Ken Cloke: From Conflict to Transcendence and Transformation
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May 27, 2017
Alyssa: I'm so pleased to be having this conversation today with Ken, who is really an amazing individual. A little bit of background on Ken. As a director of the Center for Conflict Resolution, Ken has extensive experience in mediation, negotiation, and resolution of complex, organizational, interpersonal, and public policy disputes. Before he got his start in mediation, though, Ken who is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley was actively involved in the civil rights movement. It was there that Ken began to realize that perhaps a different approach to conflict and conflict resolution was needed. Ken then worked as a Minister of Law Judge and Judge for the Municipal Superior courts in L.A. for a period of time. In those capacities, he started to have more exposure to mediation and other forms of dispute resolution, which for him opened up new collaborative, heart-based ways of approaching conflict as opposed to the sort of more rule-based, head-based approach that characterizes our traditional adversarial system. Ken then dedicated his life to mediation and other forms of non-adversarial conflict resolution and his approach to mediation and conflict resolution, which I'm sure we'll talk about in this call, is quite remarkable. Ken sees conflict whether it's at an individual or at a societal level, as an opportunity for transcendence and transformation. And Ken sees conflict as having many dimensions including emotional, energetic and spiritual dimensions.
With regard to the mediator, Ken does not think of conflict as something external to the mediator, something in which the mediator has to intervene. Rather, Ken tells a mediator “to recognize that everything the parties do or experience in conflict already exists inside you, along with everything they need to know, feel, and learn to resolve their disputes. Therefore you are the technique and your capacity for empathy, awareness, and calming presence will resonate inside them, eliciting qualitatively different outcomes.”
So as I mentioned, Ken is a pronounced figure in the field of dispute resolution. He is President and Co-founder of Mediators Beyond Borders, which is an organization that focuses on resolving systemic conflicts. And he's a prolific author and speaker on the subject. On a personal note, I highly recommend his book ‘Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution’, it was a really transformative read for me. So with that, we can start a conversation. Thank you, Ken, so much, for joining us today.
Ken: Thank you, Alyssa, thank you for inviting me.
Alyssa: Wonderful! So I thought that we would start out by talking about this pretty profound shift in your life, when you kind of transitioned away from some of the more traditional, legal roles. I was wondering if you could maybe tell me a bit more about what catalyzed that shift. In particular, I'm curious about this shift in your thinking about conflict. How did you kind of come to realize that conflict isn't simply some external phenomenon or something to just get past.
Ken: Well, I think in the first place, every one of us has many, many experiences with conflict going back to the time when we were infants, to the time when we were in school when our parents didn't understand us, when we found ourselves at odds with people that we were attached to, or had strong feelings for. And I think that incipient sense of being out of sorts, of having conflict, not feeling that it’s comfortable or natural or conducive to learning -- it's something that all of us can understand and relate to. The more difficult realization comes when you figure out that the conflict is inside of you. The one that you hate is inside you, and hatred becomes a vibration, a kind of soup in which you are immersed.
And that you have a choice in how to handle it. The choice isn't immediately obvious because it's being made by the limbic system inside your brain that has recognized some threat. That perhaps it feels assaulted or insulted and responds, kind of, in a very primitive manner, without realizing that, what we are basically confronting is a lack of skill.
The very first skill that we need to learn in order to handle our conflicts differently, is a very simple one: Are we going to engage in the conflict and behave badly, or are we going to try to stop, and try to figure out what's actually going on here, and I think that experience also, is one that all of us know and recognize even from childhood. It's especially important in families, because families are simultaneously, sort of, cauldrons of conflict and at the same time, centers of deep, profound, positive, emotional connections. At least, we hope that they are that -- you want them to be that. And the question then becomes how do we exactly handle this, where we often handle it through time, the passage of time. We get upset, we stroll off, we cry, we pout.... whatever it is, but time passes and then we return to a non-conflict state. Without having learned very much, except perhaps, to count to ten.
More advanced skills come later in our lives. Particularly they come in relationship to our friends, to our peer groups, where we experience a variety of different conflicts with our girlfriends, boyfriends, the people we love and admire in our lives. For me though, it was a kind of surge place that conflict came from, which you alluded to in your introduction, which was out of the experience of social conflict. And each of these experiences… in the first place, conflicts are overwhelming, very difficult to handle in any kind of way. With experience, I began to realize that counting from one to ten is pretty basic, and more fundamental and much more skillful than that is asking your opponent a question that could reveal where this conflict came from, for them, as well as for you.
And then, those skills continue. I just mentioned the first couple. I think there is an infinite number of those. And through our lives, we pick up first this one and that one, and one turns out to be useful, and another one turns out not to be useful in some different circumstance or situation. And it's exactly the same in mediation -- the very thing that you do that works miraculously with someone at 9:05, completely falls apart at 9:10. So what is conflict then really? Well, I think we can think of it simply as a place where we're stuck, and the reason that we're stuck is that we don't have the skills to be able to handle it at some higher level. And each of those skills is a kind of transformation, that is, it is a change in the form of the conflict. Once we exercise those skills, the conflict itself changes and we become unstuck at that level of conflict, by exercising those skills. Those skills will get us a certain distance and further. If chickens are playing on a playground and they're fighting, the very first thing that we tend to do is separate them. Separation is a useful thing to do as it stops the fighting. But if the kids are going to talk about why they're getting into conflict with each other, then they have to actually do more than being separated -- they have to actually come together. So separation works to stop the fighting, but it doesn't work to settle the issues that they're fighting over. So in that way, we can see that there are relatively primitive and relatively advanced methods for handling any particular type of conflict. And those are endless, so throughout our lives, we have nothing but opportunities for transcendence. Nothing but opportunities for transformation! To change the form of the thing and by changing it, we learn from it and discover some higher-order of capacity, to come to terms with this thing that was giving us the most trouble. So that's a bit of a long explanation, I don't know if that's exactly what you're looking for....
