Conflicts as yoga

Mindfulness in conflicts as a path of consciousness development


Thomas Jordan


Abstract. "Conflicts as yoga" is a concrete and down-to-earth approach to personal development by work with our own conflicts. This approach is intended for readers who have made personal growth an important part of their lives, and who regard such work as a contribution to a progressive transformation of the society at large. The purposes of this paper are on the one hand to make the relationship between personal development and ordinary conflicts visible, on the other hand to suggest practical guidelines for how one can take up the developmental challenges presented by personal conflicts. Drawing on literature on developmental psychology and conflict management, I have identified 15 dimensions of personal development. These 15 dimensions have two attributes in common: (1) they constitute important aspects of psychological development in adult age, and (2) the abilities associated with them are challenged in conflict situations. Because of these two attributes, the dimensions might be used to formulate benchmarks useful in our process of personal development. I describe each dimension in a praxis-oriented way, e.g. by formulating concrete "warning signs," a number of questions one may ask oneself, and exercises to do alone and/or in groups.

Keywords: consciousness development, conflict, spiritual challenge, exercises.


Mindfulness in conflicts — A path of development? [1]

This text presents a concrete and down-to-earth approach to personal development by mindful work with the conflicts we all encounter in daily life. I offer a range of suggestions on how the challenges presented by conflicts can be reframed into a path of personal transformation. The reader I had in mind when I wrote this is a person who is already committed to the notion of personal development, and who is interested in practical suggestions. As will become evident later in the text, I am convinced that consciousness development is a crucial contribution to a progressive transformation of the society at large. While this text does not deal with conflict resolution techniques as such, the concerns discussed here are central to any long-term approach to conflict prevention and resolution.

I use the expression "conflicts as yoga" as a headline for the approach presented below. There is a specific purpose behind this, namely to suggest an image for an attitude I believe would be very desirable in our personal relationship to conflicts. "Yoga" is in the Indian tradition a system of paths to spiritual development. The different forms of yoga are essentially systematic collections of instructions facilitating growth of consciousness. [2] The Indian yoga schools emphasize the spiritual aspects of development. My perspective emphasizes the integration of consciousness development in our daily lives, and is therefore more strongly oriented towards developing our identity and skills in a social setting. But I conceive it as yoga nevertheless, a yoga of mindful interaction with others.

The word "yoga" has the same root as the English "yoke," meaning to bind together, to unite. I find that the image of the yoke also conveys something else: development of consciousness might be hard work. In order to take on the challenge of personal transformation we might be required to make a real effort. Conflicts often mobilize a lot of energy, and therefore many conflicts might be excellent occasions to work with insights about oneself and with consciousness development. Some examples would be conflicts in the work-place about the division of labour; in an organization about which goals one should give priority to; in a relationship about mutual frustration, how to raise the children, or the distribution of household tasks.

The conflicts in which we are personally involved are very special occasions in life. As when we fall in love, conflicts seize us in a dramatic way, and draw us out from our habitual patterns into a very intense involvement with other people. Conflicts usually revolve around issues (conscious or subconscious) that are perceived as important by the parties. Therefore conflicts are valuable pointers to what we are identified with in our present stage of life, to our motives and our identity. Conflicts show us, through the emotions they evoke, what we really feel is important, rather than what we declare about ourselves when we present our self-image.

In conflicts we get stuck. Someone else stands in the way for us, preventing us from getting something we value. This stuckness initially mobilizes our emotions, and we are highly motivated to search for some kind of opening in our dilemma. We might want the counterpart to simply go away or to change, but that seldom happens, at least not without effort. If we are mindful when involved in conflicts, we might be able to use our stuckness and the energy mobilized by it to transcend ingrained patterns and grow as human beings by finding entirely new openings. Of course, if the stuckness persists, we may resign and feel very drained of energy. Therefore acute conflict situations are windows of opportunity, with a constructive potential as long as the emotional energy is moving.

In serious conflicts our carefully maintained polish crackles, and we are forced to face our existential situation in ways that are sometimes very painful. To the extent that we have maintained idealized self-images about our motives, the conflict might pull us down to earth and show us exactly where we are standing. This is also a very valuable property of conflicts: they challenge us to face the self-deceptions we might entertain. Conflicts are also relevant for consciousness development in another way. In the field of force created by an escalating conflict, we are exposed to pressures that might lead us to regress to less mature modes of psychological functioning. If we are not mindful, we risk being caught up in unreflected reaction patterns that are far removed from what we actually want, such as raw impulsivity or rude and unadapted behavioural reflexes. In order to avoid being swept away into regression, it is helpful to be able to recognize the early signs of conflict escalation in ourselves. To the extent that we become sensitive to such signals, we might strengthen our ability to withstand the regressive pressures that become increasingly virulent in escalating conflicts.

As you may have noticed, what I am trying to accomplish here is to reframe, or expand, the perception of what a conflict is. This reframing is actually more important that the specific guidelines I propose in later sections. If we succeed in changing the way we perceive conflicts, from seeing the conflict only as a nuisance and an unfortunate exception from our normal nice life, to also see the opportunities the conflict may offer as a transformative device, then the results in our lives may be profound. "Conflicts as yoga" is not about getting rid of conflicts, nor about magically transforming them into fun adventures. It is about using them as tools for the developmental process as they happen to us, even though they may cut deep and be painful.

The more specific purposes of this paper are on the one hand to make the relationship between personal development and ordinary conflicts visible, and on the other hand to suggest practical guidelines for how one can take up the developmental challenges presented by personal conflicts. Drawing on a careful reading of literature on developmental psychology and conflict management, as well as on my own research and practical experience of working with conflicts, I have identified 15 dimensions of personal development. [3] These 15 dimensions have two attributes in common: (1) they constitute important aspects of psychological development in adult age, and (2) the abilities associated with them are challenged in conflict situations. Because of these two attributes, the dimensions might be used to formulate "benchmarks" useful in our efforts to grow and transform. I have tried to describe each dimension in a praxis-oriented way, e.g. by formulating concrete "warning signs" and a number of questions one may ask oneself.

In the next two sections I provide a general context for the more concrete guidelines presented later in this paper. I will make some comments on adult development, including a discussion about the nature of "ego," and how the ego can be spotted as it operates. If you are eager to get into the more practical aspects of using a conflict as a means for personal development you may skip the next two sections, perhaps coming back to them at another occasion.


Some remarks on adult development

The approach I present here is firmly situated within a developmental perspective. Human beings have an enormous developmental potential, which is not exhausted in the late teens. There are very significant possibilities for qualitative tranformations of our consciousness during adulthood, and such transformations may make a radical difference in how a person relates to him- or herself and to the environment. A large number of researchers have investigated the stages of adult development in great detail. [4] One thing that is apparent from this body of research is that personal development is not only an issue of individual self-realization, but also a very important factor in determining the nature of our society. Our ways of building organizations, loving each other, making politics, resolving conflicts, consuming, learning, etc., are subtly or glaringly different depending on the kind of developmental logic from which the participants in social interactions act.

Generally speaking, three major phases of adult development can be characterized as following: [5]

I. Conformist, where the individual has not yet formed an independent and self-chosen identity and perspective. The person has adopted some values and role conceptions presented by the social environment, and is basically unable to take a critical perspective on norms and conventions. The conformist is to a considerable extent guided by the rapid and rather undifferentiated value judgements that occur spontaneously. Persons, groups and events get a positive or negative value, and then further inquiry ceases. There is little reflection on what might be found behind appearances.

II. Institutional, where the individual has formed a distinct perspective based on more general principles and independent thinking. The institutional person can take an independent stand on most issues, and arbitrate among competing loyalties and expectations. The institutional person reflects on what is behind appearances, and puts different pieces of information together to get a more complete picture. However, the institutional person is not prone to reflect on the nature and limitations of his or her own perspective, and tends to reject the perspectives of others if they are not compatible with his or her own.

III. Interindividual, where the individual is no longer strongly identified with a particular ego-as-form, but is open to change and to the elusive complexity of the inner depths as well as the external diversity. Such a person doesn’t feel personally threatened by criticism and is freer to relate to each situation as it is.

As long as a person’sself-sense is strongly identified with a particular form (a self-image, an outlook, a worldview, a set of values and norms), this form will be defended, and threats to its coherence and continued existence will be warded off with vehemence. I will use the word "ego" to denote the case when a person strongly and exclusively identifies him- or herself as a particular form. [6] The ego and its dynamics is such a fundamental and crucial factor of human existence that I want you to consider the meaning of it thoroughly. As long as the I-feeling, the feeling of existence, is bound to a specific and fixed identity, everything that cannot be assimilated to this form will be felt as life-threatening. The ego strives for permanence, control and continuity, and resists radical change, confusion, ignorance and chaos.

The overwhelming majority of adults in the Western countries experience themselves in the ego mode. A few adults have never formed a coherent ego to begin with, and are embedded in an identity composed of desires and impulses. Preciously few have transcended the ego, and feel no need to defend a fixed self-representation. It is not easy to really grasp what the ego is for us who are largely embedded in it. But conflicts often present us with excellent occasions to spot some aspects of how the ego operates. The most visible aspects of the ego is its defences, i.e. its efforts to preserve its own integrity. By observing the most obvious of the ego-preserving mechanisms, I believe it may be possible to become more aware of what the ego is, and how its mode of existence limits our experience.


Catching the ego in the act

In this section I would like to draw your attention to six very common self-preservation mechanisms used by the ego in conflict situations in order to achieve a sense of control and relative safety. Becoming aware of these tendencies, and learning to observe them as they happen, can be an important step in a process of emerging out of an exclusive identification with a limited ego. As this process unfolds, you will be less and less defensive, and more able to feel at ease without groping for permanence and control.

Control strategy 1: Diagnosing. Making up explanations of other people's behaviour, and fantasies about their motives. Closure of images - no openness to revision.

Faced with frustration or uncertainty, the ego rapidly gropes for an interpretation. Explanations for why people act as they do, or why a certain event occurred emerge in the mind, and are fortified. This strategy permits the ego to retain a feeling of knowing what to expect (=sense of control). Having a comprehensive interpretation of the current situation enables me to make rapid decisions. This attractive feeling of knowing how things fit together is not readily given up, so there is also a tendency to close the inquiry as soon as a satisfactory interpretation has emerged. The ego simply doesn’t want to delve deeper, and possibly discover that the interpretations weren’t accurate. However, this certitude inspired by our diagnoses is mostly an illusion. We don’t fully know what motives, intentions and feelings other people have, and we seldom have access to all the complex factors leading up to a specific event. This is all the more true in conflicts, when our imaginative abilities start to make up all kinds of scenarios spontaneously, while communication with the counterpart is reduced. Closure of our interpretations (i.e. believing they are true) is very destructive, because it closes the door to change, resolution, and a more authentic relationship to the world around us.

Examine your own tendencies to make diagnoses of the background to other people's behaviour. Ask yourself if these diagnoses tend to become fixed. Feel how it feels to imagine that you give up all assumptions you have made about what makes your counterpart tick (I don't mean it is desirable to give up all efforts to understand other people: just that it is useful to observe the way your ego works).

