Books Reviews

Book Review: Everything Is Workable

Everything Is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution by Diane Musho Hamilton is, as the subtitle says, a book on conflict resolution combined with meditation practice. Diane Musho Hamilton is an experienced mediator and meditator, and has much experience to share. Here is a summary of the book together with some conclusions.

Conflict ”is intrinsic to our human experience” (p.1). To ”transform conflict, we must let go of the notion that something or someone is wrong or bad” (p.3). ”The conflict isn’t the problem; our response to it is” (p.3). Learning how to transform conflict ”demands that we become more present, more fearless” (p.5).

Meditation is a ”method to help us access a deep sense of inner calm and trust in the unfolding of our life” (p.13). The ”first encounter with ourselves is often an unruly mix” of bodily discomfort and emotional unease (p.8). ”We are preoccupied with … forming so many opinions, judgments, and preferences in reactions to life” (p.9). When ”the mind settles down and we become one with our immediate experience” everything ”becomes … more workable” (p.10).

Intention is ”an internal choice or commitment that guides our actions” (p.15). Often problems arise ”because we aren’t clear … about what we really intend in our interactions with others” (p.18). It’s therefore ”extremely important” that we ”clarify our intentions” (p.19). ”To communicate, problem solve, deal with conflict, and work with others, we must be present to things as they are” (p.19). This requires intention, and clarifying our intention ”requires a willingness to be rigorously honest with ourselves” (p.20).

”By paying attention, we learn to respond differently” (p.24). ”In each moment, we can … create more choices for ourselves” (p.26). ”Learning how to be present to conflict is similar to learning how to be present to pain” (p.26). In any situation ”we can access the innate wisdom of the moment” (p.27). We can learn to ”remain present despite all sorts of impulses to do something else” (p.30). We even have ”the ability to take a perspective on our momentary perspective” (p.31). We can ”consciously choose new ways to relate with ourselves and others” (p.31).

We can “learn to transform our emotions without suppressing them” (p.34). Learning how ”to relate with fear directly” is necessary ”to working with conflict” (p.35). Emotional states are ”powerful sources of information and of … energy” (p.37). Allowing ourselves to ”really feel the flood of … emotions” help us ”work with them” and ”navigate through them” (p.39).

There are ”three basic ways we protect ourselves” (p.42): We ”move away,” ”move toward,” or ”move against” (p.42). We expend ”energy on suppressing awareness of the conflict” (p.44). And the ”suppression leads to depression, isolation, and … helplessness” (p.44). ”We have to be able to say no and mean it” (p.47).

”Aggression always creates a sense of separation” (p.48). We need to learn to ”expose our vulnerability, and step into new ways of being” (p.49). We can then ”stay present instead of disappearing” (p.50). This makes it possible for us to ”know what we think and feel, and … communicate that clearly” (p.50).

A few people are ”incapable of expressing … their wants, and their needs” (p.55). Most people are able to ”speak on their own behalf,” but are ”unable to see the validity of the other side” (p.56). Some are ”more flexible” (p.56). And very few are able to ”express their point of view, genuinely listen to an opposing one, and include … the interests of third parties” (p.56). ”Rather than cope with … anxiety and doubt, we are tempted to … collapsing reality into a single point of view” (p.58).

Granting “the validity of another’s first-person perspective is key” (p.65). Each one of us ”relies on our first-person perspective to navigate … reality” (p.66), The first step is to ”acknowledge the validity of each … first first-person perspective” (p.69). ”To bring people together … we must weave first-person perspectives together with … third-person information” (p.68).

Growing ”an individual identity is a critical step” (p.73) ”First we need to learn how to care for ourselves and be responsible for our own lives” (p.73). In time, we can learn to “rest naturally in wakeful awareness” (p.75). ”We learn to see that the ʿIʾ perspective is always limited and sometimes blind” (p.76).

The most ”powerful and liberating use of the first person comes when we … take responsibility for ourselves and our actions” (p.76). There is also ”a power to expressing vulnerability from first person” (p.77). We ”learn to express ourselves with more openness” (p.77). When we ”speak consciously from the first-person perspective, we are … owning our self-motivations” (p.79).

”Listening is so powerful as to be almost alchemical in its ability to transform a conversation or conflict” (p.85). ”Listening … requires intention, openness, and generosity” (p.86).”We steady our attention” and ”remain fully present” (p.91). ”This goes a long way in the art of being human” (p.91). ”Paradoxically, if we privilege language less, we seem to listen more” (p.91).

Remarkably, we can ”take a perspective on our perspective” (p.98). ”Sometimes simply witnessing can have a positive effect on a situation” (p.99). Being ”present, unbiased, and available to what is without imposing preconceived ideas or judgments” (p.100).

