Those of you who know a little about my work will have heard me say that one of the reasons I started working with meditation and its effects on brain function was because, at the beginning of my career as a trainer, I realised almost immediately that any new knowledge that people learn only works in peacetime. As soon as a stressful situation comes along, the things learned disappear almost without a trace and are replaced by instinctive reactions that erupt with elemental force, sometimes to the point of surprising even the person doing it. And not to mention the environment…
How is it that we are reaction machines rather than peaceful, serene beings who are basically comfortable in our own skin, who like to be in the company of others and who care about being able to create that serenity? I can already hear the answer: this is who I am, but it is my environment, the workload, the international situation, the war, and so on. Because of the environment we live in, it is simply not possible!
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian doctor and psychiatrist, who spent three years (!) in a concentration camp and lost almost all his family, including his pregnant wife, realised during his years in captivity, in the face of, or rather in spite of, the suffering, that when you lose everything, you have nothing left but your inner freedom. Inner freedom in terms of how we react to external events. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. VF”
If I may put it this way, this „space” has become my area of dedicated research, and although it is indeed quite small, its significance is all the greater. And now let’s look at how to activate this little space in a conflict situation and why it is worth taking a few breaths before any reaction to slow down and step imaginatively into a space where we can become clear about our own emotions, our projected images and not least, with a calm mind, reconnect with our goals and our clear intention to 1. what we want to do about this situation, 2. how we impact our environment and those involved in the conflict.
„Put yourself in his/her shoes” is often really good advice, because when we are in conflict with someone we are unable to empathise with them. And we would reach a consensus sooner if we could see behind the anger, fear or hurt, the person who may be struggling with similar emotions to our own, but who is unable to express himself.
OK, we’re trying. Really, with all our might… But it’s just not working! We try it this way and that way, but sooner or later we just come out of our hurt, offended, even revenge-hungry, you could call it ego, who wants the other party to be punished more than anything else. We do see the other party, but mostly what we project onto him, which is not entirely him, but only the slice of reality that is most advantageous to us from our point of view. I am telling you now: this perspective will give little chance for real resolution and agreement.
Is there any better way?
William Ury, one of the most respected mediators still practising today, tells Thomas Hübl about this in an old story (https://pointofrelationpodcast.com/podcast/practicing-spaciousness-and-empathy-for-conflict-mediation-with-william-ury/):
“I remember one meeting in particular that illustrates the question you posed about whether we can live ourselves into someone else’s situation. That’s a great question, Thomas. And one I’ve you know long kind of wrestled with. Because the truth is, it’s not easy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and, you’re right, if you put yourself with all your projections over those issues, you might not have a very accurate understanding of what’s going on for them. And that the prerequisite for putting myself in your shoes is first to put myself in my own shoes. I mean, it seems odd, but actually, I need to start there. Let me, if I may, just give you a story just to kind of illustrate this. It’s a story about, almost 20 years ago, I was working, I was asked by President Carter to go to the country of Venezuela. And Venezuela at the point was highly politically polarized as it is, unfortunately still today. And there were a million people on the streets demanding the resignation of the leader whose name you may remember was President Hugo Chavez. And there were a million people on the streets supporting him. And the international community was really worried this is going to lead to major civil violence and even maybe civil war, like the kind of civil war that was afflicting its neighbor, Colombia.
So, anyway, I had some meetings over that period with President Chavez. And I remember one meeting which illustrates the question that you’re asking about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. My colleague Francisco, Francisco Diaz and I went to the palace because we had a meeting with him and he liked to schedule meetings at night, it was 9pm. So, we waited, and we waited patiently and 9:10 pm went by, 11 pm. Finally, at midnight, after 3 hours, we were ushered in to see the President. And instead of finding him alone, which we found, which we thought we would, he had his entire cabinet arrayed behind him. So, it’s a very public kind of setting. And he pulled the chair close to him and said, So, Ury, so tell me, what’s your, how do you think things are going here with the conflict here in Venezuela? And I said I looked at him and I thought I’d put a kind of a positive frame. And I said, “Well, Mr. President, I’ve been talking to some of your ministers here. I’ve been talking to some of the opposition leaders, and I believe there’s actually some progress.” Well, that was a mistake, because as soon as he heard the word progress, he flipped, and he just got super angry. And he leaned in very closely to my face, very, very close to my face, and started shouting at me and saying, “You’re a fool. You know, you’re fooled by those traitors, those opposition traitors, they’re absolute traitors, and you’re being taken in by them and you’re naive and…” he went on, and on, and on.