Alyssa: That's a wonderful starting point, there's so much there, that I want to kind of follow up on.
By which I mean there's a lot of different avenues. One thing that struck me in your response was that you mentioned thinking about the kind of mediator in this. You mentioned that the conflict exists inside you, it's inside each of the parties, and inside the mediator and you know what a mediator does at 9:05 may not be appropriate at 9:10. You have to be attuned, to be really present in the conflict and attuned to the vibratory qualities, as you say. And so, I was wondering if you could maybe give us some examples of your mediation practice of when your presence, your kind of ability to stay attuned to the vibratory qualities of conflict, elicited different outcomes.
Ken: Sure, let me give you a little bit of...let's see, how do I say it, a theoretical justification for what I'm about to say. Basically, the kinds of conflicts that we are thinking about are conflicts between human beings. And this is a place now where we can begin to see that there is a connection between conflict resolution and some very core spiritual ideas, particularly, Buddhist ideas about human suffering. The first of those ideas is impermanence.
The second of those ideas is one of the sources of suffering is attachment. But if we think about this for just a moment, we can see that as living beings, we have life energy flowing inside of us and the natural state of that life energy is slow. So any obstacle that's placed in the path of that flow is going to create a distortion. And if we go back to what I said before, that conflict is a state of being stuck.Being stuck means that we have created a diversion of our own life energy and it's now flowing in some different direction, it's blocked from its natural state. So what happens in mediation, to get back to your question, is that using empathy, storytelling, and a variety of different techniques, what I basically try to do, is to feel their energy flowing inside of me, and to find the place where that energy has become knotted, where it's obstructed, where there's some barrier. To feel a place where all of a sudden there is depth, unexpected depth. For example, a power word that someone will use, a word that has immense energy attached to it.
The example that I would like to give is an example that actually comes from a mediation between kids that I did many years ago, when I was helping to create school mediation programs. This was one in which two girls were talking and one of them, they had been friends, and one of them accused the other one of having taken something that she had said in confidence, and shared it with other people. And I asked her how that felt to her and she said, “It was really upsetting and I was very angry.” Well, inside of me I can feel very upsetting and I can feel very angry, but that doesn't really feel hundred percent like what it actually felt like. And so I find a place in me where I may have experienced something like that, I think of what words I would use to describe that and the one word that describes that, that has emotional power -- the word is betrayed. And so I asked her, “Did you feel betrayed?” and immediately there was a release of tension. And the recognition, the deep recognition of the truth of this. So I have to ask myself the question and that was the thing that turned the corner in the conversation. But I need to ask myself the question why was it so difficult for her to come up with the word, betrayed. And the answer, of course, is that the word ‘betrayed’ betrays her, meaning the word betrayal consists both of disappointment and desire. And it's the desire piece, the place that is most tender, the place where she is most vulnerable to disappointment. The place where she wants the other girl to really like and keep her confidences, so that she can feel a sense of intimacy and connection with her, that's the place that has been damaged. That is in trauma.
And so, what I began to realize is that it's always the most tender places inside of us that is the most hurt. That's the first thing that we do in conflict. To protect those places, to distance ourselves even from forms of conversation that will require us to become vulnerable in the presence of someone we no longer trust. And yet, there is at the same time, a desire for release from suffering, there's a desire for honesty, for communication, there's a desire for connection. A hope that the other person will actually treat your confidence, that is the vulnerable parts of you, with the care they deserve.
And so that opens up the possibility of a very different conversation between these two girls and so I turned to the other girl and I said, “Was it your intention to betray her?” And she said no. And she started to say why not, and I stopped her, and I said, "Don't tell me, tell her". And now that the two girls are talking to each other and they are both being open-hearted, and honest, vulnerable with each other, she apologizes for what she did in a very sincere way. And recognizes the pain that her friend had experienced. Now this isn't going to be what's going to happen in every case.
But the point of the conversation was to make it possible for them to have this deeper understanding of the source of their conflict. And the only way that could happen was by finding within myself what it must have felt like for her. And when I say ‘must’, I really mean it not as a statement, but as a question to her to find out -- did you feel betrayed? And so in a very similar type of way, in every conflict conversation we are defending ourselves against the very thing that we want the most, against a heart-to-heart conversation with a person who has hurt us. And it's natural for us to want to avoid that conversation because they have in fact betrayed our trust somehow, because they haven't met our expectations, because we don't know any longer who they are, or believe that they don't know who we are. And therefore we don't show them who we actually are. We shut down internally inside and that creates a source of suffering because it's a kind of attachment, and it's even worse because it's an attachment to something that is over, that is already happened.
And by being attached to that thing that is over, we keep it with us in our lives. It becomes a source of personality, just as the flow of a river when it's blocked by some geological formation, by a rock, will be distorted and will take some new form. And in exactly that way our lives are formed not just by the conflicts that we've experienced, but by the ones we have not resolved. And even by the ways that we resolve the ones that we continue to have.
