Jane Gignoux has over 30 years experience in designing and teaching courses in communication skills. She lives and has a private consulting practice in New York City.
IN HUMAN RELATIONSHIP, we need to explore what I call "the unthinkable" if we are going to create new possibilities on which to base our behavior. In other words, we have to think about what we don’t want to think about – "the enemy." We need to transport ourselves right into the "enemy" camp and examine it thoroughly, walk around the territory, get to know it as a native.
To illustrate how this premise actually works, I am going to describe some recent events in two of my relationships where I was able to do just that. I transformed two relationships in conflict by thinking the unthinkable.
RESOLVING CONFLICT IN PARTNERSHIP
The first case involves a business partnership. Partner relationships are especially difficult to deal with when the principals disagree because the fabric and content of the partnership often cannot be divided. Marriage is an obvious example of a partner relationship where separation can be extremely difficult when it develops into an adversarial conflict. I know this all too well because about eight years ago I was involved in a drawn-out painful marriage separation which left many scars on all concerned. At the time, my husband and I were doing all we could to present our different points of view, protect our interests and survive. There was no agreement about how to operate, no common ground. We were each behaving on the basis of what we believed was possible, how we thought it was supposed to be, and this was based on our cultural conditioning. What is more, our legal advisors supported this process. As a result of that experience, I resolved never to go through such an adversarial conflict again.
In the intervening years, I have been working on understanding the basis of communication and behavior as well as developing new methods to deal with potential conflict. In the course of this work I formed a corporation with an associate to develop a communication system. We agreed that my associate would own 60 percent of the company and I would own 40 percent. Once again I found myself in a partner relationship. For about two years we worked well together, each contributing different knowledge and skills toward our common goal. The company, while developing steadily, was not yet producing any net income. At this point my partner, for personal financial reasons that dated back to before we formed our association, found he had to withdraw from any active participation in our joint venture. While I was sorry to have him withdraw his formidable talents, I understood the decision. A problem arose, however, when he refused to relinquish his majority share of the company.
Business partnerships are like marriage partnerships in that their dissolution can be complicated, and if there is no agreement about how to disagree, the relationship can become destructive. For my part, I was determined not to repeat the experience of my divorce. I had sympathy with my partner’s situation, but I did want to continue with the work we had started because I thought it had value. I was not interested, however, in investing more time and money in a company whose assets and liabilities were not in my control. For some time our negotiations were unsatisfactory and went nowhere. It was clear to me that the trust we had developed had dissolved and communication had closed down. I began to think it was hopeless. From my point of view I was just asking to continue my work; what could be more reasonable?
Because I was determined not to repeat my earlier experience, I knew there had to be a better way – and this belief kept me searching, probing for new possibilities. It wasn’t until I let go of my point of view and began to examine my partner’s that these new possibilities started to take shape.
I asked myself a series of questions:
- What is really going on with him?
- What does he truly want?
- How can I help him get what he wants?
- What are the beliefs underlying his behavior?
- How does he view me in this situation?
- What would it take for him to feel that he had won?
When I looked at the problem from this angle, I thought of several possible resolutions which, from my point of view, were "unthinkable." They appeared so remote that no reasonable person would consider them possible. Among them was the notion that the partner who was willing to assume the debts of the company would also take on all its assets. While this resolution seemed highly unlikely to me at the time, it is precisely what eventually happened – and at the suggestion of my former associate!
In order for that resolution to take place, I had to do several things. First, I had to let go of wanting to protect my interests. Then I had to stay centered and wait – I had no idea how long resolution would take. Finally, I had to make sure that my own fear of loss was not governing my thinking, feelings and actions. At no time did this process involve trying to change my partner. The important thing to note is that in the end we both got what we wanted without damaging one another. And I was able to avoid creating the enemy by exploring the unthinkable.
SEEING THROUGH THE EYES OF A SON
The second example of resolving a seemingly hopeless dilemma through thinking the unthinkable involved my younger son. Relationships with our immediate family, parents and children, are often the most difficult to keep in balance. We have so many expectations about how we want them to be, and we are inextricably connected to one another not only by choice but for life, no matter what. Parents and children can have a tough time learning how to relate to one another lovingly and freely.
I am divorced and live alone in New York City. Paul, the youngest of our four children, lives with his father and stepmother outside the city. Paul and I have gone through different phases in our relationship over the years – at times we have been very close and able to communicate easily and deeply; at other times there has been separation. While he was away at college we had what I thought was a good, open relationship. After he moved back with his father he became more and more remote from me. He did not respond to letters, phone calls or invitations for proposed visits. This troubled me and I wondered if he was all right, but his father reassured me that he was fine. At this time he was 20 years old.
