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A new perspective on conflict? posted Sep 1, 2017

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That one person’s reality is different from the reality of that of others is a commonly accepted notion. We all have different “meaning making” and “operating” systems that feel familiar and comfortable to ourselves, yet not always make sense to those around us.

As a result, we all handle conflict in different ways but it goes further than that as our particular “meaning making” system drives also how we see conflict and what perspectives we (can or cannot) take on it. While some people can take distance from conflict, observe it, reflect on it and respond to it others become consumed by it, are fully immersed in it and can only react within it.

I continue to be hugely inspired by the work of Harvard Professor Robert Kegan and Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger (coach, leadership developer, researcher and writer) around “Stages of adult development” and have integrated it into my leadership and personal transformation coaching practice. It opens up opportunities across leadership development, personal transformation and perhaps could even provide a "lens" through which we can better understand and therefore better work with conflicts...

In a nutshell, there are five stages of development or five forms of mind we travel through over a lifetime with only a small portion of adults reaching the highest form. By the way, higher is not better, just more complex and each form of mind has its strengths and limitations.

Yesterday I had a great opportunity to talk about stages of development with the leadership development team at the Inspire Group at their head office in Wellington. It was on the morning flight, being consumed by Jennifer’s “Changing on the job” book, I imagined how someone at the highest form of mind – the “Self-transformative mind” – might make meaning of conflict or what perspective they might take on it.

The result of that moment of imagination:

“Conflicts evaporate when we embrace rather than suppress our emerging realisation that our differences are actually similarities waiting to find common ground.”

To start at the beginning, the first form of mind is that of young children, the “Impulsive mind” followed by the “Self-sovereign mind” (older children, adolescents and also some adults). With a “Self-sovereign mind” our world has become more complex and we discover that we have beliefs, feelings, interests, and needs that stay constant. While we recognize that others have beliefs, feelings, interests, and needs too, they are only important to us if they interfere with ours. We are, in this form of mind, subject to our needs – they define us and we are fixated on or fused with them and display little or no empathy.

As we transition out of adolescence and become good citizens of our society we shift into the “Socialised mind” way of meaning-making and operating (where most adults reside). The needs we were subject to in the previous form of mind have now become an object for our reflection and decision making. We are able to subordinate our needs to the needs of others and we become guided by the people, organizations or institutions most important to us. We become externally defined, typically through either our relationships, our intellect or our achievements, and there is no sense of what I want outside of the values, expectations, norms of those around us. We have difficulty making decisions with this form of mind when there is a conflict between the values sets, opinions or beliefs of important others.

The next form of mind, the “Self-authored” mind is reached by approximately 20% of adults and at this form of mind we have achieved everything the socialized mind has but now there is an “internal locus of control. We become internally defined and those external values, expectations, norms etc may influence our thinking but no longer control us. We have an internal compass that guides us through decision making and mediating conflicts whilst having the capability to empathize with others. This is the level from which highly effective leadership is created often with strong visions.

The highest form of mind, the “Self-transformative mind” is the domain of very few adults but at this level, we come to see the limitations of our own inner system, start to uncover and question our assumptions and recognize our biases and our own shadow. We connect seemingly unrelated contexts, spot themes where no commonality is obvious and start to explore and challenge dichotomies. We see similarities where before there only seemed to be differences. Black and white become just various shades of grey and conflicts are seen as both internal and external dynamics at play.

It is through having this ability to consider conflict as also an internal dynamic we might start to shape a perspective that our drive to sustain or even begin a conflict may well be because we are subconsciously suppressing an emerging realization that our differences are actually similarities waiting to find common ground. Our subconscious holding us back from ending or avoiding conflict, refusing to let go of our ego and admit to ourselves and others that when we look through the lens of similarities we have a whole heap in common.

I wonder what the possibilities might look like when more and more people are able to make meaning and take perspective at this “self-transformative” form of mind? How might that reshape and influence our conflicts on the world stage and the ones closer to home?

Engaging in the transformational work to shift to a higher form of mind is of benefit (albeit always comes at a cost as well) when the complexity in your life grows beyond the socialized mind’s ability to cope with it. Or when you feel a strong desire to address the internal dynamics that limit you, hold you back from a way of being or living a life you intellectually know is more desirable, fulfilling and satisfying.

This journey to a higher form of mind is a transformational shift as it involves not the development of more skills, the gaining of more knowledge or the development of more technical capability (although that is part of it) but rather the development of a different way of knowing, meaning making, gaining more perspective and shifting what once was “subject” to “object”.

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