Many people go through life in a daze, not wanting to rock the boat. It is easy to stay in a situation that may not be healthy or meaningful, but is moderately comfortable and does not require change. This stagnation is fueled by a culture that is driven by conflict, in relationships, in politics, and at work, especially in an adversarial industry like law.
Conflict is unavoidable and exists everywhere, not only between humans but also throughout nature. Conflict is akin to the Buddhist idea of suffering, which is inevitable in the human experience, and may not be transcended until it is acknowledged as an attachment to false expectations and transformed by letting go. (See Kenneth Cloke, The Dance of Opposites: Explorations in Mediation, Dialogue, and Conflict Resolution Systems Design (Good Media Press, 2013).
In moments of letting go, an opportunity opens to find a deeper meaning. Searching in the shadows of emotional suffering can lead to a greater understanding of the self and others. Such understanding is especially overdue in the legal industry, where conflict is not only common but drives the profession.
This article will explore the ways that legal professionals can help their clients transform difficult situations into an opportunity for connection and meaning. It will provide perspectives and tools to break through barriers created by conflict. It will conclude with an invitation to merge the illusion of separation into a collaborative understanding.
1. Authenticity During Conflict
Conflicts exist because of the illusion of separation. People use masks to hide emotions and prevent a difficult conversation or uncomfortable interaction. These masks shield them from being their best selves and authentically connecting with others. (See Kenneth Cloke & Joan Goldsmith, the Art of Waking People Up (Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint 2003)).
How can we be more authentic in the midst of conflict? Stephen Cope describes the search for dharma, or sacred duty, as four central pillars: “1. Look to your dharma. 2. Do it full out! 3. Let go of the fruits. 4. Turn it over to God.” The Sanskrit word dharma is impossible to grasp through English translation, and may be considered “religious and moral law,” “right conduct,” “sacred duty,” “path of righteousness,” “true nature” and “divine order.” Once dharma is discovered, we are called to do it completely and let go of any outcome attached to the process. (Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life, (Bantam Books 2012)).
One way to discover dharma or at least better awareness is through meditation. Meditation can provide: calm during intense emotions; sensitivity to thoughts, feelings, and attitudes; insights into suffering; awareness of the relationship between opposites; creative problem solving; sensitivity to natural timing of conflict; less judgment or attachment; more focus and presence; and reduced stress and burnout. (See supra, The Dance of Opposites at 145-46).
Sometimes, conflict can be an opportunity to search for deeper meaning. Conflict can inspire honest inquiry into how a person responds in times of stress. It can encourage individuals to investigate how they are currently thinking about a difficult situation and awaken change. It can expose natural traits that help parties respond to conflict, as well as underlying triggers, values, identity issues, and core beliefs that continue to fuel the fire.
Legal professionals, mediators, facilitators, coaches, and their clients can dissect the issues that are exacerbating a conflict in several ways. Transformational methods question the individual’s beliefs and remind them of innate abilities they already possess. Other methods involve self-discovery, alignment with values, and next right action based on a sense of purpose or dharma.
2. Transformational Inquiry
Transformational questions challenge people to look at their underlying values and belief systems. The objective is to empower individuals struggling with a conflict to take ownership of the situation with confidence.
For example, some professionals use conflict coaching to encourage parties to summarize their history, celebrate milestones, consider future improvements, and acknowledge their courage. Legal professionals can also help clients find more clarity and purpose by working on “toward” goals and creating new positive connections, rather than dwelling in negative feelings brought on by an adversarial history. (See Cinnie Noble, Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY Model).
Dharmic self-inquiry is another way to enhance awareness and connection in the midst of conflict. This evaluation has six steps, and the first is asking questions like:
- “What areas of your life are lacking in clarity?”
- “What do you feel most certain about?”
- “When do you feel in alignment with your best self?”
The second step in dharmic inquiry involves looking at daily practices that may or may not serve an individual’s best self. Questions include:
- “What practices do you have for recharging yourself?”
- “What habits nourish your mind, body, and soul?”
