Conflict and Love by Stan Siver
Eight years ago I walked out of the boardroom of the company I worked for muttering, "Life's too short," and, "This is killing me!"
Eight years ago I walked out of the boardroom of the company I worked for muttering, "Life's too short," and, "This is killing me!" I'd somehow "survived" five years in a high stress, emotionally exhausting, and totally dysfunctional organization, reached what was certainly the pinnacle of my career, and cratered. That I'd lasted that long before burning out is more due to my ignorance than to my strength. That I'd left is more testament to divine intervention than to any personal wisdom on my part.
In hindsight, I can see how the individual and collective energies of each of us in the organization were all focused on the tasks and goals typical of any main-stream profit-oriented organization in America. What we weren't focusing on was the emotional environment we were co-creating, the affect of that environment on our relationships (inside and beyond the organization), and the impact on our health. It is amazing to me, in retrospect, how narrow we allowed our vision to become as we slowly split off access to our own emotions and intuition in order to survive the trauma of the emotionally toxic environment. This isn't new. People do it everyday all over the world, in the name of workplace productivity or some equally compelling value.
Feeling totally lost, I went to see a therapist to begin the work of understanding what I had just been through, and to see why I had been willing to participate in something so toxic. I initially found it difficult, basically impossible, to find a therapist who was able to be supportive or understanding of workplace trauma. I was offered prescribed programs for what I should do. Eventually that psychological investigation led me to process work and to an experience that all of this had happened for a reason that I could finally begin to understand. I became a client, then a process work student, eventually started working with others and recently began work on a doctorate in the psychology of social conflict.
Looking back through the lens of six years of study of process oriented psycho-logy and conflict facilitation, I can see a wealth of rich opportunity for greater awareness and intimate relatedness inside of the conflicts that I experienced in that job at that time. My aversion to noticing and naming conflict was what prevented me from dealing with it in a more loving and creative way. I didn't yet have the tools to do this. Socially speaking, our way of doing things makes it hard to notice and name conflict publicly. And bosses do have a habit of firing you if you do that in the workplace. We're not yet open to discussion of rank and power issues, especially at work. Face it, we currently don't have the openness in our lives, or a forum where it's safe to get that real.
A Public Forum Centuries before Christ, Plato wrote, "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men [and women] are afraid of the light." I can't imagine that Plato meant this only to refer to spiritual enlightenment in a religious sense. On the contrary, Plato expanded his own critical consciousness in relationship to the social problems he saw around him. He was effective in his society, and he was greatly aided by a social institution that I have become quite fascinated by.
Ancient Greece, the cultural birthplace of western civilization, had something called a forum, a space for public expression. Such a forum was truly open to diversity of thought, feeling, intuition, values, communication styles, dreaming, spirituality and diverse metaphysical realities. In other words, it was a place where people felt safe to passionately express themselves.
We need to revive the institution. A forum today would be especially valuable for the expression of those views not supported by the mainstream; those emotions that are often silenced, or sensationalized and pathologized, by the media, parliamentary procedure, or anyone else who happens to disagree.
Buckminster Fuller, one of the great minds of the last century, supported this idea. He said we need to support the intuitive wisdom and comprehensive informed-ness of each and every individual to ensure our continued fitness for survival as a species. Fuller's notion of this being a critical path element in our survival mirrored that of Plato 2500 years earlier, when he wrote that Athens needed the intelligence of all and couldn't afford not to accept women as thinkers and leaders. Even if Plato didn't expand his thinking enough to extend that acceptance to other classes and races, he planted a cultural seed that took another twenty five hundred years to sprout, and is only now coming to fruition in culturally creative ways.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead had a vision in the final hours of her life that she shared with her friend and former student Jean Houston. Her vision was about the survival of the world through establishment of teaching-learning communities in which people gathered in small groups on a regular basis, in homes, schools, churches, and businesses. She saw these people in dialogue, taking their learning and conclusions into social action. In short, forums.
Deep Democracy & Human Survival I hope that Oregon as a community will re-create this ancient social institution, thus developing a more effective way of dealing with complex social issues, and bridging the gap between psychology and social action, and public and private interests. A modern forum would be patterned after our own unique culture, and work on developing an emotionally and environmentally sustainable community. I envision bringing forums into government, businesses, schools, and the broader community.
The goal of open forums is to bring together people representing the entire spectrum of opinion on an issue—making space for all voices to be heard while facilitating a dialogue between them. All voices are a valued part of the whole and need to be expressed and heard if we are to create a sustainable multi-cultural community.
Arnold Mindell, a leading experimenter with social forums, says, "The basic idea of [a forum] is to promote awareness and respect people and nature, to treat every moment as precious and to consider each and every event from as many sides as may be present, while protecting those with least power."
I may not personally agree with someone's position. But if I don't support them to express it, am I not helping to create a situation where they have to resort to emotional or physical terrorism to be heard? I am convinced that, behind the most rageful views and hateful actions, there is a basic human fear that needs to be freely expressed, understood and creatively supported. Only in the free exchange of opinions, fears and ideas can creative and positive change occur. A social forum is inherently democratic.
Learning Eldership One challenge in practicing deep democracy lies in developing the skill and awareness to facilitate interactions between people in a way that is somehow lovingly supportive of all parties. In Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity (Lao Tse Press, 1995), Arnold Mindell writes about this process of personal development, about the skills needed to facilitate emotional group processes, and about the development of eldership. "Eldership grows, in part, from having experienced the issues yourself, having known yourself as both victim and oppressor. What remains when the fire of your own desire for revenge has burned low is a sort of soothing cool that relieves everyone. It doesn't patronize. It expects only those who can to make the shift in consciousness from conflict to insight. Elders themselves have made the leap from one-sidedness to compassion."
What Mindell says of the individual is equally true for society. Far from being one-sided, a forum is an inherently compassionate place of listening and solution-building.
Invitation to an Open Forum I'm writing about this because, amongst the many conflicts before us at this time, there is one that particularly concerns me: Measure 9, the "Student Protection Act." It touches me because I am concerned for our children, I am concerned for the suffering of so many gay and lesbian people, and I am concerned for the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA). Ultimately I am concerned that our efforts to find a solution respect the complex ways citizens must interact in order to resolve this seemingly irresolvable public issue.
Toward that end, the Global Process Institute (GPI), a non profit organization based in Portland and comprised of facilitators experienced in social conflict forums, is sponsoring an Open Forum to be held on October 2nd, at 7pm, in the ballroom of the Portland Conference Center. Members of the OCA, other Christian and religious organizations, gay and lesbian organizations, government, media, parents, teachers, teens and the general public are welcomed. There is no fee for admission. The organizers and facilitators are volunteering their time, and the Portland Conference Center is virtually donating the space, to support this interaction in the hopes of building greater awareness and stronger ties in our community. (For further information please contact GPI at 503-239-6811).
Creative Solutions Conflict is inevitable in a multicultural society. But it wasn't the conflict that burned me out in that job long ago—it was my aversion to noticing and naming it; it was my inability to find creative solutions. A public forum-an openness to the experience of others-in the workplace would have gone a long way toward solving that situation then. In this current situation, with the stakes much higher, it's imperative that we open this dialogue in our community, deeply hear the experience of others, and find those creative solutions.
Stan Siver is a process worker, facilitator, writer, and sailor, currently studying process work at the Process Work Center of Portland, and working on a doctorate in the psychology of social conflict.