One of the most important leadership qualities to nurture, particularly from a Social Emotional Intelligence point of view, is effective communication. Effective communication can be easy to cultivate when you are simply transmitting information to your team, or when you are alignment with those with whom you are communicating.
But what happens when there is disagreement, or discord?
In this three part series, we are digging into the topic of discord, and exploring how—through mindfulness techniques originated from Buddhist practices—discord can not only be healthy, it can also be a vital part of growth and productivity.
Yesterday we defined discord and discussed why it feels so difficult. In today’s article we will dive deeper into the source of our difficulties with discord, and begin to understand a different way of viewing discord in our lives.
Healthy Discord, Part Two: Why discord is so difficult. A Buddhist perspective.
Why is healthy discord so challenging?
From a Buddhist viewpoint, identification is often the obstacle. Whenever we take a position on something there is a tendency of the ego (or the self) to snap to life and hold on to the view. There is nothing unusual in this process. Views, viewpoints, ego, taking a position - these are all common and unavoidable parts of ourselves and life. The trick, however, is knowing the difference between expressing a view and slipping into identification with that view. Once we identify with our view, ego has already tightened its grip.
In practice this can lead to disagreement, ill-will, and even violence. And, often enough, we’re not aware when our views have become solidified. According to the Buddhist philosophy of the mind, to the extent that we hold tightly to our viewpoint, to that extent do we cause suffering in our hearts and in the hearts of others. The reason is simple, if we cling to our views then that clinging is just like any other. It’s the inability to let go that gives rise to suffering.
Disagreeing with a friend over who makes the best slice of pizza in your neighborhood, or who is the greatest quarterback of all time may be light and fun. In such discussions the strength of identification to the view tends to be weak (though not always.) However, one only need turn on the TV to any news channel to find topics that bring about tremendous disagreement and sometimes violence. Here one can see how the very notion of “view” itself is challenged.
As our views become more entangled with our sense of self, or identification, our hearts tend to harden, we tend to see the challenger as an “other” who is a threat to our very being. Even using the word “view” for another’s view tends to validate them in a way that we find difficult. At this point our experience moves from expression to attack or defensiveness. And the more we cling to our views when challenged, the more our nervous system responds with fight or flight. Physiologically speaking, before we know it we are in what feels like a fight for survival.
Why does this happen?
Buddhist psychology emphasizes the subjectivity of reality. In other words, as individuals we understand our experience through a complex combination of the interpretation of incoming sensory data, ego-driven impulses (such as fear or desire for example), an array of constantly arising feeling states, past experiences, and underlying values or attitudes. Out of this complex meaning-making of our experience of reality arises our view. It is important to emphasize that our view arises out of our experience of reality, not reality itself (because according to this understanding there isn’t a reality outside of the experience of it.)
Once we identify with a view, it becomes personalized. A view moves from being a subjective point of reference to something more concrete. Suddenly we begin to think in terms of right and wrong, good and bad. A challenge to my view then becomes deeper, it becomes a challenge to my very sense of self.
The Buddha offered a simile to help in understanding the fickleness of views in a way that may help us to detach from them. He described the qualities of praise and blame as a couplet that arises in our human experience and that cannot be avoided. Whatever your views are, whatever statement you make, there will be those that find your views or statement to be praiseworthy and there will be those that find your views or statement to be blameworthy. It just happens like that. It’s what happens in the human heart. The Buddha likened this part of our experience to the wind. He said that praise and blame are like the wind. One minute the wind is blowing this way, the next minute it is blowing that way. If we understand it this way, then we can begin to loosen our grip. If not, if we try to hold on tightly then we will create more suffering for ourselves.
Discord need not be toxic. It need not be a time of pushing one another further away. With mindfulness we can learn to approach discord carefully, compassionately. When approaching discord in this way we may find that sharing differences of views can have a positive outcome. We may discover where it is that we are holding on tightly. We may understand more about one another. Through understanding we build trust. And with trust we begin to grow.
In moments like these, when faced with discord and we feel ourselves beginning to spin, we are offered a choice. We can double down on our view, hold as tightly as we can and prepare to attack. Or, we can stop, we can breathe. We can take a step back, emotionally at least. We can feel what’s taking place in our bodies, our hearts, our minds. Taking a breath allows us a space, ever so small, to stop and choose how to respond. We may choose to push forward with our attack after all. But at least we made a choice, at least we made a choice with awareness. That is mindfulness. That is the practice of mindfulness. Taking a moment to stop, check in, and take a breath. And, who knows, maybe some wisdom might just arise in that ever so small space.
The next time someone challenges your view see if you can stop and take a breath before responding. And remember, whatever your views are, there will be those who agree with you and those who disagree. Wishing that things were different is like wishing that the wind was blowing in a different direction.
Please join us for any of our upcoming free virtual webinars. You can find the schedule and link here: https://www.tlpnyc.com/free-workshops