- “Where can you bring more discipline to your spiritual growth and well-being?”
The third practice involves creating community or social well-being. This inquiry is especially relevant in workplaces where people spend a significant portion of their daily life, and where there may be micro-aggressions or overt conflicts. The evaluation includes questions such as:
- “Do you feel deeply connected to the people in your life?”
- “Do you have people that support you and your dreams?”
- “What is a community that would enhance your sense of purpose?”
The fourth step in the dharmic journey involves looking at the next right action or karma. Legal professionals and coaches can help clients define the next actions, based on what has been identified under the previous questions. Questions include:
- “What are your three biggest goals?”
- “What is most important to your life’s work right now?” “What is not in alignment with your values?”
- “What decisions can help you be your best self?”
Next, the dharma seeker explores heart-based leadership. Questions include:
- “When do you feel most connected to your heart?”
- “What do you love about what you do?”
- “What new thoughts or behaviors can help you lead with your heart?”
The final stage in self-inquiry involves service. Questions include:
- “Do you feel that your work is meaningful?
- “Are there situations where you’re not giving with full commitment?”
- “What behaviors could support you in serving others without attachment to outcome?”
As with other transformational practices, the dharma evaluation encourages individuals to dive deeply into their identities, values, and needs to develop a sense of purpose that can withstand any conflict.
3. Conflict at Work
Conflict is inevitable in the workplace because of the various relationships and complex rules, implied or express, for handling difficult situations. Many organizations suppress and avoid conflict, and highly competitive cultures give rewards for aggressive conflict behaviors. Sometimes people hold dismissive attitudes toward conflict resolution or well-being practices as “touchy-feely,” and some work cultures allow bullying and retribution for speaking the truth.
It is rare for an organization or workplace culture to support genuine collaboration with opponents, creative dialogue regarding problems, or empathetic self-critical leadership. This is especially true in competitive law firms, where distrust of opponents is the norm, adversarial and aggressive tactics are rewarded, and well-being and self-care are disregarded.
To shift an adversarial culture in a transformative manner, individuals must see conflict as an opportunity for creativity, connection, and collaboration. For example, parties can discuss disagreements openly, take a self-critical approach about their role in the conflict, and resist “us versus them” thinking. They can engage in dialogue, negotiation, or mediation to solve common problems, seek reconciliation within themselves and others, and identify elements of the culture that are either blocking or supporting resolution.
Colleagues that continue to feel stuck or disconnected can explore collaborative and transformative questions such as:
- “What changes would you be willing to make to increase collaboration?”
- “What interests do you share with your opponent?”
- “What could you both do to find or create what you both need and want?”
These questions can help an organization identify unhelpful behaviors, encourage positive affirmation, and visualize the ideal workplace.
Once workplace conflicts have been addressed, colleagues can highlight and acknowledge their contributions toward a meaningful work environment. They can institute accountability partnerships between different employment levels, such as associates and partners in a law firm, to check in with each other about goals and intentions.
Transformational methods such as conflict coaching and self-discovery have the power to change a conflict culture into a workplace where colleagues are acknowledged and understood, heart-centric vision is encouraged, and differences in priorities are supported by leadership.
Conflict is inevitable when there is more than one person. Nowhere is that truer than in the workplace, where individuals don an inauthentic shield to cover stagnated emotions and passions. The gift of conflict is that it can fuel awakening and desire for deeper understanding in difficult situations.
With various methods like transformative and dharmic evaluation, legal professionals, mediators, facilitators, coaches, and leaders can help their clients and colleagues find purpose in their daily life and work. With self-inquiry, collaborative practices to encourage communication, and tools to inspire passion, individuals can transcend conflicts, break down the illusion of separateness, and create a cohesive community.
About the Author
Amy G. Pruett is an intellectual property and entertainment attorney and mediator at Williams Mullen, and is a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. She also is a certified yoga instructor and co-founded Abunditude, LLC, with her husband, Daniel, a Navy veteran, to provide well-being programs to high-demand professionals and veterans.