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Deidre Combs: Conflict as a Call to Sing Our Proudest Souls' Anthems

Celebrating Struggle: Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs loves conflict. She loves it so much that she transformed her project manager position at IBM into the role of a mediator. Twenty years later, she hasn’t looked back: “I so adore this work.” Deidre is the author of three books examining conflict, and she presently works as a contractor for the U.S. State Department in three programs involved in bringing leaders over from other parts of the world to learn about each other and leadership in working together.

In this Awakin Call conversation with Aryae Coopersmith, Combs shares stories of connection and explains why “conflict is risky, scary, messy, and dangerous, and it's the best thing we've got going for us, all at the exact same time.”

AC: I want to go back to looking at you in your early life. Can you share with us some of the influences from your early life that led you in this direction, and specifically that led to the values you hold now?

DC: As you know, I am the eldest of four sisters. We fought like dogs (laughter). I always laugh when I hear this; I've always had a great comfort with conflict, because we had a lot of conflict. We're so dear to one another as adults. But I guess there was an underlying comfort if people were in discord. When I was 17, I lived for a year in Mexico. I received a Rotary Club scholarship. I absolutely fell in love with that experience, and living in a different culture. I think of that as something that has been a core experience that helped me. When you get into a mediation and it's “Oh! We've got two cultures here. How do we translate between these two cultures, these two different beliefs, these different stories?”

So I know that that has been a formative experience that I'm always drawing upon. I loved that you brought up my mother, Deborah. I remember when I was young, when I would come to her, frustrated about a sister or friend, and she would always return me to, "Well, let's think about where that person's coming from." That became a core belief. I feel my parents were wonderful in reminding me that it's just not a bad person. Let's go underneath that, and see where they're suffering. So I would say those are the core things that I draw upon all the time.

AC: I love it that you're taking the conflict you've experienced with your sisters and you're doing what you talk about now. Rather than thinking about that as a problem, you're thinking of that as a blessing.

DC: Absolutely. I don't know how much of a blessing it felt like to my parents when we were screaming down the halls (laughter). It started early, when I was working with IBM. That was the start of my career. I was a project manager, and they had this meeting, as I wrote about. It was a pivotal moment. I realized, "Oh, conflict isn't just something you do and have to get through but that it always holds extraordinary opportunity. There is no change without some degree of conflict. And without change we don't get better. It's realizing over the years that, with my sisters, we were playing with fire, and as we know, fire has this amazing ability to cook our food and warm our homes. I think of that very common cross-cultural analogy of conflict as fire.

AC: You told me about the work you did with a Lutheran church, when they were dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage. Can you share that story a little bit?

DC: Since that time, after I got trained as a mediator, I kept going. I've been mediating and facilitating for almost 20 years. One of the mediation experiences I had was that I was asked by a Lutheran church after the ELCA ruling had come to the churches saying, "Let's try to be more open about having same-sex couples as pastors and within our community. It just tore this church apart. They were really struggling. I was asked to come in and create dialogue. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

It was an extraordinary work, and I would hear things that would break my heart into a thousand pieces. Sometimes I would get into the car after and just cry and do a little screaming, especially when I would hear the bile that sometimes fear brings out in people. It was an extraordinary process. I'm always teaching people to say, "Tell me more." If anyone on this call happens to be one of my students, they're probably laughing right now, because I'm always saying, "This is the practice, when you're sitting in dialogue, or you're talking to someone you don't agree with, is to re-center, breathe, and say, 'Tell me more about why... (etc.).'" To be working with people and who were facilitating as well, who really hate those whom I love, was the hardest of all. How do you then, at those moments, say "Tell me more."? I think, in those moments, I'm the most proud of myself. I can turn and bring in what I don't want to hear.

AC: That sounds really core. Could you say more about your practices as a mediator?

DC: M. C. Richards, who was an amazing potter and an artist, and teacher, wrote a book called "Centering." Now it's almost 30 or 35 years old. She describes one of the core practices of fully engaging your life --- which is also engaging in the challenges of life --- is bringing in rather than in leaving out, this ability to be sitting in a circle and have people diametrically opposed. I may be diametrically opposed if I'm participating. It's recognizing that those who are the most opposed to me are the ones I want to listen to most intently, because they are seeing something that I am absolutely not seeing. A core practice for me is to say, "Am I bringing in, am I centering, am I taking one more opinion, one more perspective, and bringing it in to expand my position? Not my position, but my perspective?" And to recognize when I have positions, and that they're always incomplete.