Control strategy 2: Simplification/Complexity reduction. Reduced ability to perceive the complexity of others’ personalities. Reduced ability to see the individuality of outgroup members.

Complexity reduction is a further strategy to keep the lifeworld simple, predictable and comprehensible - but often at the price of serious misinterpretations. In particular it becomes increasingly difficult for us to remain sensitive to the complexity of our counterpart in a conflict. Every person has many different tendencies simultaneously: desires, fears, commitment to visions, altruism, attraction to power, kindness, etc. In social conflicts we also tend to attribute collective characteristics to individuals: the people from the XY-department are bossy, men are insensitive, whites are arrogant, etc.

It takes courage to remain open to the complexity, paradox, contradictions and incoherence of people and groups. The ego may fear that it is losing its precious grasp over reality if it can't integrate all information into a coherent and unequivocal picture. Therefore certain salient features are picked out, and the others, those that don't fit into a neat and clear image, are ignored, repressed or marginalized.

One can learn to observe the ego's inclinations for simplification by turning attention to how our images of counterparts in conflicts are constructed, preferably persons who evoke strong negative feelings. Look at your images of them closely and sincerely to see if some incongruences have been screened out. Better yet, try training to be mindful about the image-forming processes during stressful situations as they happen.

Control strategy 3: Evaluations and rejection. Rapid judging of others’ personalities, behaviours, values. Dissociation and devaluation. Refusal to stay in touch.

Assigning values to events and persons comes quickly in conflicts. It is a defence mechanism when immediate and unreflected assignment of negative value is used to create an emotional distance to persons or phenomena. This also serves the ego’s drive for avoiding ambiguity and achieving a sense of having the situation under control. The ego feverishly tries to reduce the number of unknowns in its environment, and putting value judgements on persons, behaviours and things is one way of doing this. When a person or a thing has been assigned a judgement, one no longer has to spend much effort and attention for evaluating information about the person or the thing. A judgement provides a kind of paradigm offering a convenient and rapid instruction to the mind about how to evaluate new information. Of course, it therefore means a vastly reduced openness to learning, to reevaluation, to new experiences, to depth, and to relationship.

In conflicts spontaneous feelings of discomfort, irritation and dislike often lead to moral condemnation: it is no longer a question of simple dislike, but of badness, i.e. a moral quality. With growing awareness of the semi-automatic operations of the ego, one learns to differentiate spontaneous feelings from value judgements. One can accept the presence of dislike, for example, without also perceiving the feeling of dislike as evidence that a person is bad.

Control strategy 4: Self-concealment. Insincerity. Having hidden agendas, using manipulative tactics (not disclosing goals; maneuvering into superior position by relying on authority, tradition, alliances, etc.).

Being open with our true feelings and wishes means putting the satisfaction of our own interests and needs more in jeopardy than the ego might care to risk. Openness with what is important to us, and what we truly feel, might entail the loss of tactical advantages: we may be taken advantage of. The ego strategy is to survey all situations from a tactical perspective: should I disclose my intentions, should I show my true feelings? When we notice that we are unwilling to disclose our true intentions and feelings, we are invited to take a close look at our attachments. What is so important to us that we are willing to hide it in order not to lose it?

There may be very good and well-founded reasons not to be open about our true intentions or feelings in some situations. However, self-concealment is a ego-defensive mechanism when it is used to save the ego from exposing itself to circumstances which might speak for giving up or changing some attachments we are very closely identified with. Authenticity is also to meet the world as one is, and exposing oneself to whatever might come. Such unprotected encounters might result in processes in which we find ourselves changing, which is a notion the ego would like to dodge.

By sensitizing ourselves to the tendencies to self-concealment we might expose the ego in all its slyness. Letting go of these strategies requires courage to risk being vulnerable. Vulnerability is a basic existential condition of being a person with living connectedness to the world around us.

Control strategy 5: Exclusive commitment to particular standpoints. Refusal to consider different options.

This ego-preserving strategy concerns the will. Out of fear of having to suffer deprivation, the ego focuses on one particular standpoint, and insists that this is the only acceptable way of satisfying its needs and interests. Strong attachment to a well-defined standpoint, rather than an open-ended search for alternative ways of satisfying underlying interestes and needs, can give the benefit of feeling more secure. If we know exactly what we want, we have eliminated one additional uncertainty factor, and corroborate the illusion of having a firm grasp of the situation. A distinct and fixed standpoint creates clear boundaries between success and failure, and creates a gap between myself and my counterpart. This gap allows me to feel that I know who I am and what I want, and those things are perceived as a delimited entity.

Openness to consideration of creative alternatives evokes fear of losing control, even of being manipulated and tricked. Of course there is some truth in this, as well. However, if one can become aware of one's own tendency to stick to a particular solution, rather than to the basic needs involved, there is some possibility of gaining a measure of freedom of choice among alternatives. Apart from the benefits for conflict resolution, this kind of self-observation can disclose part of what the ego is, and how it operates.

Control strategy 6: Withdrawal. Acting to create and maintain a physical and psychological distance to the other.

The most destructive of the ego’s defence strategies in conflict situations is to withdraw from relationships that threaten the integrity of the ego-as-form. Withdrawal has both a physical and an emotional aspect. The physical is when we avoid physical contact with the counterpart, for example by avoiding places where we risk meeting him/her, or avoiding eye contact when meeting them. Emotional withdrawal is more subtle, of course, and involves severing the inner sense of relationship with the other. This includes a wish not to have anything to do with the counterpart, whether in the world of real interactions, or in the world of the psyche, in the form of seeking understanding, keeping the eyes of empathy open, etc. Emotional withdrawal is shutting down all inclination to move towards the counterpart.

Withdrawal brings the advantage of not having to integrate differences or confront challenges to our assumptions. Withdrawal means that we no longer expose ourselves to disturbing information or frustrating interactions. It is sometimes self-destructive because an important source of change of one's own interpretations, attitudes, and feelings is shut down. Cutting off the interactions with that which doesn't fit with our values or feelings may lead to stagnation in the prison of the ego's cherished forms.

The ego doesn't like being thwarthed, it doesn't like deprivation, and in particular it fears having to reconstruct itself. Active contact-seeking with adversaries may therefore contribute to growing awareness of one's own ego and the way it operates.

I hope that these considerations regarding the control strategies of the ego has conveyed a more vivid image of what the ego actually is. The mechanisms described above are all too human, and almost ever-present in social conflicts. However, I think it would be a mistake to regard them as givens, as an unavoidable part of the human condition. These tendencies are closely linked to the condition of being identified with an ego, in particular to the fears and anxieties of trying to maintain a sense of control and permanence. A sense of identity that is more fluid, less attached to a particular and delimited form, is also less prone to make use of defence mechanisms.

With a conception of the ego in the background, I think the detailed and concrete discussion of the 15 dimensions of consciousness development in the next section will get some additional depth and coherence. The control strategies discussed above will reappear at several places in the following treatment, but will then be accompanied with concrete suggestions on how to work with them in conflict situations.


Developmental challenges in conflicts — Introduction

The 15 dimensions of consciousness development I have identified are briefly presented in table 1. Each of these dimensions can be regarded as a challenge for our personal development of consciousness. Our own conflicts can be used as good opportunities to take on these challenges, since our involvement in a conflict highlights the spots where we have a need for applying more attention to changing our habitual patterns. The emphasis on using conflicts as opportunities for personal development calls for some caveats. First, this approach is suitable for milder forms of conflicts. In highly escalated conflicts the pressures exerted by the conflict on the individual may become so severe that few can resist some regression. Do not use the 15 dimensions I present below as benchmarks for measuring the extent of your own failures in dealing with serious conflicts. However, learning to identify the early signs of regression can be a crucial contribution to the prevention of conflict escalation. Secondly, while the perspective presented here might be useful in dealing with conflicts in a constructive way, the primary aim is not to offer methods for conflict resolution. Many useful guides to conflict management have been published, and I refer the interested reader to those (e.g. Cornelius & Faire, 1989; Rosenberg, 1983; Glasl, 1997; Bush & Folger, 1994; Fisher & Ury, 1981). My main purpose is to facilitate the development of a sensibility for a number of dimensions of consciousness development playing a crucial role in our daily social interactions.

Table 1 Fifteen dimensions of consciousness development - overview

1. Appearance vs. reality

Awareness of the possibility that appearances may present a biased image

2. Feelings vs. value judgments

Separating moral judgements from spontaneous feelings

3. Persons as individuals and as group members

Perceiving individual differences among group members

4. Differentiated cognition of persons

Perceiving the complexity and possible contradictory aspects of individuals

5. Decentering of perspective

Awareness of peculiarities of one’s own perspective

6. Maintaining connection

Ability to endure discomfort while retaining contact

7. Coordination of interests

Ability to consider and coordinate the interests of self and others from a detached perspective

8. Role-taking

Ability to mentally put oneself in the shoes of another

9. Empathy

Ability to resonate emotionally with the deep feelings of others in spite of disagreement

10. Mindfulness

Presence and conscious decision-making even in stressful situations

11. Authenticity

Openness with feelings, intentions and concerns

12. Identification with ethical principles

Commitment to act according to universal ethical principles

13. Personal values and group pressure

Ability to stand up for personal values if they are incompatible with group conformity

14. Assuming responsibility

Remaining in touch with the ever-present opportunities, however minimal, to make personal choices

15. Basic motivation

The nature of one’s own concerns, desires, goals


Each of the 15 sections below present one dimension of development in the following manner: First, the dimension is explained, including what role it may play in conflicts. The 15 dimensions are not always distinct from each other in an unequivocal way, but I believe that each of them captures a specific point of view which cannot be reduced to any of the other dimensions. Secondly, I usually (but not always) add a short comment about the role of the dimension in consciousness development from a general perspective. Thirdly, I have formulated warning signs that might indicate regression or limited consciousness in the respective dimension. These warning signs are meant as starting-points for explorations in how your own consciousness operates. Fourthly, there are some questions one might ask oneself in order to further explore the nature of your mode of consciousness. Fifthly, there are some hints about how one can contribute to the creation of a favourable environment for others to use their most mature abilities. Sixthly, I suggest simple exercises for each dimension. In most cases their purpose is to sensitize the practitioner to the dimension, rather than to train the respective abilities. In the appendices to this essay, I have compiled a list of self-examination questions and exercises adapted to use when you are directly involved in a conflict, as well as exercises adapted to a workshop setting. I recommend that you read the appendices as well, since they serve as further illustrations of the respective dimensions.

The discussion of the dimensions aims primarily at sensitizing the reader to each developmental task. The actual acquisition of skills can, of course, not be realized through reading, but only by gradual practice using the opportunities presented to us in our daily lives.

I have made some efforts to organize the fifteen dimensions according to a neat theoretical system, but I was largely unsuccessful. However, we might group the dimensions loosely into the following three categories:

(1) The first seven or eight dimensions emphasize how we internally handle information, feelings and values. An important part of consciousness development is the capability to differentiate, i.e. to experience the complexity of images, feelings and values. Closely related to this skill is the ability to contain or embrace contradictory informations and ambivalent feelings, and to endure uncomfortable tensions without resorting to primitive defences (such as denial, repression, projection and externalization).