All things ”are subject to context, causes, and conditions” (p.108). ”Everything is always changing” and ”influencing everything else” (p.108). ”We can still have our opinions and … values, but we cease to grip them as the source of our security” (p.109). We find that ”we can cultivate and deepen our values” (p.109).

We are ”involved in negotiations all the time” (p.114). Good negotiations ”depend on cultivating good relationships” (p.114). It’s important to take ”different perspectives: yours, the other side’s, and a neutral one” (p.114). ”People often relax their positions when their deeper wants and needs are affirmed” (p.117). ”Once shared interests are identified, creativity sets in” (p.117). ”The assumption is that something good will emerge if people bring their passion and skills to the table and suspend their need to know how things will turn out” (p.113).

”Creativity is all-pervasive and ever present” (p.120). Creativity ”occurs in the moment-to-moment existence of everyone and everything” (p.122). Every situation, including conflict, ”offers us an opportunity to innovate” (p.122). ”Creativity is always percolating just below the surface of our lives” (p.124). Playing with conflict ”implies an attitude of ease, curiosity, and possibility” (p.124).

Relinquish the ”attachment to controlling outcomes” (p.125). ”The idea is not to eliminate conflict” (p.128). ”The aim is to transform it” (p.128). Creativity necessarily ”involves encounters with the unknown, the chaotic, and the pain that … accompany the birth of something new” (p.128).

The ”same event can be interpreted in many ways” (p.131). A ”skillful reframe can determine whether a conversation succeeds or fails” (p.131). ”Skillful reframes … help us strip … negative judgments from our conversations” (p.133). However, to succeed ”a reframe has to contain a compelling truth” (p.133). New interpretations must enable ”us to see more than we did before” (p.134).

Strong feelings ”often govern the meaning we make of our experiences” (p.134). It’s important to learn to relax, using the breath to calm the ”overly protective nervous system” (p.138). This opens ”the space to respond consciously” (p.139). Usually, ”we don’t allow for the space” and ”fail to feel the body’s reaction[s]” (p.139). ”Learning to feel directly and consciously is very important” (p.139). If ”we stop feeling, its sensations start dictating our responses” (p.139).

”If we are emotionally stressed, calming ourselves is essential” (p.144). Our ”energy communicates … more immediately than our words do” (p.144). ”It is … important to support what we are saying with a clear description of our expectations, as well as examples of what improvement would look like” (p.145). ”Finding shared understanding in our communication weaves strength, continuity, and durability into our relationships” (p.146).

”It is imperative to own shadow” (p.151). ”We expend … life energy when we reject part of our identity” (p.151). ”Our ability to be authentic and natural with others is inevitably compromised when we repress certain thoughts and feelings” (p.151). ”Our inability to touch the places in ourselves that we fear and judge makes us critical and fearful of the world” (p.151). Conflict sometimes dissolves when ”projection is taken back” (p.157). And even if conflicts don’t go away ”we may see them differently” (p.157).

”Worldviews comprise a whole set of perspectives that influence our interpretation of reality and filter our experience” (p.162). We ”usually have to be pushed or pulled out of our comfort zone” to ”change our worldview” (p.164). ”A worldview is … an entire gestalt of opinions that frames meaning” (p.164). When ”we can look at the filter of our own worldview” we can begin ”to challenge our assumptions instead of everyone else’s” (p.171).

”For anyone working with conflict, compassion is a core capacity” (p.176). ”Compassion flows from a heart that brings nonjudgmental presence” (p.176). Without practice we ”habitually contract and defend against pain” (p.177). We can work with strong emotions ”by giving in to them instead of resisting … them” (p.179). It’s in itself ”a form of compassion” (p.179). ”As compassion is to suffering, forgiveness is to injury” (p.180). ”Working with our feelings, keeping our hearts open, and staying … compassionate … promote fearlessness and courage” (p.180).

Conflict resolution isn’t easy. ”There are different ways to go about it” (p.195). ”It imperative that we … listen more deeply to different points of view” and ”learn to take a stand and speak with clarity ” when we are called to do so (p.196). ”With practice, we can develop our conflict skills” (p.198). We can learn ”to engage with awareness and compassion, … liberated from fixed outcomes” (p.198). There is a joy ”just below the surface” (p.199). ”Life is good, even when it is hard” (p.200).

This is a great book about a very important topic. Constructive conflict resolution is critically important. The aim is not to eliminate conflict, but to transform it by staying fully present. This requires a willingness to be honest and compassionate with ourselves and others. And it requires practice — much practice. The book is very readable and full of different practices. I recommend the book!

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

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