Conflict and Non-Attachment
By George Pitagorsky
July's article and webinar on Conflict Management just touched the tip of the conflict management iceberg. Conflict management requires the use of a variety of skills and concepts.
Communication, negotiation, emotional intelligence, problem solving and decision making are all part of it. Models such as win-win outcomes, kindness, service and non-attachment set the stage for the application of the skills.
Attendees from my Conflict Management webinar raised the question of what 'non-attachment' means and why it is a critical value along with truthfulness, trust and the others.
So let's explore the paradox of non-attachment in conflict management.
"In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves."
~ The Buddha
What Is Attachment?
Attachment is neither good nor bad. There is constructive attachment and destructive attachment. In psychology, attachment is the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. It is a foundation for healthy living throughout life. This kind of attachment is clearly a good thing. Its absence in childhood leads to serious problems.
In more general usage, attachment is binding to something, for example, a loved one or an idea. In Buddhist thinking attachment or clinging is seen as the cause of suffering.
It can be a clinging to wanting things to be different than the way they can be. It can be a clinging to the way things are. We are attached when we must have what we like or avoid things we don't like, no matter what. Note that the wanting or desire is not the issue. The issue is the attachment or the idea that things must be as we want them.
Attachment let's wanting get in the way of skillful thinking and action.
Attachment causes stress. It clouds the mind, elicits negative emotions and leads to attitudes and actions that make it difficult to resolve conflict and, in fact, give rise to much of it.
Non-attachment begins with accepting the reality of the present moment. This is a freeing. An example of a non-attached yet active attitude is the serenity prayer, "Accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can and clearly see the difference between"
What is, is.
What is, will change.
We can make things happen.
We can't always get what we want.
We are not the things we want or our ideas.
Attachment to Ideas
Attachment is always an idea, whether it has to do with a belief or the material. Whether we are attached to a loved one, an object or a perceived outcome it is our ideas and the feelings they elicit that we are attached to.
Ideas become mental models, drive our feelings and behaviors. When we attach to an idea we stop thinking clearly, and then the idea begins to becomes subconscious.
When we cling to an idea and let it become an unconscious driver it leads to stress, discomfort. We begin to act out of fear or anger; we stop being objective.
For example, in a conflict about which design is to be used for some product, promoting a design can be done with or without attachment. We can be very passionate about our design and yet be non-attached, open to objectively evaluating it vis-à-vis other designs or accepting criticism. We can engage in a collaborative design process and keep our conflict about content instead of emotions or politics. We can accept the reality that our idea has been selected or not, without carrying around or displaying negative emotions.
If we are attached, we might have an idea about:
- What will happen if we don't get our way, or,
- What will happen if we do.
Maybe we are attached to an idea that if someone negatively comments (i.e., criticizes, questions or disparages) about our design then they are attacking us.
Maybe the idea takes the form of a script that we tell ourselves "I am so smart that no one could possibly come up with a better idea than mine".
If we are attached then we will lose objectivity, our conflict will be driven by our mental model and we will lose the opportunity to use the conflict as a way of perfecting the design and/or our ability to design.
Method - Questioning and Deciding
Knowing that attachment is a root cause of stress, we can explore the ideas that are at work whenever we experience stress. When the idea is uncovered, it can be questioned. "Is it worth holding onto this idea and continuing the stress (stress may be good or bad depending on the situation)? Should I drop the idea and change behavior? Is this idea constructive?
Dropping the idea is not the same thing as giving up your position.
The method here is to be aware of the stress as it arises. Note that if you have trouble sensing your thoughts and feeling before they burst into behavior, try mindfulness meditation to increase awareness.
Watch for the signs of stress, for example unpleasant thoughts and feelings, perhaps a tightening of the chest or stomach, maybe a shortness of breath; anger; fear. If you miss these, watch for the behavioral signs - you've raised your voice, banged your fist on the table, become sarcastic or uncharacteristically silent.
Recognize that all stress is, is a barometer to let you know how you feel about something. It is the result of your attachment to an idea. Ask yourself, "What idea do I have that is causing this stress?" Asking only requires a short moment. Doing so immediately creates some "space" around the feelings. The act of asking immediately creates the opportunity to stand back and take a more mindful versus reactive approach.
Having taken a step back, ask yourself:
"What feeling is driving this thought?" "Do I want to continue?" "Should I change my idea?" "Is my attachment to this idea helpful?"
Looking at this in the context of the design conflict metaphor, we can recognize the difference between passionately defending one's design based on its relative merits and clinging to it as if it were life itself.
We recognize that attachment is not always a bad thing. We replace attachment to our design with attachment to an optimal outcome through an optimal process. If you are going to be attached to something, be attached to a process that will ultimately eliminate unskillful attachment. Optimal performance measures success over many iterations of the process. Focusing on the process helps to loosen one's attachment to the outcome.
Try it. Let us know what happens when you step back and observe, question and decide upon your attachments. Let us know if it makes a difference in managing conflict.
© 2009 Pitagorsky Consulting