(2) In the second category our relationships with others are in focus, in the forms of behaviour, communication, empathy, etc.

(3) The last three or four dimensions are related to identity issues, and the nature of the platform from which we experience ourself and the world around us.


Fifteen dimensions of consciousness development in conflicts [7]


1. Appearance — reality

This dimension focuses on the insight that the image one has of the environment is just how reality appears to me from the particular perspective I have right now, and not the reality itself. One's perceptions are a sample of information, and from this sample a subjective image is put together. A psychologically mature person is aware that all the images of the environment one makes are subjective, appearances are not necessarily the final truth. This insight is, however, a late developmental achievement. In the early phases of cognitive development, the distinction between appearances and reality is not made. The images people have of the environment are experienced as direct reproductions of the reality itself. There is no genuine understanding that external objects and persons have their own properties, of which many are not immediately visible to oneself. An awareness of the possibility of misinterpretation of the counterpart, of events, or of the general situation means that one might be prepared to change one's images in order to adapt to new information. Seeing the difference between one's subjective image and the actual reality entails the recognition that one might be wrong, or that one's perceptions might be biased. Such an awareness is often crucially important in conflicts, since one-sided images of the counterpart might block a constructive conflict resolution process. An especially important aspect of this task is to keep apart one's interpretations of the observed behaviour of the counterpart and the counterpart’s true intentions. It is very easy to jump to conclusions about the motives of the counterpart from what one has seen of his/her behaviour, and from the effects of this behaviour on oneself. The effects of a certain course of action is not necessarily related to the intentions of the counterpart (Glasl, 1997).

The ability to sustain a living awareness of the difference between one's image of the world and the world itself is a key aspect of personal development in general. This awareness nudges the individual to continually consider the relevance of his or her images when new information seem to contradict established truths. This ability to reconsider interpretations is important for personal development and authentic relationships. A lack of this awareness entails a greater risk of getting caught up in preconceived assumptions about others and about one's own life situation, and in a life restricted to static patterns. Conflicts may give an extra impetus for reflecting and reconsidering one's images of the environment.

Warning signs that may indicate a weakened awareness of the subjectivity and imperfection of one's images of the external world are:

A feeling of knowing how the other is, for example the motives, behavioural patterns, and weaknesses of character of the other. [8]

— Inability to imagine that new information might lead to a radical reconsideration of one's images of the counterpart or of the situation.

— The image of the counterpart has remained essentially unchanged for a long time.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Is there a tendency in me to regard my images of the personality and the motives of others as the truth?

— Do I have a basic openness to the possibility that my images of reality might be biased, one-sided, or even simply wrong?

— Can I permit information contradicting the images I have made to influence and change my interpretation of the counterpart or of the situation?

Creating a favourable environment that makes it easier for others to retain the awareness of the difference between appearance and reality might be an important contribution to constructive solutions to conflicts. The counterpart perhaps thinks that he or she knows what kind of person you are. Try to imagine how the counterpart perceives you, and be very conscious of which parts of yourself you show. Avoid confirming the prejudices the counterpart may hold towards you, and be explicit, if necessary, in pointing out to the counterpart the aspects of yourself you belive are not seen by him or her.

Exercise. Choose an incident in a less serious conflict you have been involved with. Reflect on that incident and write down some keywords describing the image you had of the counterpart, such as her or his "typical" behaviour patterns that you find irritating, her or his motives and aims, personality traits, etc. Talk to the person about the incident, and ask him or her to describe the emotions, motives, and interpretations behind his or her behaviour. Listen attentively without counterarguments or comments. Compare the image you had when the incident occurred with the new information, and reflect on how your own image of the counterpart might have misrepresented him or her.


2. Feelings vs. value judgments

This dimension deals with the ability to differentiate one's spontaneous feelings from one's judgments. In the early phases of cognitive development no such difference is perceived: that which feels discomforting is automatically judged to be wrong in a moral sense (Whitmont, 1982). In conflicts the parties usually develop antipathies and other negative feelings towards each other. Such feelings may easily be interpreted as proofs of the moral attributes of the counterpart. In many cases negative reactions are caused by differences in personalities, values, behaviour or visions between the parties. A third party would not judge one of the parties as "bad" and the other as "good," but only observe that there are differences. Judgments about right and wrong should be based on personal values (which cannot always be formulated verbally), not on spontaneous feelings of discomfort. Sometimes one finds it appropriate to ignore one's own spontaneous dislikes, because one attaches more importance to certain principles or values than to the subjective feelings. One example of this could be to insist that a person one hardly can stand to hear talking should be allowed to have his say in a meeting. The unfamiliar often involuntarily evokes anxiety and dislike, e.g. when we meet people who act strangely, look different, or have different values than ourselves. Sometimes a spontaneous feeling of discomfort proves to be perfectly justified, even though one couldn’t see the reasons for the discomfort immediately. The point here is to avoid making value judgements about others solely on the basis of spontaneous feelings. It is perfectly possible (but sometimes very difficult) to dislike someone without calling her or his general moral status in question.

The aim of this dimension is to use consciousness to emerge from a too close identification with one’s own feelings: "I have feelings, but I am not my feelings" (Assagioli, 1975). In other words, it is a good thing to be able to have a relationship to the feelings, to reflect on their meaning, rather than being held captive by them. To the extent that one’s feelings are differentiated from one’s value judgements, one’s action sphere increases. One can allow, respect and express feelings without violating one’s own ethical standards by forming negative opinions and judgements. For example, such a differentiation may permit you to feel uncomfortable and anxious in the presence of foreigners or deviants without having a bad conscience. Perceiving feelings and value judgements as distinct aspects may also lead to a freedom to feel committed to universal ethical principles, e.g. the equal value of all human beings, even though one doesn’t find everyone sympathetic.

Warning signs indicating an unclear differentiation between spontaneous feelings and value judgments are:

— Unreflected value judgments about persons or groups on the basis of spontaneous feelings.

— One tends to avoid certain persons or situations that evoke discomfort, and justifies this by moral judgments ("he is untrustworthy") instead of by one's own spontaneous feelings ("I feel uneasy in his presence").

— One throws suspicion upon the hidden motives of other people only on the basis of feelings of uneasiness.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Can I make a distinction between my own (negative) feelings and my value judgments?

— Do I have a tendency to classify that which feels discomforting as morally wrong?

— Am I in general prepared to deal with my own negative feelings instead of condemning or withdrawing, if it turns out that the negative feelings are more related to subjective issues than to right and wrong?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others by showing respect for the negative feelings of the counterpart while calling in question the justification of the value judgements made by him or her. You can also in your own behaviour show that it is possible to have negative feelings towards others and still acknowledge their status as moral beings.

Exercise: Recollect a situation from your past when you had feelings of discomfort in relation to a specific person. Ask yourself if these feelings were accompanied by value judgments about the person. Do you now find these value judgments justified?


3. Persons as individuals and as group members

This dimension deals with the ability to consider both the uniqueness of individuals and the common characteristics of members of a group. Each one of us are alike and different simultaneously. We tend to exaggerate the common attributes of the members of a specific group, and lose the awareness of the differences between the group members. In conflicts this tendency is especially pronounced, due to the need for complexity reduction. As the conflict escalates it becomes increasingly difficult to hold the image of a group and and a differentiated image of an individual group member in the mind simultaneously. In the earlier stages of consciousness development this task cannot be accomplished, one can only consider one level at a time: either the group, or the individual. Members of other groups are perceived as very similar to each other. The attribution of collective traits to individuals (prejudices) is, of course, very common.

The ability to keep group attributes and individual attributes apart is necessary for relating to individuals in an authentic way. By not prejudging persons according to their group membership, the other has a chance to feel respected as a unique individual. This feeling is a good basis for developing a constructive relationship despite differences. An exaggerated emphasis on the collective attributes of outgroups constricts the mind to simplifications that makes it very difficult to handle situations in an adequate way.

Warning signs indicating that you may be attributing collective traits to individuals are:

— Sweeping opinions about "the others" in the form of gossip and jargon.

— The statements of individuals are reinterpreted according to the image one attributes to the group of which the individuals are members.

— Signs that your perceptions and interpretations of the behaviour of individuals are selective and dependent on group membership.

A question one may ask oneself:

— Are there groups for which I tend to attribute collective personality traits to the members only on the basis of their group membership?

You can contribute to the creation of a favourable environment for others to stop attributing collective traits to yourself by communicating authentically from the core of your being. Encounter the other as an individual in a direct and open way, without hiding behind a social role. Try conveying a differentiated image of your own group members. Develop your sensibility for the attribution of collective traits to yourself or to third parties, and try defusing them. Refusing to participate in gossip may be an important contribution to a deconstruction of stereotypes.

Exercise: Choose a group you can sense that you have some prejudices about. Reflect on two or three individual members of this group, and how they are different from each other in spite of their common group membership. To what extent are they alike and unique?


4. Differentiated cognition of persons

The previous dimension dealt with the differentiation of persons as unique individuals and persons as group members. This dimension is about developing the ability to discern nuances and contradictory elements within single individuals. Normally, we are aware that each individual has a complex internal world with both constructive and destructive, both egoistic and altruistic tendencies. However, the ability to perceive the internal contradictions and paradoxes of other people suffer severe stress in serious conflicts. The need for complexity reduction leads to a tendency to perceive the counterpart as a homogeneous gestalt, with only negative, easily comprehensible traits. We may also lose the sensibility for the less pleasant aspects of our own group members (and ourselves). The homogeneity of our images provides us with clear and unambiguous expectations about how the counterpart will act, and this facilitates rapid decision-making.

An undifferentiated image of other peoples’ internal worlds is a serious barrier to authentic and constructive relationships. True meetings are facilitated by differentiated images of the nature of the other, because we can choose to appeal to certain aspects of a person, and attach less importance to other aspects. Even those we genuinely dislike do have some constructive and sympathetic traits. In the heat of a conflict, it may be difficult to perceive those aspects, but by consciously applying our powers of perception we can choose to relate to the constructive tendencies in the other while leaving aside the less agreeable aspects.

Warning signs indicating a loss of the ability to perceive the diversity of other peoples’ internal worlds:

— One cannot formulate a single genuinely positive attribute of the counterpart.

— Unwillingness to consider if the counterpart may actually have constructive and valuable sides.

— One has a fixed expectation about what type of motivation is behind the behaviour of a specific person in each situation.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Do I have a well developed ability to perceive the diverse aspects of other people?

— Do I reflect about which different kinds of motives may compete for the attention of other people (fear, prestige, visions, conventions, ethical principles, care for others, etc.)?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to perceive your own internal diversity by taking care in displaying different sides of yourself. You can point them out to the counterpart by explaining which competing motives and traits you have. When talking about third parties, you can talk about them in terms of "on the one hand, on the other hand."

Exercises: 1. Choose one or two persons of whom you have a one-sided image. Use your knowledge and intuition to complement this image with the opposite pole. Imagine the person in different situations: work, leisure, in moral dilemmas. Write down all traits and tendencies you can find. Does this exercise yield an ambiguous image?

2. Choose a person of whom you initially had a one-sided image, but who later surprised you because you became aware of entirely new qualities. Let this person become a symbol that you can recall when you notice that your image of someone is one-sided.


