Welcome to the 11th edition of On Conflict.

In 2021, Gordon White and I (Julia) created 10 articles we sent out each month, from March to November. At that time, we focused on the practical steps of how to face difficult conversations. It is a companion and reinforcement to our signature course and goes through all the 8 steps in sequence, one per post. You can find past posts here.

Today is the first edition of the new focus, shifting to a broader inquiry into conflict and leadership. The On Conflict Leadership Institute believes leaders have a responsibility to do conflict well.

This call for conflict competency in leadership has never been more pressing.

Why? What’s happening in the world?

There’s an ongoing war in the Ukraine. Israel has declared war on Hamas. Drug cartels are Mexico’s 5th largest employer.

Has Conflict Resolution gone out of style?

Violence seems to work: it gets results. Historical intelligentsia have been saying we’ve shifted back into violence as the solution: if you get the enemy to react, then anything becomes justifiable.

This question of what to do in the face of war has haunted me since I was a child. My mother was forced to leave her homeland in the Ukraine and was never able to return.

None of us seem too far removed from the impact of war – whether it’s a father who fought in Vietnam, a relative leading a religious war in Ireland or an ancestor who harmed the Indigenous populations in Canada.

We are all, it seems, a few degrees of separation from acts of violence and its impact.

Yet, the results of power-over conflict never seem to be positive: lost lives, pained bodies and hearts, desires for revenge, intergenerational trauma and inheritances.

It seems violence gets results but not the kind that brings out the finest in humanity.

My experience is, in every smaller level of conflict I’ve been involved in as a mediator, whether it’s been workplace conflict, neighbour to neighbour conflict or criminal case conflict between victims and offenders, when the doors were closed and we were alone together in private, the hurting parties wanted the pain to stop.

Here’s the tragedy: what I know to be true is that they simply didn’t know how. And they were mostly relieved that someone could show them how to move forward in a good way, to de-escalate the intensifying conflict.

The allure of either avoiding someone or forcing our way over someone is understandable. Either act can give you a sense that you got what you wanted. No pesky talking. No frustrating conversations. No requirement to be thoughtful, reflective, engaged or open-hearted.

We all have a part of us that relates to this. Think of a time you were upset with someone or frustrated in some way. Think about your own heart as I tell you to pull up a memory – a memory where you can feel yourself tense up. Could be a small thing. Could be a bigger thing. Could be something from the past or perhaps a situation you are presently facing – or even could face in the future.

It need not be a big example, but just pause for a breath or two and allow some memory to come up that can cause you to feel either frustrated or scared.

Once you have a memory or present situation that can cause you some frustration or anxiety, notice your heart. Your actual heart region.

What can you feel in your heart area?

Can you feel a wave-like softness there as you think of the frustrating or frightening person or situation? That sense of softness is indicative of an open, vulnerable heart.

Or can you feel… well… nothing?

Might it feel like a wall locking in your heart? Or perhaps a contraction? Some sense of being defended against the outside?

There’s a way that feeling nothing can allow for a de-humanizing. It’s an armor we put up to stop ourselves from feeling anything towards the other person. When we stop ourselves from feeling our heart, we stop feeling empathy and love.

It is in this state of a wall around our hearts, that it is easy to dismiss the other.

Closing our hearts is the root of violence.

It is also our road to salvation.

It is only by challenging ourselves to stay open-hearted, no matter the circumstance, that we can find our way out of violence.

Staying open-hearted is taking a stand on how we want to be.

What are our own values that we want to remain in integrity with?

These are not the values you want to dredge up to shame yourself about. It’s not about how you are not measuring up. That’s the internal judge voice that you want to dismantle as we also do violence to ourselves.

You want to connect with values that reside in the deepest, most expansive part of yourself.

These are ways of being you would like to embody, no matter who you are with.

This is who you are at your core. Your essence. Your Sage.

It is true it seems that we are (still) in an era of power-over. And can we turn our greatest challenges into our greatest opportunities?

How can we support each other to stay in our hearts as hate and violence might rage around us?

How can we stay making beautiful music, even as the Titanic sinks?  To make art, to make beauty and to make love – all become acts of revolution in this era.

This is an antidote to war and violence.

I often take refuge in the Dr. Martin Luther King quote:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

And, if you’d like to bolster yourself, check out the podcast interview we did with Ben Hoffman, about a month before he died. He had been suffering from a painful form of cancer and if you listen carefully, you can notice the measured way he draws his strength to share his wisdom. It’s a poignant podcast interview, all the more so as he knew he was dying as we interviewed him – and still wanted to share what he’d learned after a long career dealing with violence of the most extreme and political kind. Well worth a listen.

There is so much more to say on this topic, of course. I will be interviewing some global level thinkers and mediators coming up in November and exploring these very relevant topics. I will report back.

Meantime, let’s keep returning our gaze to love, and let’s meet up again at the next Dark Moon – November 13.