And, in front of the entire cabinet, I was being dressed down. So I was hardly in a place, in that moment, to put myself in his shoes. The first thing I had to do was go to the balcony, you know, which is find a place of calm and perspective inside myself, because at that moment I was feeling like, wait a minute, I’m not a fool. I’m not now, you know, you start to get a little defensive. And I started to feel embarrassed in front of everyone. And then I’m also thinking, I’ve been working in this country for a year now, all of that work going down the tubes. You know, here I have been, so I thought that was it was the end, that’s where part of my mind was going. But then I was able to go to the balcony and I had a very simple technique that a friend of mine who was from Ecuador had once said, you know, he said, “William, when you’re in a tough situation,” he said, “pinch the palm of your hand.” And I said, “Man, why would I pinch the palm of my hand?” And he said, “Well, because it will give you momentary pain, it’ll keep you alert.” And so, for whatever reason, I remembered to pinch the palm of my hand, and it just made me a little bit alert. So, I brought a little bit of spaciousness, inner spaciousness, so I could observe my own emotions, my own sensations, my own discomfort. I could watch that. Just, I could watch the play. It was like, you’re on the balcony and there’s a stage and they’re actors on the play. I’m one of the actors, President Chavez, the cabinet. There are other actors, you can watch the play.
And I was able to do that, watch the play for a moment, and then I was able, from the balcony perspective, to ask the all-important question is: What do I want to happen here? What’s my purpose? What am I trying to achieve? Because when you’re reactive, you lose utter sense of where you’re going. Because you’re just being reactive. You’re not being proactive. And so I was able to ask myself the question, well, you might feel like getting into an argument with and defending yourself with President Chavez, but what are you here for? I’m here for peace. I’m here to calm the situation. Is it really going to serve your purpose if you get into an argument with the president of Venezuela?
And the truth is, this was a man who could give speeches for 7 hours. If I’d gotten into an argument with him, we could have gone till dawn, you know, easily. And so I just thought, yes, okay. I bit my tongue. I listened to myself. I didn’t suppress my emotions. I listened to my emotions because they are really important signals. But I just listened to him. aving liHstened to myself, put myself in my own shoes. was able to listen to him. And listening is the key way to begin to build a bridge with the other, particularly in a conflict situation, is able to relate to him. I found that point of relation that you’re talking about. And so I said, I listened to him and he went on and on and on. He went on for maybe 30, 40 minutes. Just like I was listening to him. I was nodding my head and I was trying to figure out what’s going on for him. Is this a play? Is he making a show in front of his audience? Is he really angry? What’s going on? You know, just curious. You bring curiosity, you bring inquiry. And I was watching him carefully. I was observing from the balcony.
And at one point he started to run out of steam because I wasn’t giving him any kind of material to react to. And I noticed his shoulders slightly sink. You know, like body language. And then I heard him say in a slightly weary tone of voice, “So,Ury. What should I do?” Now he’d gone through the cycle. You know, there’s a cycle that people go through which is anger, and then after anger comes sadness, you know, a little bit. And he was going through that cycle. That was when he said, “What should I do?” That was the faint sound of a human mind opening. That was like, oh, there’s a crack there. Okay. Now he’s asking me. And so I said to him. You know, I went from the individual interaction here, which was, going to the balcony to see if we could go to the collective situation. Because I was a third sider, I was taking the side of the whole. And my focus was, what about the future of the children of Venezuela? That’s in play right here, right now in this conflict situation.
What I learned from that story was that one of the greatest powers that we have is the power not to react. It’s to go to the balcony. It’s to listen to yourself as a precondition to being able to listen to the other. It’s to put yourself in your own shoes as a precondition, to put yourself in the other side’s shoes, and then try to take it collectively. Like, how can the whole country do the same dynamic? That’s to me, that’s the key.”