5. Decentering of perspective

Do you have a perspective, or does the perspective have you? Our ways of making sense of the world around us, not least conflict events, are in subtle ways coloured by the way we were brought up, the experiences we have made, the training we have been involved with, and the culture we grew up with. In a particular situation, our perspective is also formed by the position we have in relation to other people, such as a certain position in an organization, or specific responsibilities. What we find true and reasonable, and what we find wrong and incomprehensible, depends on the specific perspective we have. This section focuses on the recognition that our outlook is conditioned by a number of factors, and therefore cannot be taken as the only true perspective. Most people seldom ask the question if there might be other, equally legitimate, ways of making meaning out of a particular situation. Decentering means being actively aware that my own perspective is just my own perspective, however much I feel it is right and reasonable. This awareness makes it possible to recognize that your own priorities, concerns and interpretations must not necessarily be eternally true.

As long as one takes for granted that one’s own perspective is the only correct way of looking at things, the opportunities for expanding one’s understanding are severely limited. Such a conviction may lead one to reject and devalue others’ perspectives out of hand. If one can’t understand that another person might look at the same events with a radically different set of concerns and values, one has no choice but to evaluate the person’s behaviour from one’s own perspective. The result is often that one concludes that the other must be morally corrupt or stupid. In most conflicts, you can be reasonably sure that the counterpart has a very different interpretation of causes, issues, values and alternatives than you have. If you recognize this, you might also be open to the possibility that in terms of his/her perspective, certain actions may be legitimate and logical, even if they seem outrageous from your perspective. This is important, because it allows you to regard the other as a honourable person, a person with an ethical base, even if his/her actions are not compatible with your values and norms.

A further problem of not having a conscious relationship to the peculiarities of one’s own perspective is that one has no platform for reflecting on and evaluating the values and norms one has assimilated from the social and cultural environment during childhood and adolescence. You might be committed to particular points of view without ever having examined if they are really valid for you.

Opening up to the existence of many different perspectives might, however, bring new difficulties. If my own perspective is relative, and everyone elses as well, then how can I orient myself in life, how can I take a firm stand on important issues? This sense of relativity can lead to desorientation or cynicism. However, it is also possible to feel deeply committed to a specific perspective, while knowing it is not ultimate and eternal. This attitude means that one’s perspective is always open to revision and development.

Warning signs indicating loss of self-reflection:

— An adamant conviction that my/our way of perceiving the situation is the only valid way.

— Contact with opinions that are incompatible with one’s own worldview causes feelings of irritation and animosity.

— Exclusion or marginalization of dissident persons or opinions, even if unacknowledged.

— Commitment to values, beliefs or leaders that are perceived as infallible.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— In which ways have my worldview and my goals in life been formed by my specific background (biography, social environment, culture, epoch)?

— Can I identify tenets in the groups I belong to that I feel must not be called in question, lest I evoke vehement opposition?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to relativate their perspectives by developing a sensibility for when a conversation slides into devaluing other perspectives, e.g. through negative interpretations of the behaviour, life style, values, etc. of outgroups. When this happens, try to avoid both agreeing with or attacking the perspective of the other, but try to differentiate the image of the perspective of the outgroup in concrete details. Focus on concrete experiences, concrete persons, concrete issues. You can also make a point of displaying the different perspectives side by side without taking sides in a global way.

Exercise: Recall a situation when you were involved in a group conflict, and were convinced that your own group represented the fair and good side. Identify yourself with an independent observer, and reflect about how the other group interpreted the situation.


6. Maintaining connection

In conflicts, the impulse to create a distance to that which we perceive cause frustration is even stronger than usual. We seek to create a distance between ourselves and our adversaries in order to avoid harm and discomfort. This avoidance behaviour, which may manifest as actual behaviour or as an emotional attitude, very often exacerbates the conflict escalation mechanisms. In the absence of contact and communication, our imagination is free to make up interpretations and enemy images without having to confront reality testing by checking out with the counterpart. These interpretations have a way of preferring worst case scenarios, because we are anxious that we will lose something valuable, and we want to prepare ourselves for the worst.

The key skill involved in this dimension is the ability to endure discomfort without disconnecting. The focus is not primarily on the relationship between yourself and your counterpart, but on your relationship with your own feelings, in this case discomfort. If you can stand feeling frustrated, angry, disregarded or anxious without retreating or acting out, you can maintain the connection to your counterpart. This connection is the most important precondition for resolving the conflict (Maringer & Steinweg, 1997). However, maintaining connection has also a far more general importance. Keeping distance is a way of defending status quo, preserving your habitual patterns and stances. The tendency to withdraw from contact appears whenever we feel uneasy because other people or situations are unfamiliar, strange, and difficult to decipher. Therefore there are very many occasions in daily life to work with connection and disconnection. Connection opens the possibility of change, because you allow yourself to be exposed to the unfamiliar, the anomalies, that which doesn’t fit into the form you are trying to keep intact.

The concrete challenge of this dimension is to turn your attention to your ability to tolerate discomfort without resorting to disconnection, evasion, acting out. The first step might be simply to notice how you usually react when you are confronted with someone or something that gives you negative feelings, without changing anything. When you have spotted your reaction patterns, you might start to work on your relationship to your own spontaneous feelings. The goal is not suppression, but to be able to accept your negative reactions without letting yourself be governed by them. The gift of being able to endure discomfort is a much greater freedom to relate to life as it is, and therefore also empowerment to work actively to transform situations and relationships that are limiting and frustrating.

A bold resolution is to try to regard a feeling of irritation as a trigger of the question: do I here meet an opportunity to go beyond my familiar limits? In many cases this question will undoubtedly be answered with "no," but a basic attitude of curiosity may permit the discovery of precious opportunities to expand.

Warning signs indicating recourse to defences against the unfamiliar are:

— A tendency to freeze persons out because they act or appear "strangely."

— A sense of stiffening in encounters with colleagues or other people who are in certain ways different from ourselves.

— A sense of discomfort in the presence of certain people because one is not able to communicate as smoothly as normally.

— One starts to make detours in order to avoid meeting certain people.

— One feels a deep reluctance at the thought of sharing a meal with certain persons.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Do I try to keep a physical or emotional distance to people I’m having trouble with?

— Can I tolerate working with people who act oddly with a preserved sense of openness?

— How do I handle encounters with unfamiliar people or situations?

One can contribute to a favourable environment for others to increase their tolerance of the unfamiliar by verbalizing the issue. Point out what it is that evokes a sense of insecurity and frustration. If you become the object of distancing by others it might help to emphasize emotions and experiences that are universal, e.g. about family, friendship, food, leisure, etc.

Exercise: Search out a situation when you meet people who are very different from yourself (e.g. people from other cultures or other social groups). Make contact, e.g. by starting a conversation in an ethnic shop. Observe your own feelings when you are unable to communicate in the smooth way you are used to.


7. Coordination of interests

Coordination of interests is the ability to simultaneously consider one’s own interests and needs and the interests and needs of the counterpart. The two perspectives must be seen as parts of a mutual relationship that must function as a coherent system. This dimension has two important aspects. The first is the ability to disembed oneself from one’s own perspective without identifying with the perspective of the counterpart. Both perspectives must be perceived from the point of view of an independent observer. The second aspect is the ability to hold complex and sometimes incompatible mental images in the mind without dissociation. Coordination of interests requires that we can hold complex and contradictory perspectives in our minds, and both keep them apart as distinct perspectives and see how they relate to each other. This ability is crucial for a creative search for solutions that integrate and satisfy the interests of both parties.

If one lacks the ability to see an issue from several different perspectives, it is extremely difficult to develop truly democratic solutions to problems involving several parties. Then the only solution is competition, where one perspective emerges as winner, and the other one loses. A social order (e.g. in organizations) built under such conditions is based on dominance and obedience. The stronger (on the basis of his or her position, or his or her personal qualities) dictates how a certain issue is to be handled, and the others obey. It is important to avoid falling into relations based on dominance-obedience, since such relationships binds the involved persons in immature ways of interacting. This concern does not contradict the usefulness of a clear role distribution, where a certain person has the role of making important decisions. The key word here is "legitimacy," i.e. that the authority is not founded on absolute power, but on the insight that certain role distributions are necessary in order for an organization to work effectively. The ability to mentally represent and consider different perspectives without immediate rejection is therefore an important contribution to a democratization of our society.

Warning signs indicating a weak ability to coordinate interests are:

— Unwillingness to reflect on the possible interests and motives of the counterpart.

— Inability to listen to the concerns of my counterpart without dismissing them as deceptions, programmatical, unjustified, etc.

— I notice that I have a tendency to collapse the issue-related interests of my counterpart with presumed shady motives (e.g. a desire to gain power or prestige).

— The counterpart is perceived only as an impediment.

— Inability to retain a sense of one’s own interest if one manages to take the role of the counterpart.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Do I easily slide into dominance/obedience-roles instead of trying to find ways of coordinating different interests?

— Can I keep a distinct sense of my own values and goals when I identify with the perspectives of other people, or when I try to take account of the wishes of other people?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to resolve interest contradictions in a democratic way by presenting the interests of the parties involved in a detached way, where your own and others’s interests and needs are displayed as equally legitimate. Be clear about what important values are involved on your own part, and show your understanding that your counterpart also brings along important values. Try to perceive a conflict of interests as a shared problem, in order to create as much space as possible for catering to the concerns each party finds fundamentally important.

Exercise: Recall a situation from your past when you perceived that it was an issue of all or nothing (win or lose, dominance or submission) between yourself and your counterpart. Is it possible for you now to see your own and your counterpart’s interests side by side, and how they related to each other? What was absolutely incompatible, what could have been resolved in a way which took account of the interests of both?


8. Role-taking

This dimension deals with the willingness and the ability to imagine how it is to be in another person’s position: what is important, which choices and consequences feel relevant, which emotions are influential, what is the person afraid of? I make a difference between role-taking and empathy (the next dimension). Role-taking is a mental operation, the ability to imaginatively perceive the situation from another person’s perspective, whereas empathy is the ability to resonate with sympathy to another person’s feelings.

Absence of genuine role-taking efforts is a major obstacle to the constructive handling of most conflicts. The problem is not in the first place a lack of ability to imagine what the situation looks like to the counterpart, but the lack of a spontaneous propensity even to try. Conflict parties often dismiss the statements and actions of the other parties as insincere, incomprehensible, stupid or aggressive, without really trying to look for a possible rationale behind appearances. The decisive step is therefore when you start to feel curious about what might be salient in the counterpart’s field of vision. This curiosity might start a trial-and-error process where you gradually develop a more adequate mental picture of what concerns, feelings and interpretations your counterpart tries to handle.

Role-taking abilities have a number of increasingly advanced levels. It is comparably simple to imagine what you would feel and think if you were in another person’s position. However, it is far more difficult to imagine how it feels to be a person with a personality or a cultural background very different from your own. Many people find personality typologies (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, descriptions of astrological signs, or the enneagram) and literature on gender differences and cultural anthropology helpful in order to develop the ability to understand the inner workings of other people. Developing one’s skill to enter the subjective world of other people can be a life-long project.

