Theresa F. Latini: Transforming conflict from the inside out

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The practice of Nonviolent Communication begins with self-empathy and enables empathy and honesty that demonstrate love for God and neighbor, writes the associate dean of diversity and cultural competency at Western Theological Seminary.

Conflict seems ubiquitous in our world. Turn on the news, follow your Twitter feed, go to church, examine your own heart -- it won’t take long to discern discord. This is ironic given the human penchant for avoiding conflict. But perhaps avoidance is part of the problem, a contributing factor to entrenched interpersonal impasses, relational cutoffs and communal fissures.

I learned a new approach to navigating conflict at a time when I needed it most. I was writing my doctoral dissertation, pastoring a congregation that had been traumatized by clergy sexual misconduct and watching denominational gatherings devolve into vitriol. I felt overwhelmed and perplexed. How could the church witness to a God of peace on the one hand while vilifying its own members (those made in God’s image) on the other? How could I lead in a way that contributed meaningfully to reconciliation? And how could I do so without burning out?

During that time, a friend handed me a book on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and testified that it was transforming painful relationships in her life. Nonviolent Communication was developed by Marshall Rosenberg, who in the turbulent 1960s left his clinical psychology practice in order to teach compassionate listening and speaking to a broader public. Around him grew an international peace-making organization with trainers in dozens of countries.

Today NVC is taught and practiced in prisons, community centers, preschools, colleges and seminaries across the globe. Though considered more spiritual than religious, its values and skills can be faithfully incorporated into a Christian vision of reconciliation.

Nonviolent Communication facilitates connection, understanding and respect between groups and individuals at odds with each other. It is a model of conflict transformation, yet it is more than that. NVC is a life-giving set of practices that connect people at the level of their common humanity, whether they are bickering spouses, competitive colleagues or members of warring nation-states.

NVC also transforms how we posture ourselves in relation to conflict in at least two ways.

First, conflict becomes a gift and a possibility. Conflict is a central component in transformation. Whether conflict resides in one’s own heart or between people and groups, the possibility for transformed understanding, relational dynamics and practices accompanies it.

Second, conflict is primarily an internal reality, not something external to us. When conflict erupts in a family, church or school, most people in the system experience it. The conflict does not reside outside us or only among those most directly involved in it; we internalize the contexts in which we reside. Therefore, the transformation of conflict begins from the inside out, that is, with our own thinking, hearing and speaking.

For this reason, NVC frequently begins with practicing self-empathy. Not to be confused with self-pity or narcissistic navel-gazing, self-empathy is a caring attunement to the core values and needs motivating us at any given moment. Self-empathy is indispensable to leading in the midst of conflict.

As leaders, we bear in our own breasts the conflicts in our communities. Sometimes, we ourselves are targeted. Criticism or angry words fly in our direction. When this occurs, self-empathy enables us to love our neighbors and ourselves.

Typically, we react to hurtful words in one of two ways: lashing out or lashing in.

We lash out when we interpret others as attacking us. We might spew harsh words back at them. We might judge them as wrong and ourselves as right. Our anger intensifies, and the divide deepens.

We lash in when we agree with and internalize others’ judgments. Now we criticize, blame or shame ourselves: “I should have known better.” “What a fool I am; I can’t believe that I said that.” “I’ll never lead effectively.” Rumination like this fosters exhaustion, an inability to make decisions and even depression. It also isolates us from each other.

Self-empathy, in contrast, helps us lean toward one another. It keeps our hearts open. In self-empathy, we place attention on our own thought processes so that we can move out of mutual recrimination and into consideration and care. We translate our blaming and shaming into concrete observations of what happened.

This is a basic skill in NVC: the capacity to differentiate observations from evaluations. An observation is a concrete statement or thought that reflects what we are hearing, seeing or remembering in relation to specific situations.

In self-empathy, we also identify and connect with our unmet needs. In NVC, needs are understood as qualities that contribute to the flourishing of life, such as purpose, community, integrity, peace, autonomy, choice, freedom, love and physical well-being. Defined in this way, needs are life-giving. We hold them in common. Thus, they are the point of connection in the midst of conflict.

I once was invited to redevelop an academic program. As someone new to the institution, I sought to understand the history of the program as well as set a course for the future. I listened to key stakeholders and then made proposals. Conflict erupted in ways I didn’t anticipate.

A long-standing feud between faculty representing different academic fields now reared its head. One colleague was furious, accusing me of impatience, disrespect and abrogating process. Self-empathy helped me avoid swirling about in self-doubt by grounding me in the core needs that motivated my proposals: integrity, contribution, purpose and care (especially for students).

Self-empathy prepares the way for empathy. When we empathize with others in the midst of conflict, we hear their criticism, blame, accusation or ad hominem attacks as tragic expressions of unmet needs. We wonder, “What really matters to them? What are they longing for?” In the case of my colleague, I could hear, within all of his judgment, his need for respect and inclusion. This awareness kept me from dehumanizing him, because I could appreciate the significance of his needs.

Empathy is a finely honed skill in which we bracket our own perspectives and experiences in order to understand others fully. We hear and acknowledge the spoken and unspoken needs embedded in their speech and actions. Sometimes, we make empathetic guesses to discern their needs. We resist the temptation to give advice, to minimize their feelings, to persuade or to change their minds. Mostly, we are fully present with them, and in this way, we convey that they matter to us.

This attuned and attentive listening not only transforms conflict but also demonstrates love for God and neighbor.

As Bonhoeffer wrote in “Life Together,”“The first service that one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.”

A natural outflow of the self-empathy and empathy of NVC is the practice of honesty. NVC honesty helps us “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It contributes to mutual understanding, support, interdependence, peace and trust. From a Christian perspective, it is one means of practicing our reconciliation with one another in Christ.

This kind of honesty is neither nice nor passive. It is refreshingly assertive. It is genuine, coming from our clearly identified values. And it is empowering. In the situation with my colleague, I did not back down in response to his accusations. I clearly articulated my vision and tied that to communal values and needs. I also expressed my dismay about how I was being labeled. Others later shared that this helped them speak up rather than shutting down.

Sooner or later, we all find ourselves embroiled in conflict or stuck in painful relational patterns. These moments invite us to love God, our neighbor and ourselves. If we endeavor to practice self-empathy, empathy and honesty in these times, then we open up space for reconciliation to occur. We do not have to be perfect in this or end all discord. Rather, the Spirit unites us and reminds us that together we are held in God’s embrace.