Alyssa: Wow, that's a very powerful example! I'm really struck by the way you said the word ‘betrayed’ betrays her.
Ken: There are thousands of examples like that that I can give you, because in virtually every conflict there is some little wounded place inside us that is searching for release. There is a wonderful little poem by Rumi who says, "There is some kiss we want so badly that we would die for it and we die a little bit inside when we don't receive it."
Alyssa: Yeah, this is all really reminding me of the fact actually that there's a part in your book, "Mediating Dangerously," where you talk about every mediator at some point encounters a party whose problems reflect his or her own incomplete issues from the past, issues that require resolution. And you know those moments where the mediator can, you know, maybe work through some of his or her own issues are gifts that provide unique opportunities to learn from. I'm wondering if you could talk to that, if you could speak to any gifts of that kind that you might have received.
Ken: Thank you. Well, let me say two things. First an example, a very simple way of thinking of this -- I like to give simple examples because people can recognize them easily -- babies when they are very young don't play with each other. They engage in what's called parallel play. That is they play side by side, and if one baby is playing with a toy and the other baby takes it, there's no conflict because the baby hardly even knows that the toy has disappeared. But at a certain point, as the babies develop, they become conscious of each other and begin to transition from parallel play. But in order to make the transition from parallel play, they have to figure out what to do when the other baby takes the toy and doesn't give it back. And that's a skill that is acquired.
And it’s acquired in part, because of the desire for a relationship, and in part, because of the fact that you do not yet have the skills to handle that relationship, to make it work. So every conflict those babies experience is experienced in the transition from parallel play into cooperative play. And it's the same with us. We are still in that transition from parallel play to cooperative play. We haven't really learned it completely, but as we acquire the skill to say, "Excuse me, can you pass the toy back please," and "I'd like to play with you," and "If you'll pass the toy to me, I'll pass it back to you and we can have some fun here." And that's the basic skills that we are looking for in terms of that transition. So here is what it means -- it means every conflict in our lives takes place at a crossroads that is defined on the one hand by a problem we are now required to solve in order to grow and develop and meet the requirements of the life that we have created/found, and on the other hand, by the fact that we do not yet have the skills we need in order to solve it.
But when we acquire those skills, it's not that we actually resolve the conflicts on the playground with the kids that we fought with, it is that we outgrow them. We no longer experience those conflicts at all because we have transcended the source of the conflict by the development of skills that are adequate to that form of conflict. That doesn't mean they're going to be adequate to all forms of conflict, so I think that what we get in life is just an endless series of conflicts that require higher-order skills. This is a little bit, for some of your listeners, they can think of this, kind of, as being like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where the conflicts that you get when you are in survival mode are pretty primitive, but the conflicts you're going to get when you move into self actualization, into art, those are significantly different conflicts. And we are defined in part by the conflicts that we experience and in part by our attitude towards those conflicts. So that once we see that every conflict is a kind of learning experience, a little arrow pointing directly at what we most need to learn in order to move on to higher-order conflicts, then it becomes something different.
If we think about why it is, for example, that people get into dissatisfying relationships with other people and then they break up and then they meet the same type of person again, and get into the same type of conflict once again. I think the reason for that is because we just haven't learned the core skill, which is not one that is only external. It is internal as well because the ability to stop and say, "Wait a minute. Here is what I experienced. What did you experience?" In this conflict, even though you're my opponent, I need to find out what happened to you, because that is the place where my deepest learning is going to take place. Because, truthfully, it's all about relationship between self and other. Every conflict, every resolution is somehow connected to who are you and who is this other person. And who are they to you and who are you to them. And how deeply can you imagine what it might be like to experience what they have experienced and turn that into a form of growth and learning.
The second example was just a story. And you reminded me of this, when we talked earlier, when you were letting me know what the call is going to be like. I did a mediation involving a woman who had been the head of the teacher's union in a school for twenty years. And was a very strong, powerful leader in the teacher's union who had fought for the various teachers in her school district for many, many years and then stepped down and returned to the classroom. And as soon as she did, the problems began to occur. And she began getting into arguments with the other teachers and shouting and yelling at them and using not just your average swear words but your world-class swear words in front of the children, and these were elementary school kids. So the principal was getting ready to fire her, because this had happened now on four different occasions, exactly the same thing. They decided to try mediation, so I brought them all together and I asked the four teachers who were there to say what had happened to them individually. And with each one she said, "No, that isn't what happened and they are the ones who started it, and it wasn't my fault etc.” And I can see this as just going nowhere.
So what I did was I went again inside myself and I said, "What would have happened to me? What would have had to have happened to me, to make me act like that?" And then what came up for me wasn't an answer but a question, because we can't really know exactly what happened to another person, but we can ask questions to get deeper into that place. And so I stopped her in the middle of a sentence, and I said, "Excuse me. Can I ask you a question?" And she was a little shocked, because she was on a roll, and said, "Okay." So I said, "Has anyone in this school ever thanked you for what you have done for them?" And she just started to burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably, and the other teachers were just stunned because they had never seen her even blink in the face of opposition. And to now see her just dissolve in tears was just completely shocking to them. And so I stopped the conversation, and I said, "Instead of telling her all the things that she has done wrong, I'd like you instead to thank her for what she has done for this school. Say one thing that she did that made a difference for you, in terms of your life."
