Living in Tension
by Gary Friedman
A key skill for conflict professionals is the ability to live with the variety of tensions that present themselves to us as a regular part of our work life, particularly the tension of sitting in the middle of differences between parties. Now, many of us are being tested as never before by the political situation, where we are regularly facing a world of surprises, challenges, disappointments, evoking rampant fear. At least, I notice these many reactions within myself.
How do we manage ourselves during these troubled times? How will our efforts at work to live with tensions help us deal with the larger world? And how can we bring our understanding of what is happening in the larger world to help our clients deal with what is happening in their lives?
I don’t know. That is a fact that I have to accept. That’s hard to swallow but it’s also reassuring. So much of my life seemed quite figured out prior to November 8th, but the trauma of the election and subsequent events has opened me to a deep recognition of how much less I understood about the country than I thought. The world seems turned upside down a lot of the time, with daily events that only add to the challenge of living in these times.
While more than just a little unsettling, I have also discovered a major upside and interesting opportunity presented to me (us). There is a famous Buddhist saying “Not knowing is most intimate.” What I understand this to mean is that when I am clearest about what is happening within me and between me and others, this often creates a distance between me and others, and even within me, that is not present when I am struggling, confused, fearful and vulnerable.
The vulnerability that comes from not knowing creates an opening in me. I can feel more connected to more of the world when I admit my uncertainties than when I settle for an answer that closes off my curiosity. This can also happen between me and the parties I’m trying to help in my work.
With the trauma of Trump, there is no pretending that I understand all of what is going on, both outside me and within me. When I realize this and bring that attitude to my work, I feel more openness to the parties and recognize that easy answers are often not so useful as staying with uncertainty. In fact, uncertainty is closest to the truth of our situation. Anyone who believes that they know what is going to happen next is often disappointed to find out how wrong they are. That has never been more clear than it is now in the wider world.
If we can find the courage to recognize that we don’t know, and live with the tension of that, we have a better chance of expanding our understanding of ourselves, each other and the world. So all of our work as conflict professionals to learn and practice the skill of living with the tension of not knowing can serve us to better face the world now, and facing the world can help us be better conflict professionals. Perhaps a small silver lining but potentially important for us all.