In conflicts the role-taking ability is subjected to severe stress, partly because it is more difficult to act decisively and rapidly if one also considers the situation from the perspective of the counterpart. But the role-taking ability is a key to understand the counterpart, and therefore facilitates conflict solutions that are legitimate for all participants. The role-taking ability may also affect one’s attitude towards others. Even if we perceive the interpretations of the counterpart as biased, role-taking may permit us to go beyond simple incomprehension and repudiation.

Role-taking does not only facilitate your relating to others in a constructive way. It may also lead to a more flexible perspective on yourself and your interpretations. By assuming different perspectives you can gain greater freedom for yourself in relation to that which you always thought was fundamental and indispensable, a perspective which might have been unnecessarily constrictive.

Warning signs indicating a reduced capability to take the role of others are:

— The actions of the counterpart seem stupid and incomprehensible, and I don’t even ask myself how it comes that my counterpart acts in that way.

— I attribute the behaviour of the counterpart exclusively to his/her hidden agenda, i.e. morally suspect motives (such as avoidance of effort or desire to gain more power).

— I find the emotional outbursts of my counterpart weird, unexcusable, strange, and unmotivated.

— I find the cautiousness of the counterpart incomprehensible and suspect.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Am I curious about how other people perceive a situation?

— Can I imagine how people with a different worldview perceive their situation and their available choices without making immediate value judgments?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to develop their role-taking abilities by communicating your own perspective in a clear and authentic way, and by comparing your own perspective with the perspectives of others. Try communicating in a way that makes it easier for the counterpart to relate emotionally to your situation. You can also consider asking the other in a straightforward way to imagine how it would be to be in your shoes.

Exercise: Recall a situation when a person you have some knowledge about acted in a way you could not understand. Imagine that you are this person. How do you perceive the situation? What has happened earlier? What goals do you have? What do you fear might happen? What do you think others might do? Which courses of action are available to you?


9. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to relate emotionally and compassionately to the feelings of another person. This dimension emphasizes the ability to use one’s empathy in an unconstricted way, especially the ability to empathize with the emotional situation of the counterpart even when one does not agree with the counterpart’s opinions or interpretations of the situation. Consequently, one must be able to differentiate empathy from value judgments, so that these two functions can operate independently of each other. The second dimension (see above) dealt with the ability to separate value judgments from spontaneous negative feelings. In this dimension we are challenged to use empathy as an instrument for shaping relationships regardless of disparate value judgments. Empathizing with the emotions of a counterpart often has a healing influence, and might shift a confrontative atmosphere to a more constructive one. The crucial skill is to be able to use one’s empathy even when one feels that the counterpart acts wrongly, has values one disagrees with, or has emotions one finds unfounded. It might be very difficult to empathize with a person who acts in a way one finds morally wrong. However, the ability to relate emotionally to another person’s feelings may be absolutely crucial for the further development of a conflict. Emotions never lie, but they are strongly affected by the interpretations we make of a situation. By making a distinction between the interpretations and the emotions of the counterpart, it becomes possible to feel sympathy for the counterpart’s emotions, without being forced to agree with the interpretations made by him or her.

Empathy is a participatory function, a way of relating very directly to the reality of other people. Empathy is not only a passive ability, but can be used actively to create a more favourable emotional climate in many kinds of contexts. A well developed empathic ability is a prerequisite for developing what is usually called tact, i.e. saying and doing the right thing at the right moment. However, empathy usually requires that one is not completely occupied with one’s own hurt feelings, fears, or desires. Sometimes one needs to receive some empathy from others before one is able to make oneself available to empathizing with a counterpart.

Warning signs indicating a reduced empathic ability are:

— Unwillingness to try to tune into what the counterpart is actually feeling behind the mask.

— Repeated experiences of saying the wrong thing at the wrong occasion.

— A sense of urgency about one’s own emotions, desires, fears, blocking the ability to relate emotionally to the feelings and needs of others.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Is my ability to empathize with others blocked when I find them unsympathetic?

— Can I empathize with people whose opinions or actions I disapprove of?

— Am I actually willing to to use my feeling and intuition to relate to the feelings of concern, anxiety, anger, sadness and nervousness of my counterpart?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to use their empathy in spite of disparate opinions by expressing emotions in a direct and naked form without associating them with specific standpoints or interpretations. Using Marshall Rosenberg’s principles of "nonviolent communication" is a good way to create an climate favourable for empathy (Rosenberg, 1983). Rosenberg suggests that we can be more successful in our communication when we: (1) report what we have observed directly, rather than the explanations and diagnoses we have made up; (2) express in a plain and direct way the feelings we had in relation to what we observed; (3) state what wishes and values we had that gave rise to the feelings; and (4) clearly state what we wish now from the other, without making unconditional demands. In spite of the seeming simplicity of Rosenberg’s principles, they are a powerful instrument for facilitating mutual empathy. However, the space here does not allow a more comprehensive discussion of Rosenberg’s method. [9] Don’t forget the possibility to express your own need for empathy directly.

Exercise: Recall a situation when someone felt deeply hurt or was furious with you for reasons you found trivial or irrelevant. Try tuning in to the emotions of this person without being influenced by the judgments you made about the justification of these emotions.


10. Mindfulness

This dimension deals with the ability to retain conscious ways of dealing with decisions in conflicts, in spite of stress, anxiety, and other strong emotions. In conflict situations it might be a very demanding task to screen information in an unbiased way, weigh for and against, and consider different perspectives. These sophisticated but slow and energy-consuming mental processes might then become more or less short-circuited. If one is unable to sustain conscious reflection as a decision-making process, less reflective and more "automatic" reaction patterns will take over. There are several different types of such patterns, from the behavioural norms provided by the culture in the form of role expectations, routines, conventions, and rules, to subconscious "scripts," emotional impulsivity, instincts and reflexes. The advantage of such unreflected reaction patterns is that they offer rapid decision-making mechanisms. The disadvantage is that they are stereotyped, i.e. they are not adapted to the unique circumstances of the current situation. Furthermore, unreflected reaction patterns precludes the adaptation of one’s decisions to one’s value system. Most groups develop routines and habits for different occasions. This is often necessary in order to facilitate the task-related activities of the group. However, in many conflicts it is not advisable to handle the conflict issues by established customs or spontaneous impulsivity, e.g. when one party challenges the legitimacy of customary conflict management routines. For individuals, subconscious "scripts" might exercise a pervasive influence in daily interactions. Such scripts may, for example, be: "if I don’t object directly, I will be run over," or "I must be nice in order to be loved." These assumptions about how one must behave in the world are created early in life, but are seldom appropriate as a basis for adult life. However, by cultivating mindfulness in daily interactions, the role of such stereotyped reaction patterns may be minimized.

Mindfulness means the ability to relate to one’s own thoughts, emotions and behaviour, rather than being held captive by them. The thoughts, emotions and behavioural impulses are there, but you can also be aware of them and ask yourself: Is this what I really want? Is this all I want? Maybe these questions will not be strong enough to change your course of action in a heated moment, but they may permit you to take charge of the consequences, e.g. by repairing what was broken in an outburst.

As long as your feelings have you, rather than you having them, you are likely to respond to a person who is a source of frustration for you only out of your frustration. If you can relate to your feelings, you might be free to look at the whole picture dispassionately, where your own frustration is part of the picture but not the master variable.

Warning signs indicating reduced ability to act consciously are:

— When I think back, I realize that important decisions were often made according to stereotyped routines.

— A sense of impatience when certain issues that were already decided upon are again raised by the counterpart.

— An increasing incidence of impulsiveness in conflict interactions without subsequent reflection.

— The counterpart is evidently deeply dissatisfied with the outcome, even though the proper routines were used.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Do I easily glide into habitual or impulsive reaction patterns in critical situations?

— Which "automatic" defence mechanisms are important in my reactions to critical situations? How is my counterpart influenced by these reaction patterns?

— Can I retain the freedom to choose the way to react in critical situations?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to act intentionally by letting impulsive reactions pass by, and by pointing out when the counterpart acts on the basis of habits, routines, or other stereotyped patterns. It might be useful to talk about what happened at a later occasion, describing how one perceived what happened. If there are patterns that tend to repeat themselves, one may describe a scenario to the counterpart about how the relationship will develop in the future if the interactions are not handled in a more mindful way.

Exercises: 1. Recall a situation when you reacted in an unreflected way. Explore why. Were your emotions so strong (anger, fear) that the emotions took over? Was the reason a simple lack of mindfulness? Do you have habitual defence reactions in the face of threatening situations? How did the counterpart react?

2. Ask someone who knows you well if he or she can point out some of your recurrent defence reactions, such as particular behavioural responses, attitudes, rhetorical strategies, emotional responses.


11. Authenticity

This dimension deals with the ability to communicate authentically with the counterpart, i.e. to show how I really feel, and to express what I need and want. The fear of being exploited and of failing to defend one’s interests or realize one’s vision may tempt one into resorting to tactical feints and manipulative discussion strategies. When this happens, the trust in the relationship between the parties breaks down, and they can no longer trust that the other really means what he or she says. The parties then start to interpret the situation according to their worst apprehensions about the motives and strategies of the counterpart, leading to a rapid escalation of the conflict.

The kind of authenticity I have in mind here is a quality of an interaction between people, rather than the uncompromising acting out of any kind of emotion you might have. The purpose of authenticity is to facilitate a sincere, open and genuine relationship between yourself and others. If authenticity is mistaken to be the expression of one’s true feelings and opinions without regard for how the other might feel about it, the essential point has been missed. Authenticity is closely related to tact, both are aspects of genuine connectedness with others.

The ability to be authentic depends, of course, on the nature of one’s own motivation in a certain context. There are three important reasons for difficulties to communicate authentically. The first is the fear associated with the vulnerability of openly displaying one’s feelings and wishes. Openness means that one is exposed to the risk of being rejected or hurt. The second reason is the fear that openness might reduce one’s chances of getting one’s way, because openness might entail a loss of tactical advantages. The third reason is when one is not prepared to disclose one’s true (egoistic) motives, because one knows that they could not be defended from a moral point of view. Reflection on the difficulties in communicating authentically in critical situations has the potential of giving insights in very fundamental parts of oneself. Familiarity with these difficulties emphasizes the need to develop the inner Witness, i.e. the ability to consciously perceive one’s own emotions, images, thoughts, wishes and behavioural responses. If one is not distinctly aware of what one feels in a specific moment, it is difficult to make a dedicated effort to communicate authentically. It is a great help towards authenticity if we are prepared to listen sensitively to the impressions other people have of us, since other people may pick up things about us we don’t readily see ourselves.

Authenticity requires of us that we can endure being vulnerable, in particular in situations where we perceive important interests and needs to be at stake. This is hard, but the ability to endure being vulnerable can be trained. The potential gain is a higher degree of authenticity, both in relation to oneself, and in relation to others.

Due to the possibility of self-deception and subconscious motivation, it is not an easy thing to know whether one is truly authentic or not. It may even, considering the different layers of one’s personality, be an open question if authenticity really is a workable concept. However, the important thing is not to attain a state of complete authenticity, but rather to become more sensitive to the issue of authenticity, i.e. to notice the instances when we are clearly not open about ourselves.

