One of the insights gleaned from many years of conflict resolution work in local communities, schools and workplace situations is that it is profoundly spiritual activity. By this I do not mean it is religious in any narrow sense of the word.
Spirituality may at times overlap with religion – and the latter may at times utterly lack spirituality. Spirituality engages us with questions around the meaning of life, our truest selves and our profound interconnectedness with the environment and other people. Conflict sometimes creates a crisis where these matters come to a head.
For those involved in conflict there may be the temptation to give in to negative energies, opt for destructive strategies with regards to the other person and wallow in a broth of resentment, hurt and enemy images. The intensity of our reactions in conflict will vary with the nature of the conflict and also our own personal baggage and histories. Where we are able to negotiate conflict in a manner that enables the processing of all the negative emotions involved, seeks understanding of oneself and the other, pursues healing over retaliation and works toward optimal ends there we encounter spiritual growth.
The now clichéd reference to the Chinese character for crisis combining the symbols for danger and opportunity is still a resonant image for conflict. While fraught with danger it is nonetheless replete with opportunities for growth in the quality of our relationships with others, self-awareness and our capacity for engaging with difference. Conflict to that extent is a school for spirituality.
It is also a spiritual activity for those involved in conflict resolution work (e.g. providing third party facilitation) as qualities of patience, sensitivity, listening, respect for individuals and creativity are developed and honed. Some mediators have also discovered the benefits of meditation practice as one means of nourishing their skills as mediators. The ability to stay with silence, heightened sensitivity to moods, valences and optimal moments of readiness on the parts of individuals to move forward may accrue from such spiritual practices. Senator Mitchell once remarked on the patience required to stay with the recurrent cycles and rehearsals of historic hurts during the talks in Northern Ireland that eventually issued in the Good Friday agreement.
Helping disputing individuals and groups listen to one another in a new way, build bridges, find healing and move toward new opportunities for a different quality of relationship is a deeply spiritual activity.
I recently wrote about mindfulness practice and its impact across a range of domains for wellbeing and suggested the possibility of a ‘Mindfulness Based Conflict Transformation’ model for doing conflict. It might happily sit within the family of other approaches like ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ etc..
I am aware that underlying many conflicts in the workplace there are other factors beyond the ‘interpersonal’ dynamics that play a part in fueling conflict. These dynamics are themselves informed and exacerbated by systems of management and communication. We are in need of Mindful Structures as well as Mindful approaches to conflict.
What might these mindful structures look like? There are many possibilities which might suit the needs of diverse work situations. Whatever their shape they will bear certain qualities in common:
1. They will emphasise worker engagement and not just performance management. Management and supervision of members of staff will allow space for support as well as managing workloads and helping workers fulfill targets. There will also be a degree of flexibility in adjusting targets to more humane levels. I recollect a friend telling me that he had been committed to a range of targets by the funders of his organization, which he would work to, but he thought it would be to the damage of his own wellbeing. It may be a challenge to incorporate this kind of flexibility and in the end we may attain an optimal – if not perfect –balance between targets and worker wellbeing.
2. Transparency and communication will also be a feature of mindful structures. Top down dictates will give way to collegial approaches to setting aims and targets where possible. This may be more possible for smaller to medium sized third sector agencies than for statutory sectors. Where the situation may not allow for such ease of planning, targets and aims will be clearly communicated and opportunities created for negotiating the best strategies for working collegially toward work goals. Structures allowing for those who are responsible for delivery of service to listened to have a impact on employee morale, even where a degree of ‘top down’ management is entrenched.
3. Finally, in concert with the above, mindful structures will be seen to gather and respond to feedback from workers in meaningful ways. Feedback may be gathered from supervisions processes, surveys, suggestion boxes or other means but must be seen to be more than ‘non-sultation’ and mechanical. It must be genuine. It may not always be a case of saying ‘yes’ but will always engage openly and with reasons for any decisions taken. Perhaps in some cases it will even allow critical reflection on time-honoured habits of managing work places and risk creative thinking alongside workers to generate new possibilities. It will not necessarily be inefficient but will value the wellbeing of human workers –as opposed to ‘human resources’ – over the holy cow of efficiency. The irony may be that in doing so, in the long term, businesses, organisations and agencies will deliver a higher quality product.
But on that note we may be introducing another aspect of mindful structures: they think in terms of the big picture. I still remember the story of George Buss Sr. leading a group of business tycoons to visit Japan. Their Japanese counterparts reminded them that the Americans’ first port of call when companies face challenging times is to make workers redundant in order to keep profits high. The Japanese, on the other hand, initially would take a cut in salary in order to keep their workers employed. Redundancies were a last resort. This perfectly captured the difference between short-term foci on profits and long-term foci on the wellbeing of workers.
That sounded like a pretty mindful strategy to me. After all, workers are people, not pawns.