Today’s Solutions: July 21, 2024

Everyone can learn how to resolve the conflicts in their lives, says psychologist and mediator John Kinyon. His method combines conflict resolution, Nonviolent communication and the science of habit change.

Elleke Bal | September/October Issue 2012
John Kinyon is a quiet, unassuming man who loves a good conflict. He mediates them and, ideally, prevents them from happening in the first place.
Kinyon was trained as a psychologist and psychotherapist when he became interested in conflict resolution. Around 1998, he met Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, a process based on the idea that all people have the ability to be compassionate toward each other and that they resort to verbal or physical violence only if they haven’t learned about other ways to meet their needs. After meeting Rosenberg, Kinyon shifted his practice into Nonviolent Communication.
In 2003, Kinyon started NVC Mediation with Ike Lasater, a trial lawyer. Through their firm, they apply Rosenberg’s methods to mediation and conflict resolution, offering training programs around the world. Conflicts can range from domestic disputes to business disagreements to political antagonisms. According to Kinyon, the key to conflict resolution is listening and connecting to other people’s needs, and your own. Really hearing each other, he argues, can transform our relationships with family members, friends and colleagues—and change our democratic process for the better.
You just changed your company’s name NVC Mediation to Mediate Your Life. What do you mean by that?
“I can tell you a little story. Last year, I was having dinner with my family. It was a day before I was leaving for a trip for work. My little son, who was 4 at that time, was sitting on the couch playing a game. I said, ‘Come on, Arjun, we’re having dinner now. Come sit down at the table.’ But he said, ‘No.’ I asked him again. And he said no again. After a couple of times, he even stopped responding. So I got up. I was already feeling this anger and irritation stirring inside me. I had all these thoughts about him: He’s disrespecting me; he doesn’t care about this; he’s being selfish—even though he was only 4. So, I walked over to him and I had this image in my mind of gently taking the toy out of his hand and taking him over to the table. But instead, I reconsidered it and sat down across from him. I started to do one of our practices. I did a self-connection practice, started breathing and stayed conscious of my breath. I felt my irritation, and I allowed myself to be present with it for a moment and drop into what was so important to me: the issue of respect and togetherness as a family. And then I looked up at my son and noticed he looked not only irritated but also sad. And I found the words: ‘I can see you are mad, but are you also sad?’ And then this thought just popped into my head: ‘Are you sad that I’m going on a trip tomorrow?’ And he looked up at me with his big brown eyes, didn’t say a word, and put down his toy, walked over to the table and started eating. It was such a sweet moment. It was like he was saying, ‘Thank you for hearing me and taking the time to connect with me.’”
How do you explain what happened?
“There’s something so magical that happens when people feel heard. If I would have forced my son to do it my way, that would have created tension in the family because he would have been in a bad mood for the rest of the day and even more upset about me leaving the next day. Who knows what that would have led to? What a difference it made to catch it and to follow a whole different trajectory that led to real connection.”
Is this something we all can learn?
“Some people think they can’t deal with conflict, but anybody can learn how to do this. First, it’s important to understand why it is so easy for us to fall into the habit of getting into conflict. That has to do with the fight-flight-freeze response, the biological response that all animals and organisms have to survive. In prehistoric times, people needed one of these strategies to save themselves when they were threatened. Still now, our brain is wired to react to threat in one of these ways and that causes people to create ‘enemy images’ in their minds that stimulate distrust and distance. When I get that response, I start thinking in a way that you become other than me. I don’t care about your needs anymore, and therefore I cannot experience compassion or empathy for you. Even though we’re not living in the jungle anymore, part of our human mind still functions at the fight-flight-freeze level. Therefore, we need a new response to threatening situations. We need to rewire our brain and create other habit patterns. If you’re going to be eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, you’re not going to connect with it. Once that thinking is activated, it causes conflict. But we have evolved now; it is time to change those processes. The idea of our training is to learn to catch that moment when you move toward fight-flight-freeze and then to shift into a new habit pattern to react in a different way.”
Why are “needs” such an important part of this new habit pattern?
“All people have the same basic needs, like love, trust, support and safety. These needs are our common ground; they connect us as human beings when we are communicating. But very often people try to meet their needs by coercing others into doing what they want. There are many ways of coercion: using guilt, fear of consequences, shame or stressing duty or obligation. It all comes down to the same things: I don’t care about your needs. There is a much more direct way to meet your needs, and that involves speaking about the needs we all have. For example, if someone has an ‘enemy image’ of his colleague, he could start thinking about what’s behind that image. If he thinks the colleague is rude, then what does that say about his own need? Perhaps he feels his need for respect is being compromised. And he could think about the needs of the colleague. If he lets that sink in and then talks to his colleague, he will be talking to him out of a whole different energy.
“We found that when you’re triggered into fight-flight-freeze, it’s hard to remember what to do. You’re overwhelmed. But if you know about an alternative way of thinking, and you practice that, it will become more and more automatic. There’s a lot of new science about habit change. Because of that, we know that we can build the capacity to stay present when a habit kicks in, based on how we learned to deal with conflicts, and that we can consciously change these habits.”
So, learning to deal with conflict in other ways is a capacity specific to our current stage of development?
“Yes, very much. It is only now that we realize how capable we are of changing those processes in our brains. But at the same time, this is also a time in which we need more solutions than ever. We are facing a lot of crises, like the economic, social and climate crises. And we became interconnected online, which is wonderful, but at the same time it also opens up so much fear. Differences frighten us. And different nations, customs and religions are now in our face all the time. We need to work together. Human beings just have to be able to find solutions together and the only way we can do that is if we can connect so that we can work together.”
Would these techniques work for politicians, too?
“Oh yes, that’s my hope and it’s a very exciting thought for me. I wonder why politics became a way for people to practice the art of arguing. Not the kind of arguing to get to a solution, but arguing to be right, and to win, and to make the other side lose. Democracy has become: How do we get our side to win, because we think we’re better than you guys. Finding good solutions depends on the intention to get together to find something that you can agree on, instead of demonizing each other and not remembering that underneath it all, your political beliefs and my political beliefs are just strategies to meet needs, and at that level we have the same needs.”
How can we change that?
“I would say it’s important to realize that it is actually possible to listen to someone without agreeing with him. A lot of people get that mixed up. They think, ‘If I’m going to really listen and take in your view of the world, that means I give up mine and I lose, or that means I’m agreeing with you.’
“I have learned that when people feel heard, solutions can arise. Perhaps our political systems are not set up to listen to each other right now, but that could change. My hope is that there could be an opening for the idea of helping one another with difficult conversations. Politicians could use the people around them to help them prepare for debates and not react in the same way over and over again. They could think about ‘What are my needs?’ and ‘What could be going on for that other person when they’re proposing this thing that seems preposterous and ridiculous?’ That could help politicians to go into a political conversation in a more open way.
“It’s a problem that we always want to stick to what we’re saying; it’s very rigid. But if we can get let go of that, of some attachment to an outcome, a meeting could become much more productive. We have to start empathizing and hearing each other. More and more, I see that mediation means listening, hearing and holding the tension of opposites together until a solution emerges. I have a vision of a community of people who support each other in internal as well as interpersonal conflicts. We human beings naturally get into conflict, but together, we can always get out of it.”
The Intelligent Optimist is offering a course with John Kinyon about how to mediate your life with nonviolent communication. Click here to find out more.
Photo: Jordan Lebrecht

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