Warning signs indicating a loss of authenticity are:

— One discovers that one uses feints and tricks (such as selective information, veiled threats, emotional pressure, appellation to recognized authorities) in order to gain the upper hand in relation to the counterpart.

—Realization that one is reluctant to show one’s real feelings and wishes.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Is it important to me to be open and straight in my communication? Am I prepared to endure some discomfort for the sake of authenticity (e.g. being vulnerable)?

— Can I identify traces of tactics and feints in my way of communicating in sensitive situations?

— Am I afraid of showing what I really feel and think?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to be authentic by being authentic yourself, and by showing respect for the feelings and standpoint of others even though you might disagree with the actual contents of their standpoints. Again, I recommend Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication as a good approach in training to be authentic, and to facilitate authenticity in other people (Rosenberg, 1983).

Exercise: Your daily interactions with other people can be used as training of authenticity. Start by observing yourself and your habitual ways of communicating. What do you say when people ask how you are doing? Train being true to yourself in each situation where mutual understanding is important to you (or to the other). However, be attentive to the reactions of others to your way of communicating, in order not to abuse the notion of authenticity by expressing aggressivity and frustration ruthlessly.


12. Identification with ethical principles

This challenge is about the ability to stay committed to universal ethical principles in situations when our more primitive impulses push us in an egocentric direction. "Universal principles" means valid for everyone, i.e. principles formulated from a general perspective, rather than from my own self-centered point of view. Examples of such principles might be that each person has a right to have their feelings respected (irrespective of your own judgments about the justification of these feelings), and that each person has a right to express his or her concerns and to have these concerns considered. From a general point of view, this dimension expresses the commitment to a decentered perspective on values.

Now, the difficult part of this is that almost everyone is convinced that they are committed to noble values. This commitment may even be the reason for the conflict in the first place. The point of this dimension is not to reassure oneself that one fights for a good purpose, but to stay in touch with fair ways of handling the conflict.

The wish to act on a basis of universal ethical principles is closely related to an agile and living ability to shift perspectives, and in particular the ability to look at the relationship between oneself and the counterpart from outside. A great experience in seeing things from different perspectives usually leads to the constellation of a set of values about how people ought to act towards each other in general. If this set of values becomes firm and living, it will be regarded as more important to the individual than narrow egocentric interests. One then experiences a greater satisfaction in acting in a way which one would find acceptable even if one was in the counterpart’s position, than in forcing through one’s own interests using unethical methods (e.g. biased information, throwing suspicion on motives covertly, veiled threats intended to stress the counterpart, blocking the freedom of expression of the counterpart). The most fundamental issue here is to consolidate the I-feeling at our most mature level, and to develop our resistance towards the regressive tendencies in critical situations. This theme will be central to the last of the 15 dimensions. The emphasis here is on the ability to act ethically sound also under stress.

Warning signs indicating that one is losing the commitment to one’s noblest values:

— A feeling that the interests at stake are so important to me that I am prepared to use any tricks in order to defend them.

— One becomes aware that one’s goals have become so important that one is no longer able to stand back and reflect dispassionately.

— Inability to let the counterpart finish what he or she is saying.

— Inability to provide a space for the counterpart to express his or her feelings without counterattack.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Which are my most noble values about how one should act in critical situations?

— Am I able to let the counterpart express feelings and opinions in critical situations without censoring, dissociation, manipulation?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to retain the commitment to their own ethical principles by showing respect for their feelings and desires. Stress the importance of making a difference between issue and person. Apologize for your own slips, showing that you don’t think that your words or actions were appropriate.

Exercise: Choose a couple of situations from your past when you acted manipulatively or unjustly because your desires or interests were more important to you than your values about how one ought to act towards other people. Reflect over what happened within yourself, without judging. Can you imagine an ethically just way of behaving that would have permitted you to stand up for that which was important to you (needs, interests, desires)?


13. Personal values and group pressure

The theme of this dimension is the ability to retain one’s commitment to a set of personal values even if the group pressure in one’s own group demands conformity to the group’s values, norms, interpretations, and moods. Groups involved in a conflict escalation process usually strive for homogeneity within the group in relation to worldviews, interpretations, and strategies. This pattern might well be grounded in instinctual reactions to threats, since homogeneity in the group facilitates rapid and decisive decision-making and action. A group member that deviates from the dominant consensus of the group is subjected to a strong pressure to conform or to leave the group. It takes a very stable and personally consolidated value system to withstand such a group pressure. From the individual point of view, it might be tempting to concur with the group process in stress situations, since this relieves the individual from the effort to make independent interpretations. The collective offers a ready-made pattern, a current one can drift along with. Going against this current may be exerting, and may also entail a loss of the sense of being a part of a community. The meaning of this dimension is not to stand up against the group at every occasion one feels an impulse to do so. The important point is to recognize the tensions between group pressure and individual values, and to make a conscious decision about when to stand up and when to keep a lower profile.

This dimension touches upon one of the most fundamental tasks we are faced with in life: the development of a personal identity that is not a passive reflection of the roles, conventions, and worldviews conveyed by the collective. Who are you? Which values are important to you? What do you want with your life? When you are exposed to group pressures, you are challenged to develop your awareness of your own individuality. A firm sense of this individuality might reward you with less dependency on considering what others might think about you, leading to a greater sense of freedom in making your own unique contribution to others. Individuation is furthermore an essential contribution to a society that may become resilient to collective regression into destructive processes, such as mobbing, xenophobia, and warmongering.

Warning signs indicating a loss of individuality and an excessive conformity to the opinions, interpretations, and feelings of the group are:

— Reluctance to express certain of my thoughts or feelings because I sense that they are unwanted in the group.

— I participate in gossip systematically devaluing the counterpart.

— I fall into a characteristic jargon that dissociates my group members from outsiders.

— A tendency to listen to the influential persons in the group before giving one’s own opinion.

— Recognition that one is caught by a certain mood in the group that disappears in other places.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Do I have a personal value system (e.g. on how one ought to behave towards individuals) that is resilient to group pressure?

— Am I easily influenced by the opinions of influential persons in the group?

— Am I able to go against the group alone, e.g. if I notice that someone is systematically harassed?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to retain their sense of individuality in spite of group pressure by displaying moral courage and by explicitly appreciating courageous objections to the group norm. By communicating with the group members as individuals and directly asking for their personal opinions you can nurture individuality. Gossip is one of the most effective mechanisms for creating group consensus. Decline politely participating in negative gossip, e.g. by stating that you don’t know enough of the concrete issues involved, or by openly declaring that you find gossip destructive. Verbalize the moral principles behind your resistance to the group pressure.

Exercises: 1. Try to find an opinion you have that is inopportune in a group of which you are a member. Seek a suitable occasion for expressing this opinion, when you know that you will encounter massive resistance and disapproval. Observe how you are influenced emotionally by the group pressure.

2. Imagine a situation when your personal values might be in conflict with the group pressure (e.g. when the group turns on a dissident). How do you react, what would you do?


14. Assuming responsibility

As I have pointed out earlier, conflicts involve dependency relationships, sometimes mutual, sometimes only in one direction. You perceive that someone blocks you from something important, perhaps only being let alone to do your own thing. As conflicts escalate, these dependencies are often experienced more acutely and more dramatically. If there is no progress towards a resolution, you may become increasingly caught up in the feeling of being a victim of external circumstances where you are forced to react in a certain way. When this happens, you may no longer feel responsible for what happens in the conflict, but you see your actions as inevitable consequences of the pressure you are subjected to. In particular, you may feel that your counterpart forces you into a particular position by his/her behaviour. If your counterpart has the same feeling, there is noone left who can actively try to change the course of events in a constructive direction.

This dimension focuses on the feeling of intentionality. It is sometimes very difficult to feel responsible for how one handles a problematic situation. However, there is almost always a possibility of choice. Even if you are powerless to change the external circumstances, you have the choice of how you relate to them. A particularly important theme is the relationship between the necessities you feel subjected to, and the values you are committed to. If you feel forced to a certain course of action, look closely at the needs and values you have that make you feel subjected to external necessity. Perhaps you feel forced because you have a need to defend your self-respect, because you want to keep your job, because you have a vision you want to realize, or because you want to prevent that certain other people get hurt. Examining the values involved will not necessarily change the way you make your choices. That is not the point. However, being aware of the values you have that motivate your stance means that you have the possibility to choose standing up for these values. Staying put in a barely tolerable situation rather than taking your life, leaving or giving up may be a choice you want to make because you don’t want to give up certain important goals you have.

A further aspect of feeling in charge is that you usually have the option of reframing the situation you deal with. One and the same frustrating situation may be experienced as hopeless and intolerable, or as an opportunity for you to learn to deal with frustration. This doesn’t take away the frustration, but it provides a different frame for it, giving it a meaning that allows you to actively deal with your experiences rather than to be a victim of them.

Feelings of being constricted by circumstances over which one has no influence can permeate life even in the absence of conflicts. There may even be a certain attraction in arranging life so that work, family, and other obligations map out life and restrict the freedom of action. It gives a sense of safety in daily life, and means that one doesn’t have to face the existential questions about what one is doing with the gift of life. Individuation, i.e. to realize the unique potential one has as an individual, requires a self-image as someone who chooses the path in life. This choice might as well be to live a very stable and ordered life, but there is a world of a difference between choosing to take on longterm responsibilities and feeling helplessly subjected to external obligations. We can use the acute situations provided by conflicts to sensitize ourselves to "agency," to perceive ourselves as persons who always have the choice to act intentionally.

Warning signs indicating a loss of the sense of being master of one’s own fate are:

— One perceives oneself exclusively as a victim of external circumstances that cannot be influenced.

— One’s own actions are perceived as reactions to external influences rather than as chosen responses.

— A chronic feeling of resignation, powerlessness and disappointment.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— Do I often perceive myself as a victim of forces outside of my sphere of influence?

— Can I see how my own choices led me to the position in which I find myself now?

— Which alternative paths could I choose from in the future?

— Which external circumstances do I choose to submit to, which do I wish to escape from?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for others to perceive themselves as subjects by meeting them as grown-up, competent persons. Try to provide as much space as possible for the free choices of other people, i.e. without exerting pressure on their decisions. Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication recommends that one should express one’s own emotions and wishes clearly, without diagnosing the behaviour of the other and without giving orders to the other.

Exercises: 1. Train your ability to develop an image of your best alternative to continuing as before in situations characterized by constricting circumstances (e.g. confrontation, quit your job, leave a relationship, move to another place). You can pick out a recent situation where you felt powerless due to external necessities, and thoroughly reflect on alternative options. Maybe you will find that you did the best possible thing, but the main point is to feel that you choose to do what you do (rather than kill yourself or someone else, run away, break down, or whatever). You may also extend this exercise to examine the choices you made that lead you to the situation you chose for reflection.

2. Your emotional reactions to events are not only triggered by the external events, but also by the values and wishes you are committed to (Rosenberg, 1983). Reflect on experiences you had where you felt deeply frustrated and powerless, and examine closely the relationship between your frustration and your own values and wishes.


