In my martial arts journey, I have learned countless important life lessons. Some basic and obvious, some rather complex and subtle. What they all have in common is that I keep learning them, over and over again. I’m never “done” – just further along on the journey, with a deeper understanding.
Before even setting foot into the first class, every student is taught what initially seems like a formality: At the entrance to the dojo, you stop and BOW. Not to your instructor or your fellow students – that comes later. You first bow to show respect for the place of LEARNING.
What if we took this concept to resolving interpersonal disputes? What if, each time we stepped into a conflict situation, we did not immediately strategize about the actions we and the other protagonists in the upcoming scene of the conflict story may take, worry about who’s right or wrong, and assess the likelihood of success or failure? What if we first stopped and bowed to honor the learning that can take place here?
Every person involved in a conflict has a story to tell, and each person usually is convinced that her story is true and she’s right. What many people don’t recognize is that there is never only one story and one truth. There are as many stories and truths as there are people involved. To resolve a conflict in a meaningful way, we need to gain access to those other stories and truths, see where they overlap and where they diverge, and then figure out what ending we can write that would make sense for all our stories.
For that process to be productive, we need to start with respect for the other person’s story and a willingness to hear that story and learn from it. Picture this: Someone starts a conversation with you, making it clear at the outset that he’s undoubtedly right, and any other position is clearly unreasonable, untenable and irrational – negotiator-speak for “a bunch of !#@&.” How motivated are you right now to hear that person’s story? Will you be able to truly hear it, or just wait for your turn to tell your own story? How motivated are you to consider that there may be aspects to that person’s story that are missing from yours? How motivated are you to learn? And when it comes time to tell your story, and you adopt the same attitude of being right and it’s really the other person who’s spewing !#@&, how motivated will he be to hear and learn from you?
“When you bow to a mirror, the image in the mirror bows back” says an old Buddhist text. When you enter a conflict situation with respect and a willingness to learn, you set the stage and dramatically increase the likelihood of a productive exchange taking place. Don’t expect easy traveling on a smooth road – it may take repeated efforts to begin and continue the learning process. Whenever you notice someone becoming too attached to their own story and dismissing all other possibilities, shift back to respect and curiosity – what do we still need to know? You may never fully understand the other person’s perspective. You may never know every little detail that’s driving the other person’s approach. That’s okay – you may not need to. It’s about embarking on the journey with respect, gaining a deeper understanding, and learning enough so you can write a meaningful ending scene for all the stories involved.
Bow. Learn. Repeat.