And they began describing these things. And now they are all starting to cry. And immediately she ‘fesses up to the whole thing. She says, "I'm so sorry for what I did." She admits every single thing, apologizes profusely for it, and we have this really powerful, intense, heartfelt conversation. At the end of which I say to the teachers, "Ok, are we done yet? Does this feel like it's a resolution to you?" And she stops me and says, "No, I'm not done yet." And I think, "Oh dear. What's going on now?" And she says, "I need to go to the parents and the other teachers and apologize for what I did." And the other teachers say, "We're going with you. And instead of you just apologizing, we need to apologize too because we knew that for 20 years, you had been out of the classroom and this must have been incredibly difficult for you to come back into a classroom after all that time. And we knew that and we didn't help you. And we need to apologize for that." And so you can just imagine what the faculty meeting was like and what the parent's meeting was like, when these teachers came forward and did this, made these statements.
And it was just incredibly transformational. How come? Because instead of just defending herself against all these charges, what she did was to realize that there was a place now that she could go to, that was really the truth. It was deeper, way deeper than the conflict which was her own internal conflict and her sense of guilt and incapacity, her anxiety about not being able to handle the situations in the classroom with all these kids that before she had been able to handle. So that's an example I think of what you're talking about where the conflict just all of a sudden, right around the corner, just no more than a hair's breadth away, was some deep profound realization that led to incredible growth and learning on everybody's part because they all got to see the role that they had played in having this continue.
Preeta: I'm really struck by what you said earlier about how all of us in our lives will be confronted with an endless array of conflict that increasingly draws us to, you know, develop skills of transcendence and transformation. And you obviously, through your practice of actually helping people through individual conflicts, see that, are confronted by that, and have an opportunity to help people develop some of those skills. This is such an incredibly important learning, societally, for people. Is there a way to get that out there so that people can transform their own approach and relationship and views of conflict in a way that's not just one-off, conflict by conflict, person by person? I am sure you have explored that in your own work.
Ken: Yes, I'm busily exploring it right now, actually. First, let me say that one of the most interesting aspects of conflict is that it is self-similar on multiple scales. This is the scientific description of a fractal. A fractal is something that is self-similar, on large and small scales. So what is true often-times between individual people may also be true of societies, that can also develop higher-order skills for handling conflicts. So in the United States today, we are experiencing intense political conflicts as a result of the recent election. And as a result of a series of problems that haven't been adequately addressed.
And the question becomes how do we learn some skills to be able to manage that? And once again, I think that there are certain core skills. One of those is dialog, without which we can say that democracy is limited. So the greater the skills in dialog, the more opportunity there is for democracy to work and to deepen its creative possibilities. One of the things that I've done in recent years, actually for a little bit longer than that, is to bring people together who disagree with each other over a variety of different issues, and help them figure out how to talk to each other. How to learn from each other. How to problem-solve together. And at the simplest possible level, we can think of politics just as a form of social problem-solving. And if we do that, then we can ask the question, "What would make problem-solving more effective on a social level?" And clearly one of those things is being able to talk about social problems with each other, not only even, but also especially when we have disagreements. So, for example, with ‘mediators beyond borders’, the group that Alyssa mentioned before, I and a group of other people went for about 4 or 5 years, once a year, to Athens to train Greek mediators in how to conduct dialogs between Greek citizens and immigrants.
And that's a hot issue. And one that people have very hot opinions about. So the question is how do you do that? And the first thing that we did was to ask a series of questions that help people understand each other. Here are two of those questions:
One: Have you ever in your life--this is to everybody who's present--either in a family or a neighborhood or a school or a workplace, been the new one and everybody else has been there for a while and you've just come in to this place? What did it feel like? How did they treat you? How did it feel to not know what the rules were? To be seen as an outsider as opposed to an insider? What emotions occurred? What resentments came up for you? How did you handle them?
Two: Have you ever in your life, in your family, neighborhood, workplace or school, been the one who's been there for awhile and then new people come in who have different skin color, men, women whatever it might happen to be and how did that feel, to have these new people with different ideas coming in? Did you feel like what you believed was going to be overwhelmed or disregarded or not respected? How did you feel?
And then within two questions, basically, everybody can start to understand what it feels like to be in the other one’s shoes. And then we can begin to talk. About what real life experiences people have had, and we don't want to deny there are problems because that doesn't serve anything. What we want to do instead is to explore those problems together. To understand each other's problems and to solve them together. I am hoping that's partly an answer to your question.
Preeta: Great, I’m going to turn it back over to Alyssa.
Alyssa: I was going to ask you, in the example you gave with the teachers, there was resolution and it seemed great and it seemed like they were getting kind of true justice there, but you know in some contexts as you’ve noted in your book ‘Mediating Dangerously’ we have to be careful because we don't want to suppress conflict and trade justice for harmony. And I've been thinking about that a lot, because in my personal life, I feel like I'm a bit of a conflict suppressor or avoider and opt for the more temporary peace. I was wondering if you could speak to that.
Ken: Great question! Thank you. Some of my thoughts on this are in ‘Mediating Dangerously’, but I also wrote a book 2 years ago called ‘The Dance of Opposites,’ and there’s a chapter on mediation, law and justice. And the statement that you made about trading justice for harmony, that comes from Laura Nader, a social anthropologist who was Ralph Nader’s sister. And I think it’s a valid critique that if we are trading justice for harmony with just ‘peace for peace’s sake’ and we haven't dealt with the underlying problems -- we might do that for some tactical reason because the possibility of war is so great -- but fundamentally real peace comes with justice. So now we have to ask what is justice?