15. Basic motivation

The last dimension focuses on the core issue of consciousness development: where is your I-feeling situated? Many authors (e.g. Kegan, 1994) have described how the self-sense transforms in several stages, whereby one’s whole outlook on life changes. As young children, our self-sense is to a considerable extent embedded in the spontaneous impulses, emotions and desires of the body-mind. Gradually, we start forming a self-sense based on more durable elements, such as preferences, wishes and self-consiousness. Even later, during adolescence, we start to identify with certain roles, ideals and personality traits. As adults, we are challenged to develop a firm sense of our own individuality, beyond stereotypical role conceptions. Some of us may even develop a self-sense that is no longer attached to a separate self-image, but to the unending process of change, or to consciousness as such. These transformations are mirrored in the concerns, wishes, interests and needs that appear important, even vital, to us. It is not important to fit oneself into a specific stage model of development, but it may be frutiful to consider the different levels of motivation that may influence our orientation in life.

Which types of motives are most important to you in your present life situation? Which types of concerns dominate your field of vision when you are involved in a conflict? And most intriguing, what does your motives tell you about the way you construct your self-sense? You are probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The same basic idea is reflected in the Indian conception of the chakra system. At the most basic level we find the need to survive and protect one’s physical well-being. In conflicts we may experience this level as fear of losing income, or even fear of being physically attacked. At the next level we find the pleasure principle, the attraction to the pleasures of the flesh, such as sex, touch, nice food, beauty, things, adventure, personal power, etc. The other side of the coin is avoidance of anything that causes displeasure. In conflicts we may feel this level as frustrated desires for material welfare, pleasant surroundings, less work, etc., or as a concern about how to keep out of trouble. Someone is blocking us from satisfying these needs, and we want them to go away. A further level concerns the needs for approval from others, by living up to the role expectations we perceive as important. In conflicts we may encounter these needs as a striving towards socially approved achievements (career positions, successful children, prestige, possession of status symbols, or an image as a good community member). Hurt pride and shame are issues belonging to this level, mirrored in a strong desire to win or even get revenge. Yet another level of needs concern self-defined goals and visions, such as becoming a skilled and competent person, building up an effective organization, getting things to work well, or giving one’s children a good childhood. In conflicts we may experience intensive frustration about not being able to realize the visions and plans we are committed to, because they collide with other people’s visions or plans, or with an inert environment. As long as we are closely identified with an ego, our motivation will be derived from the needs of sustaining this ego. We will be concerned with maintaining a positive self-image, accumulating exciting experiences, realizing personal ideas, and defending what is experienced as one’s personal integrity. As this identification with a separate ego starts to loosen, we might find ourselves having other types of concerns, less related to our own precious selves. The self that transcends a narrow identification with the ego often experiences a self-sense that is intimately intertwined in a far-reaching network of people, nature and ideas. Such a self feels deeply committed to universal values, for example respect for the basic rights of all sentient beings, and the responsible management of development (to strive for that which is good for everyone, rather than for me and my close ones). Embodying these values becomes more satisfying than catering to the ego-desires. In a conflict we might care more about the suffering of all parties involved, about realizing the potential for learning and transformation presented by the crisis, or about how best to contribute to other peoples’ well-being.

In conflicts we encounter that which we find too important to give up. Therefore conflicts are good opportunities to explore the nature of our own motivation. A thorough and profound reflection on one’s own motives in a conflict might lead to a reorientation towards values that ultimately prove to be more meaningful and satisfying to us than the motives that guided our lives in the past. In many conflicts several different layers of motivation are involved. On the surface the issues might be money, positions, division of labour, etc., while on a deeper level there is longing for respect, recognition, love, freedom or community. It is very common that parties in a conflict fight vehemently over resources or petty details, while the underlying motivation is to uphold self-respect by not giving in to the counterpart. Even deeper there might be the drive to defend one’s own belief in a just and orderly world, where fairness wins. Recognizing the existence of these deeper levels can be a step towards more freedom in relation to the more superficial desires. Furthermore, the process of conflict escalation often leads to a stepwise regression regarding the motives of parties. A conflict may start with a clash of visions, but then gradually turn into a fight over concrete interests, restoration of prestige, and maybe even survival as the person one perceives oneself to be.

Warning signs indicating a dominance of "lower" levels of motivation are:

— An examinations of one’s own salient concerns in a conflict shows that one’s objectives relate strongly to egocentric wishes or to live up to the expectations of perceived authorities.

— A sense of being prepared to push one’s own interests through at all costs.

— An acute sense of urgency at the thought of perhaps not being able to realize one’s own visions.

Questions one may ask oneself:

— What kinds of concerns are important to me when I’m in conflict (getting rid of a hindrance, realizing a valued vision, what will the others think of me, doing a respectable job, caring for the general atmosphere in my group, the wellbeing of others, that there is learning, . . .)?

— Are the conflict issues I regard as central really what matter to me in the present situation? Are there deeper layers of more fundamental interests and needs below the surface?

— Who am I . . . ?

You can contribute to a favourable environment for other people to consolidate their identification in decentered motivational structures by addressing the counterpart’s different layers of motivation directly. Show respect for the "lower" layers, but address consciously the higher.


1. Ask a friend to make an interview with you about what concerns you felt were important in 1-3 conflicts you were involved in. What were you afraid to lose? For what goals were you prepared to fight bitterly? List them. Reflect on each of them closely, in order to find out if there are yet more profound needs behind the appearances.

2. Meditate on the following sentences:

I have sensations, but I am not my sensations

I have feelings, but I am not my feelings

I have wishes, but I am not my wishes

I have roles, but I am not my roles

I have a self-image, but I am not my self-image

I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts

I witness all my experiences

I am a center of pure awareness

The meaning of this exercise (adapted from Assagioli, 1975, p. 116ff) is to realize that the true I is actually pure consciousness, not all the characteristics we usually ascribe to our self. Strengthening your pure awareness, you can actively relate to the feelings, desires, ideas and images that appear on the screeen of your consciousness, rather than being their captive.

3. This exercise is intended to facilitate the development of a differentiated awareness of the different layers of motivation living in us. Prepare six pieces of cloth (ca. 50*50 cm) in different colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Place them on the floor in a row with some distance in-between. Let them represent different levels of basic motivation; red: survival and physical security; orange: sensual gratification and impulsivity; yellow: control, realization of plans and visions; green: unconditional love; blue: surrender to the transcendent; purple: pure awareness, non-attachment. Then sit down on the red piece of cloth, and let your awareness focus on your own self-preservation needs in your present life situation. Feel what it feels like to be anxious about survival and physical needs, and explore where these themes play a role in your life. When you have a vivid and sustained experience of what this theme means to you, stand up, and move to the orange piece of cloth. Repeat the same procedure with all of the themes.


Concluding comments

As a conclusion I would like to turn our attention back from the level of concrete suggestions toward three more general considerations.

First, I think it appropriate to reiterate that the possibilities for further development along the dimensions formulated here will never be exhausted. I am quite convinced that the challenges I have formulated can be worked on in a life-long process for all of us. Maybe some skills come easier to us than others, but there are always new territories to explore. This goes also for the understanding of the meaning of each dimension. Be assured that beyond your (and my) present understanding of what the dimensions are about, there are several levels of more encompassing, more intimate realization. We tend to try to make meaning out of experience and ideas in terms of the concepts and self-image we have presently. And usually we are quite successful in finding an interpretation that makes sense to us. However, new insights, new forms of experience, and transformations of our self-sense might lead to a significant reconstruction of our meaning-making. An attitude of openness and sensitivity to transformation is, I believe, the most essential precondition for personal enfoldment.

Secondly, and closely related to the remarks above, I want to emphasize how precious it is to get feed-back about yourself from the outside world. The ego is biased towards stability and permanence, and is prone to oversee the need for change and transformation. I think it is wise not to trust that one’s own introspection will uncover all the significant aspects of oneself. We are blind to certain aspects of ourselves, and we are highly dependent on others to point them out to us, if we at all want to get to know ourselves. Conflicts have a way of confronting us with issues we wouldn’t seek out voluntarily. We can choose not to look at what is mirrored, but we can also choose to look very closely at what is revealed. The suggestions in this paper are in essence suggestions about where to turn the gaze for those who are willing to look.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the wider context of the work proposed here. Of course consciousness development can be regarded as the ultimate strategy for long-term conflict prevention. However, "conflicts as yoga" is more than prevention. If you look at the world around you with the consciousness dimensions in mind, you will rapidly recognize what an important role the nature of our interactions plays in determining societal conditions. The atmosphere in organizations, the way politics are conducted, the ways social tensions are handled, the way we deal with each other in the public arena, all this could be different. "Conflicts as yoga" is, from this perspective, a strategy for political change. As I see it, it is a profoundly radical strategy, even if it does not promise rapid results, since few are prepared to take up the challenge. But to the extent that you yourself are open to this work, the effects will be felt in your environment in one way or another, and maybe will also multiply as others are stimulated to make active use of their awareness, this precious gift.



1. I gratefully acknowledge constructive comments to earlier versions of this paper by Reiner Steinweg, Eva Maringer, Barbara Kuhlmann, Trudie Redding, Irene Karpiak, Russ Dumke, Tone Försund, Håkan Kellgren, Anna Cassilly, Bob Rea, Michele Gregoire, Robert Fisher, and several others. [back]

2. "Yoga is thus the generic name for the various Indian paths of ecstatic self-transcendence, or the methodical transmutation of consciousness to the point of liberation form the spell of the ego-personality." Feuerstein, 1989:15. [back]

3. My most important sources have been Glasl (1997), Wilber (1980, 1981, 1995), Wilber, Engler, Brown (1986), Kegan (1982, 1994), Habermas (1976, 1981), Loevinger (1976), Kohlberg (1969, 1971), Neumann (1970, 1990), Oesterdiekhoff (1992), Spillmann & Spillmann (1991) and Whitmont (1982). After having written the first version of this paper I came across a wonderful study of Reiner Steinweg and Eva Maringer (1997), who have systematically compiled different types of useful conflict management skills. Their study is in many ways closely related to my approach here. [back]

4. The interested reader is recommended to consult the following books: Kegan, 1982, 1994; Torbert, 1987; Fisher & Torbert, 1985; Cook-Greuter, 1990, 1994; Wilber, 1980, 1995, 1997; Loevinger, 1976; Kohlberg, 1981; Fowler, 1981; Selman, 1980; Gilligan, 1982. [back]

5. There are many different versions of the stages of development. For simplicity I have chosen to follow Kegan rather than the more complex models of other scholars. [back]

6. Of course the concept "ego" is used in many different ways in the literature. Please note the specific meaning I give it here. [back]

7. This section has benefitted considerably from penetrating comments, questions and suggestions by Reiner Steinweg and Eva Maringer. [back]

8. Reiner Steinweg and Eva Maringer have pointed out to me that many conflict parties have paid a high price for not trusting their initial hunches about people. I don’t want to discredit intuition, which is a priceless instrument of gaining knowledge and insight. My concern is rather the tendency to close off diagnoses after they have been made, so that new information is not allowed to revise the images that have been formed. [back]

9. More information about nonviolent communication is available at the website of the Center for Nonviolent Communication: <>. [back]

10. I am grateful to Tone Försund for constructive comments. [back]




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1. Image — reality


In which respects am I absolutely sure that I have understood the traits, motives, and strategies of my counterpart?

