Stay! Stay! Stay!

November 25, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve recently been reading Bernie Mayer‘s new and game-changing book, Staying With Conflict.? A frequent leader in the world of conflict engagement, Bernie Mayer has spent many years working on large scale collaborative change and conflict processes, many of them in the environmental field.  He is also a strong proponent of the need to be clear and transparent about the assumptions behind practice.  With John Paul Lederach and Leah Wing, Bernie Mayer is one of my favorite practitioners and thought leaders in the “conflict resolution” world.? A couple of years ago, Bernie came out with a book called Beyond Neutrality that loudly and strongly asked for those in the conflict engagement field and those facilitating collaborative processes to cease and desist with the concept that we practice as “third party neutrals.”? In this new book, Bernie is pushing forward, changing the basic understanding of “conflict resolution.” He calls us to understand that, in fact, much of what is needed is not resolution, is not decision-making, agreement-building to overcome deep seated conflicts, but rather approaches that help people build the adaptive capacity and platforms from which to act – to stay with the tensions and conflicts that are an essential part of the human experience, to engage in a way that brings human dignity and that allows us to really stay in the difference.

There are necessary and important tensions and conflicts, the checks and balances of life. As a reformed/reforming “fixer”, this is a challenging place for me to be. And so, Mayer says, it is critical that we learn to “stay” – to be fully and productively engaged in these conflicts. This is another piece in the puzzle about what it takes to make adaptive change. What Mayer is talking about is not jumping to finding the easy agreements or the quick fixes to problems, but to really spend time in the messy morass and build the respect for differences necessary for real and humiliation-free engagement with enduring conflicts.

Not to draw too loose a link, but I am personally intrigued by this notion of the importance of staying – of being willing to be in the midst of the uncomfortableness of accepting the enduring nature of many conflicts and examine, within that frame, what actions we can take that speak to honesty, integrity and compassion. There is, in this notion, a similarity to the Buddhist practice of staying in uncertainty, being in the midst of our challenges and breathing – creating some space and becoming less attached to the outcome. Not an easy practice, but quite a transformative one.

So today I’m wondering, what kinds of situations have you learned to “stay” in?

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  • Curtis says:

    Love this, Linda. Sounds like Mayer’s writing and thinking is in keeping with the notion that “there is no outside,” that we are all connected and in this together. Furthermore, from what you say he gets at the heart of something that has often troubled me about conflict resolution as a field, and that is this notion of the outsider who swoops in to help set things straight and then leaves. The missing link is the leave behind, the capacity building. So thank you for helping to crystallize some of my past thinking on this and I can’t wait to look at Mayer’s book in the new year.

    As for situations that I’m learning to stay in, my goodness, where does the list end?! There are my deepest personal relationships and learning to stay with certain long standing tensions so that we can work together to go deeper; there’s my evolving understanding of dynamics around race, gender and power, and learning to sit with certain discomforts and uncertainties; there’s learning to sit with those who have seemingly polar opposite political views, especially around issues that I feel are dire and urgent and where certain positions can simply come across as stall tactics . . . . Hey, maybe we need a support group on this at IISC!

  • Linda says:

    Yes Curtis. And he’s talking as well about facilitating large collaborative change efforts that focus on agreement building. Rather than, sometimes, focusing on the enduring nature of the tensions/conflict. Interestingly, this feels very related to Gibrán’s post yesterday about exploring the “stuff” of life – an internal conflict. It’s a great book.

  • Gibran says:

    Thanks so much Linda for such a powerful and insightful highlight from what seems to be an amazing book! You are right, I immediately felt a direct connection to my recent retreat experience and how I had no option but to stay with the inner upheaval. I caught my mind desperately reaching for answers, something, anything, that would settle how I was feeling, but the only answers available were the same old answers, the ones that have already met their purpose. The only way to evolve was to “stay,” to get deep in it long enough, patiently enough, thoroughly enough, to let emerge that which had not yet been imagined.

  • Linda says:

    I’m looking forward to continuing to read this book – especially (for those who know me) the chapter on Power – and in the meantime, have started carefully examining tensions/conflicts – seeing which are actually part of the structure and may be a necessary thing … at least until there is structural change.

  • Curtis says:

    Linda and Gibran,

    What’s coming up for me now is Larry Dressler’s metaphor of “standing in the fire.” Fire, as he points out, can be destructive, and it can in a sense be purifying. How can we each master the fires that burn within and without, directing the energy in ways that fuels us without leading to unwieldy fueds?

    So timely as we head into this Thanksgiving holiday.

    Thanks again,


  • Cynthia says:

    Reminds me of my recent time with the Sisterhood for Peace-Transforming Sudan. The point was to find enough common ground to stand on, and stay with each other/work with each other there, without even necessarily trying to resolve or confront the differences.

  • Linda says:

    And Curtis, that expression “standing in the fire” is a very common Buddhist expression for staying with the hard stuff!

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