“You’re only making a mess by trying to put things straight. You’re trying to straighten out a wiggly world and no wonder you’re in trouble.” ~Alan Watts
I stumbled upon this Alan Watts quote the other day, and it got me thinking about conflict (tbf, most things get me thinking about conflict).
But before I go there, it also got me thinking about the Michael J. Fox documentary, Still, and Michael's experience with Parkinson's Disease.
For the first couple of years Michael was living with the illness, he hid it from the world, believing the news would damage his career. He initially tried to force the tremors in his left arm - his main symptom - into submission by using his right hand to hold his arm still. But when he did this, he discovered that the core of his body would twist and contort in response.
In other words, the tremors in his arm were a symptom of energy moving at a deeper level, and trying to stop his arm from shaking just led to a more extreme reaction at his core.
To tie this to conflict...
When we conflict professionals try to manage conflict by insisting that people behave a certain way (e.g., refrain from using harsh language or placing blame), we might be holding the conflict symptoms in check for the moment, but what’s happening for our clients internally?
It’s likely that the energy leading to those symptoms is still present, and just growing stronger because the symptoms are being stifled. And when the more extreme symptoms come out later, we don’t see the connection between our earlier stifling and their later expression. Or worse, we might not see the extreme symptoms at all - they may only show up after the clients leave our office.
So we keep trying to straighten out a wiggly world.
But if we instead acknowledge and accept the symptoms, we’re addressing the energy at the core level, allowing it to wiggle its way out naturally.
When Michael realized that forcing his arm to stop shaking backfired, he tried to mask the symptom by holding an object (e.g., a pencil) in his left hand to make it look like he was fidgeting with it. This worked better than forcing his arm to straighten, but these efforts at denial were still taking a toll on him.
Finally, he shared his illness with the world, and found acceptance from his fans and colleagues. He could now schedule shoots after his medicine had kicked in, and he could take breaks as needed. The illness didn’t go away, but because it was acknowledged and accepted, it could be worked with openly and honestly.
When we acknowledge and accept expressions of conflict, our clients feel heard and understood, which allows some of the conflict energy to dissipate on its own. The clients can now make their own decisions about how to express themselves, and about the expressions they’re willing to accept (or not) from each other.
But this will probably not happen in a straight or predictable line - we humans are not robots after all, and the wiggle is just part of the ride.
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