Was there any occasion during this conflicts when new information led me to change my basic attitude towards the counterpart or about the situation?

Do I have petrified images about the intentions of the counterpart during past incidents of the conflict?


Make a list of those of your counterpart’s traits you feel absolutely sure about. Ask a person who is neutral in the present conflict to give a comprehensive description of how he or she perceives your counterpart. Train yourself in listening with openness at opinions that depart from your own. Could there be something to them?


2. Feelings vs. value judgments


Does it in any way occur that I let my negative feelings about a particular person lead to moral value judgments in the present conflict?

If you make negative judgments about your counterpart: What is the basis of these judgments: spontaneous feelings, concrete experiences made, judgments made by others?


Choose a person of whom you have particular negative feelings. Investigate these feelings, trying to discern if they are caused by different orientations of your respective personalities, or if there are valid value-based reasons for your evaluations. Are your feelings in accordance with your most noble values? Can you accept that your feelings say something different from what you think you ought to feel and think?


3. Persons as individuals and as group members


Can I perceive persons who are members of the "other side" as unique individuals with different traits and orientations, or do I tend to see them as pretty much similar because of the group membership or their being attributed to some specific category (men/women, foreigners, wealthy/poor, etc.)?


Make a list of the traits you regard as typical of the "other side" (as a group). Review in your imagination the most important persons in the other group, and reflect on how their personal traits might contrast with your image of the typical traits of their group.


4. Differentiated cognition of persons


Can I identify persons of whom I have a purely negative or positive image?

Can I perceive the constructive traits in my counterpart?


If there is a person of whom you have a strong negative image, try remembering a critical occasion during the conflict when you perceived an inner struggle in this person between a destructive and a constructive impulse. Make a serious effort to recall this situation in all details. Imagine a fairy tale or a myth where you recognize the same struggle between good and evil. Imagine that you meet the gestalt representing the good side (=the constructive side of your opponent), and that this gestalt asks you to help him/her in the struggle with the evil force. Tell this story as a continuous tale, and impress the images distinctly in your memory. Try to recall these images in future interactions with your counterpart. (After Glasl, 1997, p. 298.)


5. Self-reflection


How would I perceive the present situation if I were the counterpart?

Can I identify elements in my interpretation of the situation that are typical for my own specific background, or for the specific culture of the group of which I am a member?


Make a list of the aspects of your counterpart’s convictions that you can identify and respect, even though you might disagree. Compare them to your own convictions. Reflect on how these convictions evolved.


6. Maintaining connection


Can I perceive tendencies in myself to withdraw from persons who appear odd or strange?

Can I perceive that some party to the conflict is dissociating from someone because this person is difficult to understand, behaves oddly, has unfamiliar values and goals, or something like that?


Train continuously in tolerating the presence of the unfamiliar, e.g. persons who are very different from yourself. You don’t have to like their way of being, not even think it is OK. But you might eventually find that it is an advantage to be able to let the unfamiliar exist in your presence without having to defend yourself by emotional dissociation, creating physical distance or by inhibited communication.


7. Coordination of interests


Can I distinctly perceive the interests and needs of both myself and my counterpart?

Can I mentally discern which interests are compatible in a larger perspective, and which are not?

Can I imagine the possibility that there might be a solution to the situation that might be acceptable by both parties?


Make a list of the issues important for you in the conflict, as well as a list of the issues you believe to be important for your counterpart. If possible, exchange list with your counterpart, and use controlled communication to clarify what your respective issues are. If this approach is impractical, look at your own issues, and the issues you imagine to be important for your counterpart, and try to identify which basic needs might be hidden beneath concrete wishes and standpoints (e.g. need for esteem, freedom, status, belongingness).


8. Role-taking


Can I imagine how my counterparts perceives the present situation: Which needs and interests do I (as my counterpart) find important? What do I fear the most? Which alternatives for action do I perceive to be available? What do I think the other parties will do?


Ask a friend to help you with this exercise. Seat yourselves in chairs facing each other at a comfortable distance. Your play the role of yourself, your friend the role of a counterpart. Describe the situation and yourself. Then shift shares and roles, and describe for your friend how you, as the counterpart, perceives the situation and yourself. Your friend is only needed as an audience.


9. Empathy


Can I feel the emotions and feelings of my counterpart?

Can I empathize with the pain of my counterpart and still stay committed to my own most sacred values?

Can I empathize with the counterpart even when I find the counterpart’s emotions unfounded or unjust (e.g. when the aggressiveness and pain is directed towards myself)?


Choose your most important counterpart in the conflict. Imagine this person in your mind, but peel off everything you know, or think you know, about this person’s standpoints and behaviour patterns. Forget all your interpretations and diagnoses. Leave only the raw feelings active in this person. Use your empathy to relate to these feelings.

10. Mindfulness


At which occasions have I slipped into unreflected habitual or impulsive reactions patterns during the present conflict? What happened afterwards? Which effect did my behaviour have on the counterpart?


Choose an incident when you did not act from conscious intention, but fell back into unreflected (and destructive) patterns. Ask a friend to be your counterpart in a role-play, and test different alternative ways of reacting.


11. Authenticity


At which occasions did I say things that were not in accord with my real thoughts and feelings, for the purpose of attaining a particular outcome?

Are my opinions in this conflict really my own, or did I adopt them from others without critical reflection?


Observe your own behaviour when your are discussing with your counterpart. Can you find signs that you are trying to manoevre your counterpart into a disadvantaged position?

12. Identification with ethical principles


Am I capable to provide enough free space for my counterpart to express his or her feelings and opinions without efforts to censure, dissociate, avert, manipulate?


Can you identify incidents in the present conflict when you lost your connection with your most noble values on how to handle such situations? What happened?


13. Personal values and group pressure


Which of my thoughts and feelings are taboo in my own group in the present situation?

In which ways do I disapprove of the course of action of my own group?

Can I discern incidents or standpoints when I thought that my own group acted wrongly?

Can I stay committed to my own convictions even if everybody else thinks differently?

What do I do if I am exposed to gossip I find ethically dubious?

Am I participating in creating or sustaining group pressure on fellow group members in order to get them to conform to the group norms against their own convictions?


Reflect and write a list on your views on right and wrong in the present conflict, especially regarding the ethics of conflict interactions.

14. Assuming responsibility


Can I imagine myself doing anything radical that changes the situation in a decisive way?

Is the conflict process characterized by an increasing sense of resignation?


Fantasize what would happen if you did that which scares you the most in the present situation. Imagine that you had unlimited courage, how would you act?

Use all possible occasions to do things that strengthen your confidence and your belief in your ability to handle difficulties.

Notice all the important aspects of life that are completely unrelated to the present conflict.


15. Basic motivation


Why am I committed to my standpoints, interests, goals in the present conflict? Which are the basic motives behind my position? Do I have different motives that contradict each other?

Which are my most noble motives in the present situation? Which are the most egocentric motives?

Which of my motives would I hesitate to divulge to the other persons involved?


Place five chairs at comfortable distances in a room. Let each chair represent a different type of basic motivation playing a role in the present situation. Sit down in each chair and tell a friend about the respective motivations.



The purpose of these role plays is to create vivid images of the 15 dimensions, making them visible not only to the intellect, but also as practical experiences. They are intended as sensitizing exercises, rather than occasions to train the abilities themselves.

Even if you are not in a position to actually perform these exercises, you may benefit from playing them in your imagination. If actually used in a workshop setting, I recommend that the sessions are led by an experienced drama teacher. Role plays create and evoke images, feelings, memories, and thoughts. The role plays themselves should be kept short, and you should plan for a reasonable time to discuss what happened. Don’t underestimate the need to clearly signal start and end of the role playing. You might start the discussion afterwards by asking the participants how it felt to do the exercize, in order to give them an occasion to express what feelings they had in the tension between the roles and their private selves.


1. Image — reality

Make up a role play about a concrete conflict situation in which one person has a fixed image about how the other side is. Exaggerate this role, so that all efforts to differentiate the image are consistently interpreted in terms of the image this person has and takes for reality.


2. Feelings vs. value judgments

Divide into groups of two. Make up a pantomime of a situation where one of you acts slightly oddly, and the other feels discomfortable in the presence of the first. Show with body-language how the second person translates the feeling of discomfort into a judgement of the other as a person of low morals.


3. Persons as individuals and as group members

Make up a pantomime with two groups, where each group has a characteristic attitude and ways of expressing themselves. The members of each should imitate each other in their own group, effacing individuality as far as possible.


4. Differentiated cognition of persons

Make up an "inner theatre" of a well-known person, e.g. a leading politician. Let first one participant take the pose of the official personality of the celebrity. Let then one additional participant at a time add a new and different aspect of the personality of the celebrity.


5. Decentering of perspective

Make up a role play where all participants divide into two fundamentalist groups confront each other. Neither side should show any sign of accommodation or preparedness to reconsider their convictions.


6. Maintaining connection

Make up a role play with one person who has a strange body language or communication style, e.g. by acting in a way which most people in our culture would interpret as infringements on the personal (bodily) integrity (coming to close, touching). Use pantomime to show how other people take distance from this person.


7. Coordination of interests

Make up a pantomime that illustrates a situation when the counterpart is perceived only as an obstacle for one’s own interests. Use two groups who both perceive the other groups in this way. Try this out for a while, then let individuals go from their own group and back again.


8. Role-taking

Make up a 10-minute role play with two persons who have radically different images of the same situation, different interests, and different loyalties. Perform it, and let then the protagonists shift roles. Perform it again.


9. Empathy

Make up a role play with one person showing distinct signs of being deeply hurt by something which is perceived as a trifle by the other participants. Let the others ridicule this reaction, and observe what happens. (Make sure to debrief this role play in a considerate way.)


10. Mindfulness

Make up a simple conflict situation in dialogue form. Perform this situation in three different version: First with one participant who reacts decidedly impulsive; secondly with one participant who tries to handle the situation by falling into routines or stereotyped habits, thirdly with one participant who tries his or her best to handle the situation.


11. Authenticity

Make up a role play in dialogue format with two parties having their own hidden agendas. Let the parties use some tactical feints in order to manoevre the other side into a disadvantaged position.


12. Identification with ethical principles

Make up a situation where A, who is deeply upset, attacks B in a vehement and unfair way. Let B describe how he or she reacted to this attack, which impulses and defensive reactions were evoked.


13. Personal values and group pressure

Make up a pantomime with a group dominated by agitated and increasing feelings of animosity towards a counterpart. Let one of the members of the group stand aside a little, using body language to mark a differentiated attitude. Let the group try to force the "dissident" back into its ranks, and when this is unsuccessful, let it attack the "traitor."


14. Assuming responsibility

Make up a pantomime with all participants as robots moving in rigid tracks. Try coordinating your movements to create a mechanical rhythm. If you are many, you can make up a pattern of movement that inevitably leads two groups closer to each other, ending up in collisions. Let one participant break out of these patterns, and one at a time call back the other participants to self-aware action.


15. Basic motivation

Illustrate different types of basic motivation in pantomime form: the anxious self-preserver, the pleasure maximizer, the ego-centered accumulator of personal merits, the self-less channel for unconditional love, etc.