Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Blocked Energy and Waging Peace

In the last year I've encountered an unusually high incidence of entrenched negativity. (Can Mercury be retrograde for an entire year?) I'm talking about people living in community who feel so badly hurt by others that they have largely given up on the situation improving. At its nastiest, this justifies being pretty harsh in return, and the damage escalates. It can get really ugly.

Essentially, I'm talking about people making war with each other.

How Did It Get This Way?
It's not that hard to imagine. Groups rarely start out with an understanding of why they will need the capacity to support members through interpersonal tensions. Nor do they tend to select for members who have that skill. Some are even naive enough to think that moving into community—an explicit attempt to live cooperatively—means that conflict will be left behind.

Not having been raised in a culture where the skills of peaceful problem solving were taught, we're often scrambling to figure out how to do it as adults—after the houses were built and moved into. As the scales fall from our eyes and we discover that we bring combative energy with us into the utopian experiment, we discover (to our dismay) that we need help working through interpersonal tensions—just like everyone else. It's humbling.

Lacking the skills needed (and perhaps not even being sure what they are) groups are often overwhelmed by the chaos of fulminating distress and paralyzed about what to do. Unfortunately, once things get beyond the ability of the protagonists to address, they rarely get better on their own. Instead, they fester and undermine the joy people meant to get out of living together.

And I'm not just talking about what the antagonists go through: it's no picnic tiptoeing around unhappy campers. There's plenty of misery to go around.

Sometimes groups don't ask for help soon enough, and hurt members (if they haven't left) get entrenched in their negativity, so steeped in it that they no longer trust in the good intent of their adversary (If they really cared about me they wouldn't be so damned stubborn) or believe that relationship repair is possible.

Preconditions for Having a Chance to Turn it Around
About half the time I'm hired to work with groups there's at least one example of a stuck dynamic where the protagonists have not been able to find their way through it and the poisonous fallout is leaking on the group.

So I encounter versions of unresolved interpersonal tensions three a penny.

What I have noticed recently, however, is a marked uptick in the frequency of people so badly hurt that they have given up on the possibility of rehabilitation. I've run into this dynamic five times in the past year—which would ordinarily be a decade's worth of heavy sledding.

People in that much pain are fighting for their community life and want their adversary vanquished (while beaming them to Mars might be their first choice, they'd be willing to accept that person (or couple) crawling into a hole and never coming out).
Even though I tell people (tongue in cheek) that I don't do hangings, I occasionally get asked to anyway (tongue not in cheek).

When it gets that bad it's much harder to bring them back. Not impossible, but harder, and I have a much lower incidence of success in effecting repair. Even when I'm successful in getting the group unstuck one or more protagonists often jump ship once I lance the festering wound.

As I've contemplated this, it's occurred to me that I have been counting on certain baseline assumptions that may not always obtain:

—A willingness to see the adversary as a person of good intent (I'm not asking that they be seen as an angel, or that you have to give up on the notion that they can be a jerk; only that they are not evil—that they fundamentally care about the group and are trying to be constructive).

—A desire for relationship repair with that person.

—A willingness to look in the mirror for ways they may have contributed (perhaps unwittingly) to how the conflict unfolded and didn't get better.

—A willingness to set aside their cynicism and despair long enough to let me guide them through an even-handed exploration of the conflict and the possibilities for reconciliation (or at least deescalation).

—An openness to the possibility that their adversary can change (probably not their personality or their core beliefs, but how they behave with you and the group).

—A willingness to suspend the belief that their adversary has purposefully acted to hurt them (thereby justifying responding in kind).

In the last year I've have come to realize that I've not been diligent about checking for these open doors; I just assumed them. Now, however, I'm learning to ask.

A Soft Landing
Some fraction of the time, I've been asked in too late‚ by which I mean the damage is so severe that repair is not possible. Essentially, the will to attempt reconciliation is not present. Of course, some reach this break point sooner than others. Some have greater tolerance for hanging out in anguish and some hold out longer sustained by hope.

Although I always begin with the idea that a bad situation can be turned around, occasionally I'm convinced by my assessment that it's not a realistic possibility in this situation. When that occurs my objective shifts from reconciliation to orchestrating a non-punitive separation. If people can no longer live together, yet still are (I won't give that so-and-so the satisfaction of my leaving), someone has to tell them.

As I help people consider exiting as a viable choice (while I appreciate how strong your dream was that community would be a better way to live, how much of that dream are you experiencing? How much fun is this being?) I have to simultaneously be vigilant that no one is heating up a pot of tar and plucking chickens in an effort to "accelerate" the departure of adversaries.

People can be incredibly vicious when they feel wronged and have given up on relationship with an adversary. Really, it's a microcosm of how nations go to war. I try to explain that not everyone can live well together and occasionally separation is the best choice. It doesn't have to be anyone's fault; it just has to be recognized as unworkable (too much effort for too little joy).

Sometimes the most valuable thing I can do is to say the hard thing. While I'm rarely loved for that, I'm hired to go into harm's way and do the best I can to be compassionate, even-handed, and fearless. It's a hell of a way to make a living. But it's a great way to wage peace.