Aristotle defined justice as due proportion, meaning too much reward isn’t just and too little isn’t just. Punishment and reward have to be proportionate and how do we know that? And he said that, in a sense, justice is someone else's self-interest. But the truth is it's a combination of our self-interest and someone else's. So what makes an outcome just is that it doesn't just settle the conflicts through some form of compromise, but actually resolves the underlying reasons that gave rise to that conflict in the first place.
And that's a significant shift in the way that we think about justice, and in order for that to happen, Aristotle, is right -- we have to take into account the other person’s self-interest. That has to be included. Unfortunately, the law as a mechanism, as a process, consists basically of deciding which of two truths is the correct one. If there is only a single truth, and there is truth vs. falsehood, then the law is going to be successful in resolving that dispute. But if it turns out that there are two truths, then trying to decide which one of them is the single truth is going to destroy the complexity of the problem and make it difficult to reach a resolution. The ONLY way you get a resolution then is by finding a creative combination of those two truths that hopefully turns it into something higher.
Here’s the example I'd like to give. There are two ways of combining things. You can take hot water and cold water and add them together and get lukewarm water. Or you can take water and add flour and heat and make bread. And this is what we're looking for -- how to make bread. So now let me get to your question -- are there situations in which it is better to experience the conflict and have it continue, than to have an outcome which is unjust, and the answer is -- Often. But here’s the difficulty. It's never quite so simple. It's much more complex and nuanced. And if what you are asking for and that you consider to be ‘just’ is something that is ‘just’ in your self-interest alone, that is not going to be considered ‘just’ by the other person, and they will then have a reason for refusing to go along.
But here's a place where conflict resolution really helps us immensely, and it helps us by helping us recognize that conflict is a relationship. And that means that there are always two parts, there’s always two truths, there's always more than just one perspective -- it is in fact our inability to recognize that truth is complex, multi-sided, multi-dimensional, nuanced that gets us into such difficulty, so we need to ask ourselves what is the other person’s truth that needs to be incorporated in our solution, how do we make bread out of this, and not just lukewarm water.
Now, in terms of examples, once again, lots and lots of these. This is another workplace example. A man was about to be fired by his employer as a security guard at a newspaper and the reason was because he was so angry all the time. So the women who worked at this newspaper preferred to walk to their cars through skid row alone, rather than be accompanied by him, that's how angry he was. So the publisher came and talked about how angry he was and how inappropriate his behavior was and how hostile he was to everyone.
And I said to him, “Is it true that you're angry?” And he says, “Damn right!” And I asked, “What are you angry about?” And he says, “I have been passed over for promotion.” It turns out he's like in his late forties, and he's been passed over by younger people many times and the reason is because he's angry all the time. So I said to him, “If you were promoted, would you be able to give up your anger?” And he said, “Yeah.” “What kind of job do you feel you could be promoted to?” And it was very funny -- he said he wanted to be the head of HR.
Which was hysterical because he had more HR problems than anyone who worked there. So I turned to the publisher and said, “Are there any jobs on your desk or other people’s desks that he could do?” And he said, “Well yeah, but I’m not here to give him a promotion. I'm here because he can't deal with his anger.” So I said, “Well what if we created a situation where it is half of one and half of the other as a transition, so he can imagine moving into this new job and have a reason to give up his anger, and at the same time he is in his old job and shows that he is able to give up his anger.” They thought that was an interesting idea so we developed this job description, so he agreed to do it, the publisher agreed to give him a shot at it. And for three months he would do both, but he would have to have zero anger.
But as I am writing up the agreement, he starts expressing his anger again at the publisher and being angry about what had happened. And I said, “Wait a minute, we just solved this problem. Why are you still angry?” And he said, “Well, because they did this, they did that.” And I said, “If you are going to actually make this work, are you going to be able to successfully let go of this anger that you’ve experienced?” And he stopped for a second and he said, “I don’t know.” Now that's the moment of truth, when he says, “I don't know.” So I said, “Would you like some help to figure that out,” He says, ”Yeah.” I said to the publisher, ”Do you have any kind of programs for people that can get them counseling or coaching or therapy?” He says, “Yeah we’ve got an employee assistance program.” “Would you be willing to go through that?” “Yes.” “OK let's put this on hold and give you a chance to go through that program and see what happens.” He comes back two weeks later, and says he's resigning because he's realized how much anger he has from his former life, from the way that he was raised by his parents, from his expectations, he's decided he's going to really go through therapy and work on it and he's decided he's going to go back to school and get a degree.
Now let's go back to what I was trying to do before, it sounded like a good idea but it wasn't what he actually needed. I was trying to find a solution that wouldn't have worked for him. He came up with a much better idea eventually which was to go back to school and get the qualifications that he needed for a better job and to work on his anger in therapy, so he really could get rid of it. So that's an example of a place where a mediated solution wasn’t going to produce the highest level of justice for him and he kind of knew that inside himself. And that was an important realization for me, to stop and check in with myself to make sure that I was really getting the right information from people, before jumping to conclusions.
