Thursday, February 23, 2012

Conflict and the Illusion of Safety

by Miki Kashtan

“I will do everything in my power to resolve every conflict, however small.” -- Thich Nhat Hanh

I think I am not alone in nursing the fantasy that if I only got the “right” people in some “right” configuration, we would essentially have no significant conflict. Of course I know better. From personal relationships to organizations, conflict is an integral part of life. Still, when conflict arises, especially for the first time in any particular grouping, I recognize in myself and know in others a kind of disappointment, a loss of some hope that maybe this time we can have it be different, perfect.

I think about these things a lot. I am blessed to have some very few relationships which are, essentially, conflict-free. What makes it possible, I keep wondering, and why is it not replicable in other instances? Is there something present in these relationships that’s missing in other places? So far, I’ve identified two main ingredients for this magic. One I call the assumption of innocence, which is about a fundamental, implicit trust of each other. In these unique relationships, when one of us does something the other doesn’t like, we nonetheless trust each other’s basic care; we assume the best about each other’s intentions. The second ingredient is that when conflicts do arise, we attend to them. The two aspects reinforce each other. As we get to understand fully what the situation meant to each of us, we get to know ourselves and each other better, and the level of trust between us increases. At the same time, the assumption of innocence makes it easier to engage with each other when in conflict.

Why would this be the exception? What is it that makes it so easy for people to jump to conclusions about each other while at the same time keeping them from approaching a friend, colleague, or family member when their actions are not to their liking?

Many people view conflicts as fundamentally unsafe, and it’s the main reason they cite for why they don’t speak up, address conflict, or tell each other what’s really going on. Because I see withholding truth in this way as diminishing the quality of personal relationships and potentially destructive in communities and organizations, one of the key practices I want to bring to people and to the world is the choice to tell the truth even when painful, even when we are scared about consequences, and even when we are not sure how to do it.

By habit, we respond to fear by contracting and withdrawing, sometimes by lashing out against others, all in the name of creating safety. Protection of self is the only avenue many of us know for maintaining a sense of safety. For myself, after years of being on the path of vulnerability, I have learned a different kind of safety that comes from knowing I can survive that of which I am afraid. I have learned that opening up to whatever comes my way increases my strength and allows me to recognize that I am not in any real danger. The next time becomes easier, and over the years speaking truth and engaging in conflict have become commonplace for me. Often just naming the fear tends to open up the possibility of dialog. Verbalizing the vulnerability or shame that live in us takes away some of their power to hold us back. At least it transcends the paralysis that comes when we hold the pain inside and call upon safety.

What I am longing for, always, in creating community, is to be joined in the awareness that safety is ultimately an illusion, and that our preoccupation with it limits our freedom and our ability to grow, to learn, to transform ourselves, and to be able to collaborate deeply with others in pursuit of a livable future. More than this, I am aching to have the company of others who are willing to experience the fear and walk forward anyway; to experience pain and loss and speak of it in order to restore the sense of togetherness; to open up to the unknown recognizing that we cannot control what will happen once we speak; and to choose to speak nonetheless. I want a community of people who won’t let the illusion of safety stop them.

What can we do to support ourselves and others in taking the steps forward in those moments of acute pain that feels impossible to handle? How can we maintain the longing for openness and truth alongside the commitment to attend to everyone’s needs, including the person who feels afraid? This is no simple task. In the context of a group, the expression of lack of safety has an effect on others, too. As a facilitator in those challenging moments, I know that my response also has an effect on everyone. I have learned, in my years of facilitating groups, that if someone says they are not safe, trying to get them to continue, no matter how much empathy I use, does not communicate care. I also know that backing off leaves a hole of unease within the group. What I am learning to communicate in those moments, whether in words or simply in my presence, is that I am committed to having love and tenderness toward the person who is unwilling to speak as well as toward everyone else. As much as I want to be joined on the path of courage and vulnerability, I also want release any residual attachment to this desire. I know that the fear people speak of is completely real, and often feels like a threat to their survival. I want to ensure that no one says anything out of a sense of pressure. Togetherness, in those moments, arises from the capacity of the group as whole to hold the moment, ourselves, and the person who is struggling with love. I hold some hope that as we learn to do this, we can gradually increase everyone’s capacity to walk those moments with grace and to recover the capacity to engage in conflict. Perhaps then we can come to accept conflict as an integral part of life and welcome it as an opportunity to get to a deeper level of knowing how to make things work for everyone.


  1. Dear Miki,

    I am deeply moved by what you write - as always so powerfully from your heart and beautiful integrity. And, I feel a joyous resonance with you! I am writing the following outpouring without unediting.

