse for example. Taking a break, going for a walk, or stretching and breathing can diminish the clutter of oppositional ideas to create opportunities for collaboration.
In the context of a difficult conversation or conflict, resting the brain, by taking a breath or going into a separate room or caucus, for example, can help parties regroup, recharge, and address the situation with a clear mind.
One practice that allows the body and mind to rest, relax, and re-create in the midst of difficult situations or conflicts is yin yoga. Yin yoga evolved through the Eastern continents and China from ancient yoga practices that originated in India. Yin and yang are relative terms that describe the two facets of existence. Yin yoga is complementary to the more common dynamic, active, or “yang” yoga, and it works the deeper “yin” tissues of our ligaments, joints, deep fascial networks, and even bones.
Will stopping to do a yoga pose end a heated argument? Maybe, maybe not. However, yoga is not only twisty poses on a fancy mat. It is also a way to show up in the present, through breath, meditation, and mindful movement. In an argument with opposing counsel over the facts or issues in a case, for example, taking three deep breaths can allow the flood of negativity to dissipate from the body. It can free up the mind for more clarity and creativity, regardless of the complexity of the situation. (See the appendix for suggested yoga poses.)
For a recharging breath practice during a difficult conversation, inhale deeply until the lungs are full and the belly expands, pause at the top, and exhale slowly to a longer count than the inhale. Each breath can be a little deeper, noticing the cool air on the inhale and the warm air on the exhale. Notice how the body and thoughts may change after several full breaths.
I for IMAGINE
Once the body is at rest, the mind follows and becomes creative. Space opens for awareness of the thoughts and emotions as they are without attachment.
Dr. Joe DiSpenza is an internationally renowned speaker and author who describes what happens to the brain waves when the body and mind are relaxed. Once the brain is in slower beta or delta modes, it is possible to let go of the body as matter and access the subconscious. We can create new energy that is not reliant on memories of the past or obligations of the future. There is infinite possibility and pure potential in this state of presence.
Dispenza lays out a formula for letting go of past and future thoughts to be fully present. It involves setting a clear intention or goal and envisioning the elevated emotions associated with that intention. For example, if you intend to lead powerful workshops all over the world, imagine the feeling of accomplishment, meaning, fulfillment, and gratitude you would experience with that intention as if it were in the present moment.
Feeling the elevated emotion ahead of time creates a magnetic charge in the body. Emotions such as love, gratitude, inspiration, excitement, awe, wonder, safety, and abundance increase positive energy and attract more positivity to them because of their magnetism.
In times of stress or conflict, the negative feelings we experience may counteract any attempt to feel elevated emotions. The brain is reactive and sometimes unable to see past ruminations over past behaviors and experiences or fears about how a situation will resolve. Feelings of loss, hurt, pain, anger, frustration, and dullness can outweigh any attempt to feel positive emotions. However, individuals can identify the emotions they are experiencing to create understanding and empathy and to allow room for a deeper conversation.
During this imagination period, parties may also be open to envisioning new options, possibilities, and solutions. Parties can suggest positive outcomes they would like to experience and imagine the elevated feelings of that outcome.
Through a visualization exercise, such as setting an intention for a desired outcome, breathing to relax the body, noticing the space around the body, feeling the sensations that the desired outcome would bring as if it were in the present moment, and expressing gratitude for the experience, individuals can begin to transform negative perceptions or thought patterns into an open space for creatively attracting positive outcomes.
G for GUT
The gut is in the stomach and representative of our intuition. Tuning into what the gut is saying in a challenging situation may allow us to act with more purpose and clarity. It can also expose new opportunities even in the midst of difficult conflicts.
Intuition is not just a “gut reaction,” which can be misleading in times of conflict. Under stress, the brain reverts to automatic and reactive thinking, encouraging a fight, flight, or freeze response. Daniel Kahneman describes reactive thinking as characteristic of System 1, the short-cut rules we act on quickly with little or no effort, like answering the phone or brushing our teeth.
However, System 2 thinking is more deliberate and effortful, and leads to better decision-making, especially in complex legal disputes or adversarial situations. Relying on the gut or intuition from a place of intention rather than reactivity can provide answers and allow for another meaning or truth to surface.
To tune in to what the gut is saying, fill the belly with air with each inhale and notice the expanse of space and air inside the body and immediately outside the skin. Notice the sensations in the stomach, any grumbling, pressure, or resistance. Then press the air out of the belly, maybe even using a hand to notice what is happening physically. Do this several times and notice any sensations throughout the torso.
H for HEAR
By resting the body and mind and accessing imagination and intuition, we can listen with awareness and hear what is happening at a deeper level. With active listening, parties can consider outcomes from a more comprehensive viewpoint.
Hearing requires objectively looking at a situation with a desire to understand it. It involves being non-judgmental, more reflective than reactive. It is especially difficult to hear what’s happening in an emotionally charged situation. That is why it helps to rest the mind and body, imagine positive outcomes, and become aware of deeper intuition before engaging in a difficult conversation or conflict.
Listening openly to a party with an opposite viewpoint can allow solutions to arrive in a way that is not forced. It can also allow individuals to address needs and interests that may not have been heard without active listening. After hearing all sides of an issue, new opportunities for collaboration may arise.
One way to hear without judgment is to let go of any preconceived notions of what a situation should be or what a person should be doing or saying. Practice listening without attributing any blame or guilt to the self or other person. Listen instead with a desire to learn and understand the problem, as separate from the person.
T for TRUST
Trust the process of resting and being aware without judgment even in difficult moments. Trust that, if we let go of the immediate reaction to a stressful or painful situation, the mind can clear, and new possibilities begin to emerge.
