(Adapted from Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict, by Judy Ringer)
Over the spring and summer, I'll be posting favorite stories from my book, Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict. As I mentioned in May and June, each Ki Moments post through Aug. 7, will contain a new story, full of practices and helpful hints.
Choosing My Self: Transforming Resistance
All things change when we do.
– Kukei, Eighth-Century Zen Master
I keep two little pieces of paper taped to the telephone in my office. One says “Center,” the other “Breathe.”
These two reminders were facing me as I picked up the handset to call the customer service department of a nationally recognized banking institution. My mother has a loan with the bank and had tried to get their service department to send me duplicate statements every month. For many reasons, she likes me to know what’s going on in her financial life, and I receive statements from a variety of companies on her behalf. Mom told me she had called the bank twice with no success. I decided to take matters into my own hands.
After some time and confusion over my request, Eva, the customer service rep, said I would need to send them a power of attorney for my mother along with a written request. Then they would send the monthly statement to me instead of sending it to my mother. I said, no, I wanted a duplicate. I wanted us both to get a statement. She said that was impossible.
It’s an understatement to say that customer service is one of those subjects that can trigger uncentered behavior in me. If I think that I’m being treated poorly or that the company should be able to accommodate me and won’t, I can lose my temper very quickly. This was one of those times.
I was flabbergasted. I could not comprehend that an institution of such quality and size could not handle this simple request.
I told Eva how amazed I was since, in my view, I was asking for such a small service. It was ridiculous that they could not manage what others handle easily enough. I could tell I was getting nowhere, except increasingly frustrated. I also sensed that Eva was becoming resistant on the other end of the phone line. If I kept pushing, one of us would eventually hang up and both of us would stew in our own juices—for who knows how long.
To injure an opponent is to injure yourself.
To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.
– Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei, Founder of Aikido
A Useful Question Is Worth a Thousand Words
I may have caught sight of my telephone reminders or maybe I just came to my senses—literally. I didn’t like the way I felt—body, mind, or spirit.
I took a deep breath to center myself and asked, “So what can we do?” And I was quiet.
Eva said, “Well, I don’t know, because data management says they can’t send more than one statement a month. It’s all on computer. I wish I could.”
Whew—what a feeling. My whole body relaxed.
I was now talking to a person. I also felt Eva relax, and I knew whatever happened next would be okay.
I said, “You sound frustrated. I’m probably not the only person who’s called with this kind of request.”
And, of course, I wasn’t. As it turns out, she gets these calls daily and doesn’t like being blamed for something she can’t control. She’d love to oblige. But her pleas for help to data management always fall on deaf ears. I asked if there was anything I could do. She said writing a letter to the director of servicing might help, and I said I would. In the meantime, I asked if she could send a copy of this month’s statement. “Of course, I’d be happy to do that,” she said. We were friends now, helping each other out.
So I wrote the letter and copied Eva. I never heard back from the bank, but that’s all right. My challenge was not what I thought it was that day. As I removed myself from winning the contest, I realized that the prize was not that important. Eventually the bank will straighten out its software problems, and in the meantime I know that when I need a statement, I can call Eva. We have a connection.
Aikido masters say that opposing an attack directly feeds it. You may stop the other person temporarily, but you don’t stop his or her intention to attack.
— Andy Bryner and Dawna Markova, Ph.D., An Unused Intelligence
Listen and Learn
Resistance is not one-sided. It doesn’t cause itself.
It’s a response to something—an idea, a request, a belief. The more I pushed for my way, the more Eva pushed back. To reduce resistance, I let go of the need to get my point across, valid though it was from my perspective. As soon as Eva felt the pressure lessen, she could relax and mentally and emotionally move to a new place. It’s critical to understand that while she was engaged in fighting me, she couldn’t actually change her position because she was busy protecting herself. But the minute I gave up my need to make her change, she had the freedom to do it on her own.
Is there a situation like this in your life?
To alleviate the pressure, check out what’s going on for the other person. Say something like “What can we do here?” or “Tell me how you see it.” Wait and watch what happens. Her physiology and attitude will change, and you’ll sense a lightening of the friction between you. Plus, if you’re sincerely interested, you’ll learn a lot. Truly listening requires you to drop your agenda momentarily. This isn’t easy, but it’s your key to transforming resistance into something more valuable.
In The Dance of Connection, author Harriet Lerner writes that in difficult conversations the task is not to “be yourself” but to “choose your self.”
There are many selves inside each of us. When we take action, we want to call on the self that speaks for the values we hold and the virtues we subscribe to, not the self that is reactively aggressive or acquiescent. Finding that self takes practice and intention. Difficult situations and challenging individuals become opportunities to choose with awareness.
People ask me what is needed in order to resolve the difficult issues facing this country and this planet. I think we need to resolve our own personal conflicts first, with loved ones, co-workers, and acquaintances, and within ourselves.
The problems are not “out there” nor is the power to resolve them “out there.”
Both the problems and the power to resolve them reside in each and every one of us.
Practice: Transforming Resistance
Is there a person in your life whom you are resisting?
Try easing the tension between you by asking him/her how they sees things. The problem may turn out to be a gift in disguise.