Jun 3, 2009

Learning to keep an open-mind

It happened again the other day. A very normal conversation turned into a conflict, complete with hurt feelings and raised voices, over a simple misunderstanding. My spouse and I were talking calmly... then suddenly we were fighting. Hours later, after sorting through all the mess, we realized we had made assumptions and had neglected to check what the other meant. Instead of keeping my mind open, listening, and welcoming him in the space he resided, I immediately responded defensively. At that point, I no longer had space within me to welcome him or his perspective. It took a lot of time and effort to reverse what happened so quickly!

What does it take to be "open-minded?" I am currently a student at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. In classes and out, participants in this program talk about peace, conflict, reconciliation every day. While I listen to these conversations, it all seems to make sense. Just when I think I have opened my mind and can deal with any possible conflict constructively, though, something small arises and I cease to think.

In the article "The Role of Identity Reconstruction in Promoting Reconciliation" (Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Helmick & Petersen, ed., 2001), Donna Hicks writes about the process of human development as "increasing equilibrium" between our surroundings and our inner selves. When something disturbs this equilibrium, for example a traumatic experience, uncertainty or instability, or even just too many new things to take in all at once, our ability to learn shuts down and we freeze in a self-protective state. In "learning mode" we can be open to diverse perspectives, ideas, and experiences which may not exactly fit with our inner being. When this learning process stops, however, even the slightest differences appear threatening and a reason for defense.

I see this process at work in myself in my personal relationships. I also experience the difficulty this poses in work through conflict to a point of understanding and even transformation. Dialogue, at this point, plays a key role in creating a space for negotiating. According to Hicks, this negotiation does not simply mean trying to figure out a solution to the issues. At this stage in conflict, we negotiate "the conditions under which one would be willing to open oneself up to new information, information that could change not only one's existing beliefs about the other but of oneself as well."

Reading this, I feel a sense of reassurance. My close-mindedness may not be a fault of my own, but a natural process which has a purpose. Instead, if I can be aware of this shutting down in a conflict situation, I can give myself the appropriate space necessary to figure out what I need to be willing to open up again. I can let myself feel the natural emotions of defensiveness, but wait to act on them until I have appreciated that space.

It looks good in theory now. Can I remember when the learning switch shuts off?

I suppose marriage might be helpful in studying conflict transformation. I will always have many opportunities to practice!


  1. Hello Cheryl,

    Thank you very much for writing about this topic. I am finding this information helpful as I recognize the "shutting down" part very clearly in myself and now I can understand that reaction better. Sometimes when I feel threatened I focus on withdrawing to an inner space where I will start to say Psalm 23 to myself. Many times this has helped me move to a better space with the person(s) I am with. Thanks again. Erna Neufeldt

  2. Oh, my... don't I recognize myself in this too!! Even if I graduated at CMU with a B.A. in Conflict Resolution, the most ironic part is that my husband also took Conflict resolution classes at Menno Simons (back then).

    However, I found comforting that although conflicts arise, we both aim to resolve it, and grow in our relationship through it. Sometimes we are good enough to "calm down" instead of blowing up!