Finally, one afternoon, Paul and I had a lengthy telephone conversation in which we were very honest with one another. He told me that he did not want to come to see me where I lived because he was not comfortable there – and he would not visit me at the home of mutual friends because he was not comfortable there either. In fact, he had no time at all to meet me anywhere for several weeks. He concluded by saying that, in his view, he had nothing in common with me and was building a new life for himself.
I let him know that no matter what he did or didn’t do, I loved him and would always want to see him. In other words, my love for Paul was unconditional. I also told him that it was particularly hard for me to be cut off from one of my children in this way because I had been through the experience of having my mother die when I was four years old. It was a long and painful conversation. When I hung up, I felt shaky and hopeless about the situation. I felt that Paul was getting what he wanted in the relationship and I was not.
Because I believe that such a hopeless and helpless state is a result of looking at only part of the problem, the first thing I said to myself was, "There has to be another way to view this!" Then I asked, "What is unthinkable for me in this relationship? What am I afraid of?" Answers came very quickly. What was unthinkable for me was to abandon this child, to have nothing to do with him. It was unthinkable and scary, because that had been my experience when I was four years old and my mother had gone away without telling me she wasn’t coming back. But did I have to project that old experience onto this present situation? Did it, in fact, apply at all? If I listened carefully to what Paul had been telling me, I could hear that he was asking to be left alone, to be abandoned by me. How could I reconcile that with my beliefs about how it could and ought to be?
Once again, as in the situation with my business partner, I had to be willing to look at the problem from my son’s point of view and drop my cherished notions about what was essential for me. I remember sitting at the desk thinking about these things. At first it didn’t appear to be a very promising exercise, but it was better than succumbing to the feelings of hopelessness. I thought about my other children and how I had always tried to support them in going where they needed to go in their lives. How could I apply this principle to the current situation and help my son achieve his goal? How could I, in other words, make friends with the idea of abandonment?
As I ventured into what felt like "enemy" territory and began looking around for new possibilities, my imagination began to come alive. Suddenly I saw a picture of my wonderful, beloved son going off on a journey to the Himalayas in search of truth. (I noticed how my mind naturally chose the most remote part of the world, where maintaining communication with one’s family would be most difficult!) I saw Paul traveling from village to village, seeking, discovering, learning. It occurred to me that it might take years for him to complete this journey, but it was what he wanted and needed to do – and that was of primary importance. While I knew I would not be able to contact him at such a great distance, I was proud of him for undertaking such a lofty endeavor.
As this increasingly vivid picture was forming in my mind, I noticed that a great surge of energy was welling up inside of me. Prior to this mental exercise I had felt drained of energy, but now I shot out of my chair and plunged into productive activity.
As I look back on the process that allowed this transformation to take place, I realize that I had to be willing to get inside Paul’s skin, see the world through his eyes, think with his brain, feel with his senses. In doing that, I once again stopped trying to promote my point of view and was thus able to explore what, up until then, had been out of bounds, enemy turf.
When I called Paul two weeks later and told him of my vision of his journeying to the far-off Himalayas in search of truth, I could hear a great sigh of relief from his end of the phone. I also let him know that I would make no attempt to contact him at any time, but when he was ready to "come home," I would be happy to welcome him. That was a year and a half ago. I have seen him briefly, during Christmas holidays, twice since then. While both meetings were pleasant, it was clear to me that he is still on his journey, and I can respect that. I don’t pretend that it is always easy to maintain the image of supporting his sacred journey, but when I do I am happier, freer and more at peace.
A SHIFT FROM "ENEMY" TO UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
I could cite numerous other examples of similar shifts in perception that produce feelings of well-being where previously there had been none. Out of my own personal experience, and from working with many people in a wide variety of situations where communication was blocked, relationships were in conflict, and trust was not present, I have become convinced that whatever the circumstances, the process works.
It is hard to establish and hold to this level of unconditional love in human relationships because we have few models in our daily lives on which to draw. We simply have not been taught to do it. Certainly my parents’ generation were heir to the belief that parenting involved controlling, correcting and molding the behavior of children. They believed in a model that represented humankind as basically flawed, unable to function independently or without conflict, needing authority and control. If we believe that is how human beings relate to one another, we will be proved right. If, on the other hand, we are willing to entertain other possibilities, to create new models, we will see very different results.
As we dissolve blocked communications through letting go of our belief in the enemy, we are creating a new model. I submit that part of this new model must include the belief that WHEN WE HONOR DIVERSITY, WE HAVE NO ENEMIES.