25 May 2010

On conflict with friends

"There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die.
But those who do realize this settle their quarrels."
(The Dhammapada, transl. by Buddharakkhita)
Having lived within a community of people over a long period of time, I occasionally notice a feeling of resentment and have been pondering how to deal with it. It's as if suddenly resentment and certain other habits I have are weighing me down, like I'm carrying stones in my pockets.

I'm sure that honesty is part of the answer. Honesty--how difficult and misunderstood it is!

What I consider to be honesty includes a willingness and a wish to take responsibility for the state of one's own mind. Kindness and an unguarded leaning toward harmony are intrinsic to honesty.

Honesty doesn't mean expressing irritation, but living and expressing oneself in a more balanced way...which then gives less fuel to irritation. Being honest means not sharing our assessments of other people's actions or character, but sharing, when appropriate, how things effect us.

Is that so difficult? Well, yes. As evidenced by those of us who think of ourselves as honest -- but are just blunt or rude or mean, or those of us who are helpful or polite or softspoken and think of ourselves that way -- but tend to talk behind someone's back rather than respond honestly.

Many of us have virtually no experience of honest communication in response to disharmony. We have known too much criticism and blame. We have no training, no models. If we manage to say anything, we speak in sweeping generalities, or inadvertently assassinate someone's character, or seem to just want to be right. We are afraid to share clear and kind information about how things effect us. We fear losing love.

Sometimes irritations fade away on their own. And sometimes we rationalize failing to respond honestly to a repeating situation. Maybe we think we should be able to resolve it on our own (a near enemy to 'taking responsibility for one's mental states'), or we have the excuse that the other person can't handle honesty, or we are sure they won't change so there's no point, or our of fear we decide to avoid the person...or we just try to say something and can't. Any of these sound familiar?

And so it builds into a burden. Each time the thing happens, the situation becomes more entrenched. We're too annoyed or exasperated to bring it up. And when things are good, bringing it up appears to be totally unnecessary.

What can be done? We can learn the basics of Nonviolent Communication and practice it, especially when we are having difficulty with someone. If we don't want to do formal NVC, we can keep in mind the basic principles. One of the most useful ones for me has been using very specific examples. Consider potential responses to "When you closed the door last night, it woke me up." vs. "Why are you so inconsiderate and always slamming doors?" If we say nothing and resentment builds, we will hopefully experience it as a burden and try in some way to restore harmony and connection with our friend.

Here are a some principles I came up with for myself. If, like me, you tend to "let things slide," it may be good advice for you, too.

My advice to myself is:
  1. If there is some issue or resentment that keeps coming up, make a point of bringing it up with the person when things are harmonious.
  2. Look deeply at your motivation for bringing it up.
  3. Though it may end up helping the other person, do not think of that as the purpose. Think of it as a way for you to practice engaging more honestly and effectively with friends.
  4. If you think it will be hard for you to articulate it skilfully, practice with someone else first until you are more comfortable.
  5. State the reason for bringing it up. Example: "I have noticed I have some resentment toward you, which I feel is kind of a barrier between us. I was wondering if it would be ok with you for me to try to talk it through."
  6. Don't speak in generalities; use concrete examples.
  7. Remember it is not the other person's fault that you feel how you feel. However they were an influence, and you are trying perhaps awkwardly at first to share with them how things are for you.
  8. Is there a specific request? If so, be clear about what it is. Don't ask someone to overhaul their personality. They can't. Let them know how something specific effects you and ask if they are willing to do something specific related to it. They are free to say no.
  9. Remember that even if the person has a bad reaction, the conversation still may have some benefit. If it doesn't, at least you tried!
  10. If misunderstanding increases, re-state that the reason for bringing it up was to connect more deeply, and apologize for any unskillfulness on your part.
Most of these are areas I need to work on; some of them are things I have noticed more in the troubles other people have. What are the areas in your communication that need attention? How can you work through them?

Here's some more wisdom from Tiny Buddha about conflicts with friends:

Photo by Julie Bennett (Tanzania).

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