Trust also that transformation is possible through reflective listening and searching for a deeper understanding. Trust that true healing takes time, especially when deep-seated hurts or traumas are involved.
In high-conflict cases, it may not be possible to trust each other. However, the process of resting the mind and body and listening for understanding can provide a space for parties to engage in a healthy dialogue.
N for NOTICE
Notice what comes up during the process of relaxing the body and mind, imagining a better outcome, and listening to intuition for deeper understanding.
Noticing involves using all the senses to be in the present moment. Notice thoughts and emotions that come up at the initial stages of conflict, and how they might transform through the process of listening and present moment awareness.
It is also important to notice any biases or obstacles to true understanding. When parties disagree about an issue, it is common to attribute disagreements to the fault or character of the other person (attribution bias) or to devalue and react negatively to options posed by another (reactive devaluation). One party may be overly confident about their position, while another may have a scarcity bias or fear of loss.
Conflict arises due to underlying needs or values that are threatened. Biases might exist due to past events, or fear of future events. When we slow down the mind and its addiction to the ego or self-serving nature, we can start to notice how our thoughts are focused on the past or future. Noticing brings us back to the present moment and makes us available to ourselves and others.
O for OBSERVE
To “observe” is more active than to “notice.” Observing means actively processing information and experiences with an open mind. After noticing biases and obstacles, take a step further by reframing perceptions and statements to create new opportunities. Observe the thoughts that are instructing actions or driving certain feelings. Observe how emotions or negative energy might be obscuring reality.
Observing must be done without judgment to acknowledge personal actions or inaction that have contributed to a conflict. For example, there may be different explanations for a party’s behavior that was assumed and not expressly identified.
Observing in this way can help parties in dispute develop a “third story” or a story that goes beyond “he said, she said.” The process of observation takes energy away from the limited storytelling of the mind to allow us to move into a deeper present-moment experience.
W for WIN-WIN!
So often in the legal world, there is a winner and a loser. However, with deeper conversation that allows parties to explore their interests and needs, individuals may discover opportunities to create a more collaborative relationship. BOTH parties can win in the transformative process of listening and relaxed imagination. Even failures or setbacks can be reframed as opportunities for growth.
With a process that focuses on being in the present moment, even in the midst of complex legal disputes, parties begin to let go of the mind’s ego-centric stories. By resting the body, imagining a positive outcome, listening to the gut, hearing without judgment, and trusting the process, individuals start to gain a deeper understanding of the source of their conflict, whether internal or external. By noticing any biases or underlying values and observing the associated emotions and infinite possibilities, lawyers, mediators, judges, and legal professionals can turn an adversarial situation into a win-win for all parties involved.
Come into the butterfly pose by bringing the soles of the feet together. For the best posture, sit on a folded blanket or toss a pillow on the floor or mat so the pelvis tilts forward and the spine is erect. Start with the head and torso up and chin slightly tilted in. Fold over the legs moving toward a sensation in the hips or low back. Go to a depth that you can hold and REST for 3-5 minutes, but IF THERE IS ANY PAIN, TINGLING OR NUMBNESS, BACK OFF FROM THE STRETCH.
Straddle pose opens the inner thighs and low back. A vulnerable pose, it can provide a deeper opening, allowing the body to recover from the stress of standing or sitting for long periods of time. Sit up on a rolled blanket or towel, and take legs straight out to the sides as far as comfortable. You can use pillows under the knees for more support. There is no need to stretch wider than where you feel the initial sensation, and keep the toes pointed up instead of rolled forward. Stay upright or start to fold forward bringing the head down to a block or pillow without forcing. While in the pose, listen to the heart beating, notice the thoughts and set intentions.
Tadasana, or “Mountain pose” is a standing pose to increase confidence and presence. It is a foundational pose to prepare the body for continuing movement or balance. Come to the pose by standing with both feet under the hips, toes pointed forward. Spread the toes wide for “Rockstar alignment” and rest your hands by your side, palms out. Look forward and declare your intention: a desire, goal or present moment state, such as “I am enough” or “I am a leader.”
Tree pose is a balancing pose for confidence, especially when there is constant change or challenge. Stand on one foot, pressing the toes forward in “Rockstar alignment.” Find a point to gaze at for balance and lift the other foot toward the ankle, knee or inner thigh of the standing leg. Roll the shoulders back and bring hands to the side, to center, or overhead. Breathe and repeat your intention and laugh if you fall out! Repeat on the other side.
A supported bridge pose will allow the front of the body to open, while relaxing the low back. Lie on your back and bending the knees to bring feet to the floor. Bring the heals toward the hips and have a pillow or block close by for under the back. Press the feet into the floor, lift the hips up and place a block, book or pillow at the lower lumbar or sacrum area to rest the hips back down. Use a higher block or pillow if more stretch is desired.
Savasana or “corpse pose” is the final resting posture after an active yoga practice. It is the “dessert” after other movements that the body has accumulated. Find a resting pose that supports the back and knees, with a pillow under knees, ankles, and/or neck if desired. You can place a weighted blanket or pillow over the torso for an extra sense of safety and comfort. Close the eyes and notice the breath. Allow the thoughts to come and go without running with the stories. Find a deeper place within that doesn’t change, that stays the same no matter what is going on all around. Stay here as long as you like and it’s a WIN-WIN! (5-10 minutes recommended)
About the Author
Amy G. Pruett is an intellectual property attorney and certified mediator at Williams Mullen. A member of the Law Practice Division Well-Being Committee, she developed a passion for well-being through her love of yoga. She is a certified yoga instructor and coach, and she co-founded Abunditude, LLC, to provide well-being, transformational conflict coaching, and leadership programs to legal professionals.