    The fruits of the path you describe and that I am increasingly on are powerful and sweet blessings in countless ways. In addition to experiencing my life so fully and contributing to mutually rich and caring relationships with others, I have another very clear and specific goal/vision. That is to become more and more able to sincerely reach out with the intention of opening connections and deeply understanding people whose behavior and use of power contributes to endless suffering of others. Phew! Thankfully, I am now able to allow my emotional reactions and judgments about this to move through me in safe ways, rather than either surpressing them and/or making them "pretty" in the name of being loving. I love and am learning enormously through embracing seeming paradoxes!!

    With abiding respect, affection and love,
    Karen (Hirsch) - NYC

  2. Wow, these true-hearted thoughts appeal to me very strongly! The shared bravery to walk that path, emerging from genuine vulnerability... What a truly inspiring concept, in support of the everlasting quest for Everyman's dignity, as I see it. May the Force be with us! (jhv)

  3. I love these questions and aspirations, for the self-reflection they invite as well as the inspiration of what could be. I appreciated the clarity of naming what contributes to "magic" in more harmonious relations -- the assumption of innocence and willingness to attend to conflicts. I then wonder -- what creates that willingness? In addition to trust and care, which definitely seem foundational to me, too, I think skill development also helps. Learning to empathize (with myself as well as the other), track, separate values from strategies, etc. has helped me believe there are ways of managing conflict other than fight/flight/freeze. Witnessing and experiencing conflicts that have shifted from stuckness to learning and growth has also helped me trust in this possibility. Another support for me is to include myself in the assumption of innocence. This increases my capacity to hear the other without taking it so personally. Or when I do go down that path, to catch myself sooner and extend compassion to myself and then out from there. When I read the words about love in the last paragraph, my heart leaped in joy. Once again, Miki, you bring us back to that. Yes, yes, yes, over and over and over! How can we learn to access love? Love from the inside out, from the heart. For me, another support for engaging in conflict and telling the truth is to have specific practices of remembering it's about the love. Not sappy greeting card love. Love which is sometimes tender, sometimes fierce (and sometimes fiercely tender?!). And not just remember, but feeling it. When we speak, some spiritual paths encourage us to ask ourselves before speaking not only is it true, but also is it kind and is it necessary. How can we speak in ways that meet all these criteria? Whew! Having community to support these explorations is a gift indeed!

  4. Dear Miki,

    I am so excited to read this post! Thank you.

    I have been feeling a bit alone not seeing this topic discussed in the NVC community, or at times when I have access to this community.

    I like the assumption of innocence that you mentioned, and seeing safety as a strategy, from what I read.

    Here is a question though.

    Imagine we are sitting in a circle of people who have connected well in empathy, and there is that beauty of silence.

    A person who looks haggard, forlorn and maybe a bit angry walks into the room. This person is a stranger and a foreigner who doesn't speak the language.

    What is our motivation at this point? Do we want this person to express vulnerably, and are we not able to see their beauty if they don't.

    This person may break all our needs for safety, and be unexpressive, abrupt, brusque or rude.

    My question is, is our need for vulnerable expression a safety strategy as well?

    Transforming enemy images would be the alternative process of reaching beauty and connection. I long for a world where we have the skills to see the beauty of each other, and the world around us, without us having to express.

    I attended the LP last year, but I don't think this was discussed. Or I might have missed that session.

    Much love and appreciation

  5. Dear Chamath,

    I have a simple answer to your question, or so I hope. I wrote about how WE show up, not how we ask others to show up. One of my deepest concerns about how some people engage with NVC is that they develop expectations of others to respond in kind. In this article I was focusing on one aspect of human relationships. The aspect of opening our hearts to receive others no matter how they show up is something about which I have at times spoken and to which I will no doubt return.


  6. Dear Miki,

    I really enjoyed this article - it gives me a lot of clarity and hope around the issue of fear. That safety can be an illusion rings so very true for me.

    I would like to shed a little bit of light in some other areas regarding the issue of safety for me. There are times when I am confronted with several conflicts at a time, both internal and external, and it becomes important for me to handle "first things first." This can often appear to be a denial of responsibility at first, but it is actually a heightened sense of responsibility to recognize that we can only do so much. Maybe to state that a conflict is "unsafe" is an admission that "I am not ready for this conflict yet. Let me handle this other conflict first."

    Furthermore, and now that I'm thinking about it in a more spiritual sense, we are in a state of continual conflict and continual separation, and thus in continual need of communication and integration. As long as we come in twos (male and female, day and night, friend and foe, parent and child, etc.), there will always be conflict and a need for integration. Kind of a relief, right? Or depressing, depending on the degree of faith that such needs will find a way to get met. Then again, faith is a need. And, socratically, we have needs, faith is a need, thus we have faith. It's just a question of how this faith will manifest itself outside of ourselves.

    On another note, I thought about replacing "fight or flight" with "engage or meditate"? What do you think?


    Another favorite of mine by Thich Nhat Hanh -

    "Peace in oneself, peace in the world."