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Weathering Conflict with Compassion: A Few Key Thoughts on Maintaining Positive Relationships

I like to visualize the whole of our beings as something akin to the trunk of an old tree.  The outer layer—or bark, if you will—chips and weathers away over time.  The next layer is marked by externals as well, due to weather, alterations in nature, destruction by man.  The inner layer, the backbone of the tree itself, stays intact despite the forces against it.

Like a tree, we are susceptible to similar threats.  Our outer layers can be easily inflamed, even scorched, vulnerable as we are to exterior factors.  We are subject to volatility and impermanency, but underneath resides something far more durable, if, at times, difficult to find: Our True Selves.  It is our core, our backbones, our souls.  It is an immovable root that stays with us time after time, in all kinds of weather, through even the most demanding scenarios.

 I arrived at this analogy recently when my best friend and I found ourselves in an emotionally charged argument that seared right through my outer layer.  We were vacationing together, a trip I had been looking forward to for months.  Yet when I arrived I was overcome by the negative energy between us.  She was terribly upset with me, and I had no idea why.

We were on a remote island in the middle of the sea.  My home, my life, and my family felt like a hundred years away.  As my nerves prickled my skin whenever I was in the presence of the woman I considered my closest friend, I was sorely reminded of the many times in which I’d failed to address and resolve altercations with loved ones and co-workers.

I confronted her.  I asked what was causing the palpable friction between us.  She confessed.

And her revelations were shocking.

She accused me of complaining incessantly.  She called me needy.  Judgmental.  Condescending.  She told me I acted superior to others.  As her words spilled forth, my knees were, suddenly, made of water.  My pulse smashed in my ears.  No, you are wrong, wrong, wrong! surfaced in the back of my throat and wouldn’t go away.  I wanted to scream it.  I also had a vision of myself, in my early teens, being called similar names by my father and stepmother, and the long-lasting force their unkind words had on me.

I couldn’t keep up with my friend and what she was saying.  I defended myself and my actions like a man on the verge of drowning in the rapids—I grabbed at any branch or rock I could get my hands on.  The more she said, “You are,” the more I responded with “and you are.”  Our anger rose, and ballooned, until one of us had to step away in order to survive emotionally (and perhaps even physically).

I returned to the room I was renting.  It was sweltering, but I closed the shutters, fiddled with the unreliable air conditioner, and got into bed.  My mind swirled.  I couldn’t lie still.

My immediate reaction was to flee Greece, call her from California, and officially terminate our relationship, which bears an awful lot of similarities to how I handled conflict in my troubled past: Whenever something didn’t agree with me, I flew the coop.  Many of my relationships were severed.  Bridges were burned.  But in doing so I was left stranded, confused, and far unhappier than I was before.

Despite the vicious words that were exchanged, I knew my friend loved me.  I knew I loved her.  I couldn’t quite understand what had prompted her litany of accusations or the depth of her anger toward me, but I was reminded that it is my job in this life to teach others how to stay connected to the part of their trunk that never quivers, not even in the fiercest winds.

I called my daughter Isabella, who is wise beyond her years.  Mom, she said patiently, she’s under stress and you’re in a foreign country.  Be compassionate, and you’ll be able to understand where she’s coming from.  Listen, and you’ll be able to fix things.

Bless her little twenty-year-old heart.  I went to bed that night praying for inspiration and guidance.  When I woke, I opened the shutters.  Sunlight spilled in.  The sky was a heartbreaking blue.  I knew, with utmost clarity, what I had to do.

I called her and suggested we meet.  And on the way to the café where we’d agreed to speak, I kept the following in mind, and practiced what I committed myself to when I arrived:

Go below the surface, and ask for specifics.  While she blamed me of possessing traits I didn’t agree with, and while I was angry, I had to see the other side of the argument.  We must, after all, be willing to listen, to change, to accommodate different circumstances.  I insisted that she refer to my behavior when explaining why she was upset with me, rather than on my being a certain way.  She, in turn, listened, and did exactly that.  By speaking of the exact instances where my words/behavior had caused her stress, I was then able to explain the reasons behind the way I acted or what I said.  A few nights earlier, for example, I had turned down an invitation to an evening of cocktails with her and several of her friends.  She thought this was because I feared feeling left out, as I didn’t know any of the others.  Moreover, she also saw this as neediness, as if I needed to be babysat by her, which she resented because she was already vacationing with her young daughter and their dog; she felt spread thin as it was.  I explained that it was a choice, and that I wanted an evening alone to read, write, and meditate.  I phrased this politely and with diplomacy, and she appreciated my candor.

Ask questions, and express empathy.  She explained that she was under a great deal of pressure.  The reasons behind this extreme stress are personal but know that they are in no way insignificant.  Her life is changing in ways that are daunting to her, and at a strenuous speed.  And don’t we all, at one time or another, project our frustration towards those we love most?  I heard her out.  I offered her advice.  I assured her that I would help her in any way I could.

Investigate and embrace differences.  Once the basics of our problems were ironed out, we then proceeded to explore the differences we had in expectations, mostly deriving from my 30+ years in America and her 50+ years in Italy.  We even laughed at the discrepancies in our mannerisms and habits, which were molded in part by our different cultures.

When we parted ways—things between us still a bit shaky, but certainly on the mend—we resumed the activities we had planned months before.  We were, more importantly, reconnected with the central part of our beings: Our hearts.

Two days have gone by since we reconciled, and I can say with confidence that in managing relationships it is essential to do the following:

Apply compassion at all times.  What is this person going through?  What is behind harsh words being spoken?  And how can we tackle the problem together?

Communicate fears, not symptoms, as much as possible.  This can be tricky because many of us don’t know or understand the inner landscape of our own consciousness, but it is possible to discover more and grow more simply by changing our approach to discussions.

Be able to distinguish between the head’s incessant chattering vs. the heart’s soft murmurs. Wherever there are too many distractions, loud noises, and people constantly talking (as is often the case in locations where people vacation, especially in the Mediterranean), our egos raise their guards, keep us mentally occupied at all times, and exacerbate negative emotions.  Find a quiet place, listen not to outside voices but to your heart, and act accordingly.

Forgive, forget and allow.  Forgive what was spoken.  Forget that it happened so that the other person has the chance to change courses, and allow for love to stream through.

Listen to your body. When I become disconnected from my core, my creativity dries up at once, and I feel devastatingly lost.   In response, my physical health takes a toll: I feel tired, my body aches, my thoughts are unclear.  This is because we are taking the wrong course of action—that of listening to our egos instead of our bodies and hearts.

Listen to the voice inside of you.  No matter how stubborn your counterpart is, that person hears you at a deep level.  The Wise Observer, as I call it, lives in every one of us and will yield to your calls for love and connection.  I am always amazed at how some people are able to circumnavigate even the most life-threatening situations by overtly or tacitly calling out to that part of themselves that knows the truth, and in it finds guidance and help.

If we apply these simple guidelines to our relationships, they will thrive.  They’ll grow exponentially deeper, gain greater meaning, and bring you as much joy as a cloudless, breathlessly sunny day at the beach.

Which is where I’m heading now.  My best friend?  She’s meeting me there.

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