Alyssa: Great! Well, thank you! Thank you Ken, for all the conversation thus far and I think, one thing I find really interesting is that you gave a couple of different examples. And one thing I noticed, I think in each one of your examples is that, at one point in the conflict, you really sounded like you must just pause and attune to what was kind of going on within you, and in trying to sense, kind of, the vibration of the conflict and where it was hitting inside you, and so I was wondering if you could speak to some of your personal practices or some of the things that you do, to cultivate that awareness and how that intersects with your professional practice. That's something that, you know, I've always been trying to figure out in my own life is how to cultivate the inner resources and outer resources, and if you could speak to that.
Ken: Thank you, it's a beautiful question. I'd be happy to. In the first place, I meditate at least an hour every day and this is really essential because, in the first place, it is filling myself with emptiness. Because the emptiness is not a void. It is a place of fullness. But what you are filled with is a kind of sensuousness, if you will, a sensation of how the life energy itself is flowing inside of you and that gives me information about what is happening with other people because all of us have the complete ability to become tuning forks, particularly when it comes to emotion but also when it comes to storytelling. So every story is a stimulus to empathy, and in fact, they have done some functional MRI testing on people who are listening to stories and highly empathetic people often understand the story in greater detail than it was told in, and reach the end of the story before the storyteller does.
A second thing that I do is what I call calibrating my intuition. Intuition is simply the sum total of all of the information that is available to you at any moment that we're not necessarily conscious of. And conflict resolution is a highly intuitive methodology and so what we need to do is to figure out how to access what we know, but don't know that we know. One way of doing that is by tuning yourself to the story and seeing if you can finish it before they do, seeing if you can understand what comes next in the story, if you can feel it arising inside of you.
The third thing is what I call the number one rule in conflict resolution, which is to show up. And that means as much of you as you can possibly bring to the conversation that you are having in the moment that you're having it -- all of you and if there's any part of you that you can't bring, that's a kind of attachment and what you want to do then is to take a look at that and see what blocks, what gets in the way. This is another point, which is that every internal blindness results in something that you can't see externally. If there's something you can't see inside yourself, you won't be able to see it outside and vice versa. Meaning if you've missed something in a conversation in what someone was trying to tell you, there's some reason why you missed it and if you focus on it, if you really try to get to the bottom of it, then you have become more attuned to parts of yourself, personalities even, that exist inside of you.
Good actors are able to do this and what acting essentially means is that the roles that we act out already exist inside of us in some form. Sometimes they take the form of archetypes. But those archetypes have substance to them -- they do have an impact on how people think. There's another part of this, which is simply following the little trail of breadcrumbs that people leave in their conversations. And I mentioned before about places where there is great depth in the conversation, or whether it is a peak like with the word ‘betrayed’ for example, or any of the power words, or any of the insults, or any of the places where people get highly energized, those are places that have hidden content. And if you just follow those, if you stop in your tracks and figure out what actually happened you’ll be able to do something creative with this.
There is another point about this, which is it is important to have much training as possibly as you can get, and then it is important to jump in there. Leap before you look, if you will. You can do as much looking as you can but none of the looking is actually going to help you, once you make the leap. And to place yourself in a position where you don't know the answer, you couldn't conceivably know the answer, nobody could know what's going to happen next and follow it. In order to do that, you have to first polish your own intention, your attitude, so that it is really impeccable, in the sense of being spotless. So that your intention is clear and shines forth so that people don't have any question about why you're there, they know it's to help them. And that's not a question of faking it, although the actor George Burns famously said that sincerity is the most important thing in Hollywood and if you can fake that, you've got it made.
This is something where it just has to be genuine for you. It has to be real, it’s not about technique and it can't be a pretense. It's gotta be sincerely what you actually want, what you actually mean and that's the biggest part.
Preeta: Yeah, that's wonderful. We have a few questions and reflections that came in, off the webcast, but before we turn to those, I want to use the host prerogative a tiny bit, and jump in with where you left off, Ken. It was beautiful to hear about the tools that are important. You talked about the practices, you talked about meditation, you talked about calibrating my intention, you talked about just showing up and so many other things and I'm wondering that these are obviously tools you have developed over the course of your lifetime, tools for transformation, and I wonder, you know, if you could speak to what was motivating or what do you think in your life led to your development of these tools -- were there particular stories? Were there particular conflicts? Were there particular things that led you increasingly to go down that path in terms of your own personal journey?
Ken: Well, I would say there are several things. The first is I would say that I have to give credit to the women in my life for teaching me the importance of emotional intelligence. And I kind of remember the very first time in junior high school when I realized that girls knew stuff that I didn't, and I couldn't figure out even exactly what it was that they knew but I was on the phone every night talking to girls who somehow just seemed to have some deep knowledge, that all of a sudden had become important to me and I wasn't sure what that was. So I would say out of relationships, intimate relationships, has come a lot of learning.
The second is the social experience being in the civil rights movement, as you mention, in the antiwar movement, in the student movement in the 1960s. I was very much an active participant in that and I believe in the values that all of those things stood for, but what I realized was that it's a little bit like separating the kids on the playground. You can get a certain distance through demonstrations, through confrontation. If what you want to do is to stop people being lynched, that's one way to do it. But if you want to change people's hearts and minds, you have to do something different. That means you have to actually engage them in conversation. We have to be willing to have the dialogs that are important.
