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Emotions as the Heart of Conflict and Peacemaking




Excerpted from
Healing the Heart of Conflict: 8 Crucial Steps to Making Peace with Yourself and Others
By Mark Gopin, Ph.D.

Step Two involves a deepening of the process of self-examination to help us identify the emotions that lead to the conflict or conflicts in our lives. Now if you're involved in a painful situation, the last thing you might be inclined to do is to further engage and explore your own emotional life. Your feelings may be so strong that you can't imagine how experiencing even more feelings will help the situation. And that's where many people get stuck in a conflict. Remarkably, I have seen that by getting in touch with our deepest feelings we will discover a reservoir of emotional strength within. Also, by recognizing how our internal life connects with the wider world, we can begin to identify and accept what others are feeling, including those with whom we're in conflict, which can lead to healing.

Deep feeling involves not only positive and negative emotions but confusing contradictions. If you just disliked someone, you'd walk away. It is when you both love and hate someone at the same time that some of the most damaging conflicts occur. This chapter will help you sort out contradictory emotions and set the stage for the healing strategies to come.

Let's say, for argument's sake, that your boss takes away a project that you loved working on and gives it to a younger colleague. You don't know for sure why he did it, but you naturally build suspicions in your mind. Maybe the last thing you want to do is explore your hurt feelings. After all, acknowledging the humiliation feels like even more defeat, and you have to get up and go to work the next day. And yet you just might, through self-exploration, become a little less attached to the project and more caring of yourself. Maybe the age of the coworker who took the project bugs you because you are getting older and have not made peace with that. Maybe, truthfully, there were aspects of the project that you didn't feel entirely comfortable doing, and you look forward to beginning something new. Or, maybe you simply lost a political battle for the project, which happens all the time and to nearly everyone.

Reflecting on your feelings can lead to many interesting insights and new ways of coping. But suppose that instead you decide to swallow your hurt and forget the whole affair at work. The next day a coworker whom you consider a friend mentions the project and says, "Better luck next time." Better luck next time?! Who the hell does he think he is? Your "friend" has brought back all those feelings you ignored: losing the project, your wasted effort for two years, the whole ugly episode. Do you laugh nervously and slink away, embarrassed? Do you mumble angrily under your breath and stomp off? Or do you proceed to botch the relationship by offering a generous, "Screw you!" There's a good chance that your friend would have absolutely no clue why you said that or where it came from. All he wanted to do was try to express some degree of empathy. Now a tough situation is much worse because you did not take the time to feel, with all its challenges.

People have a tendency to deny destructive emotions such as rage or jealousy. It is difficult to admit these feelings because we are trained to think of them as unacceptable. Yet not acknowledging them leads to their persistence! This is equally true when it comes to dealing with communal and global conflicts. Those who try to fix conflicts, personal ones or global ones, should not see emotions as the enemy, something to be suppressed, managed, and purged, but rather as a potential ally.

By being aware of our feelings, we can learn about the deeper aspects of a conflict, and indeed about issues that affect the meaningfulness of our lives. Any good psychologist understands that radical emotions are an important window into the psyche, and therefore a golden opportunity to explore paths to healing. And yet, many lawyers and diplomats feel that emotions have no place at the table of human problem solving. That is precisely why I made feeling one of the first and primary steps of healing all human conflicts, from the personal to the global. Reverberations of this step will be felt in all subsequent steps.

Facing Contradictory Emotions

In order to live with extended conflicts, we often have to shut off many positive emotions that we have buried. We feel like shutting down love for a friend or spouse who has hurt us, for example, in order to resent them with gusto and lack of remorse. This is a basic defensive instinct against getting hurt, and it also helps us organize confusing situations that could paralyze us. At the moment of anger, in the heat of common conflict, it is as if there is a court inside your head and you are building a case against your adversary. The last thing you can afford to do is mention anything positive about the other person or group. Inside your head you are prosecutor, judge, and jury, and any positive feelings you may have for the other person or group is immediately silenced. Irrelevant, your Honor!

If you cut off bad emotions and don't face them, you can't help but also cut off good emotions. Good emotions such as love, romance, care, sympathy, respect, generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, and patience are essential to recovery, healing, and a new relationship with adversaries. Healthy emotions are what you want to engender in yourself, and, for true healing at the deepest level, they are what you ultimately want to evoke from your adversaries.

Professional mediators sometimes shy away from invoking feelings, believing that a "rational" result can be achieved only if we do not "indulge" feelings. Perhaps this may work in simple conflicts, but it is a recipe for superficial negotiation, stalemate, and destruction of relationships in most complex, long-standing conflicts. Understanding the complex mix of positive and negative emotions that we go through in difficult relationships, by contrast, will help to extract the good emotions and build on them.

I was struck by the relationship in the movie Bounce between Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. Paltrow plays a young widow who lost her husband in an airplane crash. Her husband was not supposed to be on that flight, but Affleck, who had just met the husband in an airport bar, traded tickets with him. Affleck had a connection to an airline worker who made the ticket switch, and Affleck wanted to stay overnight to have an affair with a stewardess. He is then plagued with contradictory emotions over the crash. Affleck struggles to cope with feelings of relief at being alive as well as feelings of utter guilt.

Affleck meets Paltrow, who plays the widow, and is taken with her. He never says a word to her about her dead husband. He wants to be honest with her but something holds him back. He is falling in love with her, and she is with him, and he lets the relationship go on unable at every turn to tell her the truth. He is living out a strange fantasy of comforting the wife, replacing the husband, and confronting the shallowness of his previous existence-all at the same time.

Paltrow's role is more straightforward: a grieving wife who hates that people feel sorry for her but in reality is vulnerable and lonely. Affleck, on the other hand, is dealing with a whole complex set of emotions that lead him to do something destructive: he conceals vital truths. He loves her and yet cannot face her anger should she discover the truth. The lie gets bigger and more damaging, the drama builds, and Affleck's character waits for a crisis to occur to force the issue. I will not spoil the ending for those who have not seen it, but Bounce has a Hollywood ending. Real life is more risky.

It would be far better for Affleck's character to have examined his simultaneous love for Paltrow and revulsion at the death of the husband and his connection to that death. He risked the entire relationship by denying the complexity of what was going on inside him, and he ended up hurting a grieving widow terribly. Many women would have walked away from him at that point. That is what feeling is designed to avoid: the web of tragic behavior that often results from unexamined complex emotions.

The writers accurately assume that most of us live like Affleck does in the film, shifting confusedly from one moment of relationship in our lives to the next moment, hoping that everything confusing will somehow get fixed. We vaguely hope that our contradictory feelings will work themselves out somehow. This unconscious way of living is dangerous for human relations. When we don't really know how we feel, our actions are directed sometimes one way, sometimes another. Far more constructive is to extract the positive and constructive feelings from a situation and then build on them to create relationships of greater and greater clarity.



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