Positive Groundlessness – Finding the Empty Space in Conflict

By Laura Melton Tucker, April 14th, 2013

Listen to this entry.

I saw on facebook today: “Remove all the space within the atoms making up the human body and every person who has ever lived would fit inside a basketball.”  If this is true (and we know everything we read on facebook is true!), that’s a lot of empty space…and empty space is terrifying.  When I observe empty space in conversations, I resist the temptation to fill in with noise.  Sitting with emptiness – as hard as that is – can be a good thing in a difficult conversation.

A few months ago, I met with a father and daughter who chose conflict mapping over regular mediation because they felt more comfortable first meeting with me alone to tell the story of their conflict before coming together to talk.  They hadn’t seen each other in over 6 months.  Their only communication was through email.  Without revealing private details of their story, I can disclose that the crux of their conflict centered on the father’s decision to disband a family business. The daughter, counting on a future in the business, felt betrayed and hurt by his decision.  She stopped speaking to him, which led him to seek mediation.  The daughter’s willingness to mediate was the best news he’d had in months.

The father and daughter told identical stories about the events that led to the conflict, except that the father focused on his regret about inadvertently hurting his daughter, while the daughter focused on her anger at her father’s selfish behavior.  When they came together, the daughter brought the same stack of emails, journal entries and notes that she brought to the conflict interview to prove her version of the facts.  She was angry, and she had proof that her anger was justified.

I spent the first fifteen minutes of their mediation showing them maps of their conflict from their two perspectives.  I use quotations whenever possible to capture the words behind their emotions.  This step is an opportunity for the parties to clarify their positions if I’ve misunderstood or mischaracterized their stories about the conflict.  After viewing the maps their conversation takes off.

Soon into the mediation, patterns of hurt, along with beliefs and attitudes about who is right, come to light.  This is an important part of every conflict’s DNA.  What happens next determines whether or not the mapping and mediation are successful.  Success is sometimes just a willingness to sit in the room with different ideas about what happened.  Success may also mean hearing the other person’s side and being moved by honest expression of emotion.  When this happens the compassion center of our brain fires up and we start to soften toward concern for the other person’s feelings.

For this father and daughter, the turning point came when they began to explore control as a factor in their falling out.  The father accused his daughter of controlling the relationship by shutting him out of her life.  The daughter countered that the father was in control because he’d made selfish decisions that hurt other people; decisions over which none of them felt any control. Once they’d spoken these words, the conversation shifted to silence.  They sat.  For a long, full minute.  Finally, moving aside her notes, emails and journal entries, the daughter leaned forward and offered “baby steps” toward resuming their relationship – she would go to dinner with her father, she would invite him to her home, she would begin to text him again with notes about what was going on in her day…a previous habit that she’d dropped since the falling out.  They ended their meeting with a hug.

My takeaway from their conversation was that by confronting their worst fear…exposing themselves to hurt again…they found a way forward through their conflict.  In the process, they discovered “positive groundlessness,” a term used by Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, to describe the state of vulnerability where we experience the empty feeling of free fall into uncertainty.   When the daughter let go of her proof of hurt and offered to take baby steps back into her relationship with her father, she stepped over a cliff into a space buoyant with the potential for peace.

Comments are closed.

© Peacewise Mediation, Iowa City. All rights reserved. Design by Christina Willner