The third source for me was being a judge and trying to do justice, but somehow not being able to do that, not understanding even how to get there because the law is so formal. There were two personal experiences that I had. One was an offer from the governor of California at that time, to be appointed to the Superior Court, and I had to give the answer the next day and I was kind of torn about whether to do this or not and I had a sort of prophetic dream that night. I dreamt that I was on the stand as a judge and there was this kid who was testifying about some crime he'd committed and I realized he was lying and then I looked at the defense counsel, I realized he was lying, looked at the prosecutor to realize that he was lying, and then I looked at myself and I saw that I was lying too. So I got up from the bench in my dream. I took the kid by the hand, sat him down on the floor, sat down on the floor with him and just said, “Tell me what happened, tell me who you are”. It was a really intense, powerful dream and I knew I couldn't do this. So I called and said that I wouldn't the next day. The second major one was that I was appointed to be the first judge on the television program ‘People's Court’, before there was Judge Wapner, there was me. And we did a pilot for the program in the course of which I mediated a dispute and I'd done some mediations as a judge and just there wasn’t any point in judging because it was very clear to me that two people could reach an agreement and so I got them to a place of agreement and they were thrilled and I was fired by the producers because they wanted to have victory and defeat -- that was one of the important dramatic elements for them.
And that was another really important piece of this, but I would say the strongest part of the lessons for me was after I became a mediator and I began doing juvenile victim-offender mediations. Mediations between kids who committed crimes and their victims, and those were just so incredibly powerful and intense, and you realize that having been a lawyer who handled criminal cases sometimes, I know what happened to kids who went to prison. I represented prisoners and this was just completely different. Nobody went to prison as a result of this. People apologized, they gave retribution and restitution, and there was redemption for the kids as a result of this. Not just as a word, but as a real thing. Because they got to a place where they could pay back for what they had done, and they had to do that, in order to be free of it. They had to make themselves whole. Making the victim whole, that's the way it was phrased, but the truth is it was never as much about the victim, as it was about the perpetrator and helping that kid get to a place where they didn't have to walk around covering up their guilt forever, with further criminal acts. So those are some of the main ones.
Preeta: Well, thank you. I want to turn to some of the questions that have come in. Carol asks: Must people have a true interest in resolution for successful mediation to occur?
Ken: No. Here is what I would say, probably as characteristic of this. Almost everybody wants to be free of the conflict and almost nobody wants to come together to talk about it. So they don't have to believe in it. All they have to do is to be willing to come together and willing to say what is true for them. And what will happen is that they will discover what is true for them at a deeper level, than just the level of how bad they feel about what happened and that deeper level is why does this matter to them, why is this important. So, for example, I do marital mediation and I also do divorce mediations.
There are many instances -- divorces are places where people have just given up or they’ve become so exhausted trying to solve the problem, that they just can't do it anymore. One part of every conflict story is the idea that nobody could do anything about this. It's just not possible. Mediation can't possibly work and I can't tell you how many times I've been told that, and sometimes truthfully, it doesn't work. Sometimes that's because the mediator may lack the skills, sometimes it's because it’s too deep, because it's gone on too long, because people aren’t willing to change, because they don't know how to, because they’re afraid to. There are thousands of different reasons but what is most important is that, out of this conversation comes some deeper understanding of, at least, why is it that we actually are stuck, and that's a step forward. So I would say no, it's not necessary for people to believe in the process but it is necessary for them to be able to get in touch with the part of them that doesn't like the conflict at some point.
Preeta: We have another caller in queue. Lisa from Skagit Valley
Lisa: I first want to thank you because everything you're saying makes absolute sense to me and it is wonderful to hear it and my question is has this work that you have done helped you with your own conflict inside yourself.
Ken: Oh my God, yes. Yes, absolutely. One of the really delicious reasons for learning mediation is that you got to work on yourself. In fact, you have to work on yourself. We think of conflicts like we think of a lot of things in the world, as external. The truth is that everything external is processed internally, even the things you see. If you break down seeing, light hits the eye and goes through the retina, the fovea and down through the optic nerve and to your occipital lobes and it's translated into images. And in a similar type of way, all of the conflicts that we experience, we experience internally, so how do you do this?
What happens for me, is that especially earlier in my experience, there would be places where I would get stuck, places where I couldn't figure out what was going on, places where I would make mistakes, places where I didn't really understand deeply enough what was going on for someone, and you can't do this work without making those kinds of mistakes. But every single one of those mistakes is one that I take to heart and work on, and then that happens, of course, is that you are busy meditating at work and then you go home and you discover that you haven't really walked your talk as completely as you ought to have.
You are helping other people do all this work, but how about yourself. Aren't there some things that you could do better in your relationships with other people? And the answer is, yes absolutely, and I continue to work on that, even today, after all these experiences. There are still places where there's something that is upsetting or that strikes me and I'm not completely prepared for it, but what has happened as a result of this work, is that I now know with great certainty, that ‘there is gold in them hills’. There's something really valuable, really important, that can be learned from this experience, and so my attitude toward it is different. Every time I discover something like this now, I say fabulous, how great, I just discovered someplace where I can learn something new.
Lisa: And yeah, that in itself, changes the perception. So thank you.
Ken: Oh yeah absolutely.
Preeta: Thank you for your question. We have a question, another one that came into the webcast. It's a two-part question but I think they're related, so I'll read both of them together. This is from Mish, New York City and says, “ Ken thank you, grateful for all the learning you're sharing with us today. First, it seems like some thrive on confrontation or conflict and some shun it, wondering where does one’s basic nature determine how you handle conflict. Can't it be your nature that determines how we deal with confrontation? The second part which is related do you feel that there is a direct correlation between one's aversion to conflict or confrontation and the number of wounded places within?”