I know when I get close, when I hit paradox, that's the place of poetry, when I've brought it in enough that I'm starting to see the larger picture. I'm starting to understand what impatient patience looks like. I'm understanding what cruel compassion is. I'm understanding what selfish selflessness is.

I'm starting to hold what is described in the Western tradition as the mandorla. In the Eastern tradition we have the Yin/Yang symbol, that symbolizes the light in the dark and the dark in the light, the feminine in the masculine, the great Fish symbol. In the Western tradition, it looks like a Venn diagram. You have two intersecting circles. Our work in this life is to stand and be in that intersection of the two circles. It's almond shaped; mandorla means almond in Italian. If you go to medieval churches like Chartres in France, you'll see that they will put Mary or Jesus in that place to symbolize the dancing of Heaven and Earth. It isn't a compromise. It's the dancing of the opposites all beings held as a whole.

So that mandorla is a doorway into expanded solutions, into enlightenment of sorts. Conflict gives us the ability through that doorway. It's like an entrance to a cave. My watching is that if I think I've got it all figured out, I know I don't. I giggle as I tell you these stories about my childhood and I'm thinking, "I know there's so much I'm not sharing." It can stop me at times, because our stories are always incomplete. "Tell me more" is a life philosophy.

AC: … it sounds to me like you mean "sharing stories."

DC: Yes, sharing my own story and being willing to listen to yours. And actually to have a conflict or something we're working on, and modeling for each other, that we can use as an opportunity. I love to ask in class, "Can you think of a time in your life where your life has gotten better without some conflict?" That may be an internal conflict, like a message, "That's just not the right job for me." Or relationship for me. Or it may be with a person. Or it may be with an institution. Or it may be with God, as in "Really, you're taking this person away from me now?" We have to have some kind of discord to change. If everything is the same, we don't change. So we need it; it's really one of the best things we've got going for us.

Another favorite question I love to ask is, "What do you know that I might not know that you have gathered from a difficult experience?" I've asked this of 18-year-olds to 80-year-olds. The wisdom that comes out of each and every mouth when you ask that question makes it a favorite question.

AC: What would you advise us to do, to start? To contribute to resolving the conflict that afflicts this world?

DC: It's these two pieces of us that we want to create a mandorla with. We want to find the intersection. We want to be smart in conflict. We want to learn the skills of refraining and understanding our opponent and watching for the moves. You can think of yourself as an everyday warrior. In the warrior traditions around the world, you're taught to be very smart, so you stick around. You're recognizing that someone could be coming up behind you with a sword. At the exact same time, we want a heart so open that, as they say in the Tibetan Bon warrior tradition, you can feel a mosquito land on it.

So how do we hold learning skills like refraining and dialogue and understanding our opponent and being practical and coming at it with an incredible heart full of love? I was listening to John Lewis…the last living member of the "big six" of the civil rights leaders. He kept talking again and again and again about love. He talked about how he cries a lot. He talked about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would say, "Just love 'em up. Just love 'em up." Holding that very open heart. This is a man that really understood the importance of strategy and making sure the media was aware of what was going on in the civil rights struggle.

So, how do we see ourselves each day as everyday warriors, walking onto the martial arts mat, bowing in gratitude for whoever has brought us conflict, and then playing well? How do we fight well? There are so many things I would recommend in terms of skills. At the same time, it's how do we continue to polish our hearts and make sure they're wide open? Not just being in our hearts, because we won't last very long, and not just being in our heads, because we can do horrible things that we can regret for the rest of our lives.

Deidre Combs continues to spread her open-heartedness wisdom in her work as a conflict resolution trainer, coach, speaker, and writer. Towards the end of the call, I was left with one question for Deidre, “Tell me more.”

To find out more about Deidre’s work check out her books: The Way of Conflict; Worst Enemy, Best Teacher and Thriving Through Tough Times. You can also see her Tedx talk where she explains why our only response to conflict should be gratitude.


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