Ken: Beautiful. OK, yes. In the first place, we all have a different chemical and genetic makeup and they've shown with mice that some are more risk averse than others. On top of that, there is what is called epigenetics, which is the influence of environment on genetics -- that is what happens in your environment can change the expression of your genes, whether they're turned on or off. So, for example, if you have a male mouse, which is subjected to stress and there's no connection with the female mouse next door, except through the air system, so the odor that comes from the urine of the male mouse is transferred over to the female mouse. The babies born to the female mouse will have higher levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone, than if there had been a male mouse that hasn't been subjected to stress. So there’s genetic predisposition, there's epigenetics and there's also experience. And if it happens once, it's horrible and would have some trauma. If it happens twice, it's really just shattering and the third time that it happens to you, it becomes extremely difficult to escape with your life, out of whatever it is that has happened.
So that’s the first piece -- that there's some kind of natural sensitivity that we will have to conflict, and that every one of us can do better at handling, as we go through life. Then the second question is about a correlation between one’s aversion to conflict and the number of wounded places within us. The more wounds you have experienced, the more the threshold for your pain is altered and the more sensitive you are. If you stub your toe, you're going to go around stubbing your toe, quite frequently, it’s kind of on that level. But basically, there’s a way in which that lets us off the hook. And I don't want to do that.
So what is important to say, in spite of that, if there are still things that can be done -- here is my approach to what happens when there is what I call catastrophic suffering, and one of the things that I teach is forgiveness and it's also something that I work on. Forgiveness as a spiritual practice and also as a form of conflict resolution and instead of letting someone off the hook who has experienced something terrible, instead something is demanded of them. What they have uniquely available to them is the ability to dedicate some part of their lives to making sure that no one suffers the way that they did.
Everybody who has really suffered will instantly recognize the truth of this. This is the way out, instead of pretending that somehow you can go on with your life and everything will be OK. You have been given a kind of gift. It wasn't a gift you wanted. It wasn’t even a gift that you would even necessarily choose, but once it has been given, the truth is what to do with it. And if you can turn it into something that becomes a gift to others, rather than passing the suffering onto others, or denying the suffering, that's the path that leads to the greatest growth.
And that becomes possible in conflict resolution, especially with kids who’ve committed crimes, people who have experienced great trauma in their lives. And one of the things with ‘mediators beyond borders’ is we have a project in Rwanda that is using what is called “Trauma Informed Mediation” because everybody in Rwanda has been traumatized. And there are conflicts in which people get re-traumatized and so we're combining mediation and trauma professionals, and teaching both sets of skills simultaneously and that's the second approach to this. We need to be deeply respectful of suffering and not blame the victim for what has happened. But having said that, we also need to say to them -- there's something that you uniquely can contribute to the rest of us, that none of the rest of us can. People who have gone through a war in the Middle East where there is an organization called ‘Combatants for Peace’ and it consists of the members of the Israeli Defense Force, Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad forces -- all of them are former fighters who’d fought against each other, coming together to say that this isn't going to work, we've got to do something different. Nobody can say that like they can, just like nobody could produce peace in Northern Ireland, other than the IRA and the Ulster Constabulary. They were the ones who did it and it was out of their suffering and out of their pain, that the peace process came to a realization.
Preeta: Well, thank you so much, Ken. There's been so much in this conversation that's been rich, I mean just a few things that jump out for me and there's just so many. Your statement that in every conflict there's a wounded part of us that's seeking relief. How as a society, in some way, we're still in that transition between parallel play to cooperative play. How every story in some ways is an opportunity for empathy and there's so much that you talked about, like the ways in which we will keep being presented with increasing levels of conflict, as we continue to develop tools for transcendence and transformation. And how every conflict is really that opportunity, and I give this a little learning arrow, towards those skills we need to learn in order to move towards higher-order conflicts, so thank you for that amazing insight. There are so many more questions I personally have. Hope to be able to find ways to continue the conversation with you, within our own ecosystem in the future, but as we close, I have one question -- How can we, as a larger service-based community, support your work?
Ken: Actually, if we can describe it as our work. Here is my belief about this – globally, we are now facing problems that can no longer be solved using law or military force or ordinary forms of diplomacy. We require something new and I believe that what we have to do as a species is to figure out how to solve the problems collaboratively and in ways that don't make any of us into enemies and it's very easy to do that.
It's easy to do it with North Korea. It's happening right now with Iran, with Russia, and I would say that the most important thing for us to do is to resist the notion that someone of us is the enemy. My way of saying this is more or less the following. All of these are conflicts between them and us, but we have to get to a point where we realize -- there is no them. There is just us. That's all there is. It's just us, and when we realize that, we begin to move in the direction of dialogue and conflict resolution and communication and that's what we have to figure out how to do, as a species. So whatever it is, that people do, that will be terrific. You can support organizations like ‘Mediators beyond Borders’ or ‘Partners for Democratic Change’ or ‘Essential Partners’, which does dialogue work. There are a number of organizations that are out there, and I would say to help turn our political process in a conflict resolution and dialogue direction. If we can do that, then we will have done something really amazing.
Preeta: Well, thank you. Gratitude for your great insights today.
This call was transcribed by: Indira Jambulingam, Prabha Nallappan, Kozo Hattori, Pavi Mehta
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