Issues of conflict resolution and peacemaking can also be addressed as somatic processes. Conflict is usually approached through content or high level behavior. Content is the actual substance of the dispute, the conflicting desires or goals of the different parties; and high level behavior consists of the words or actions that are being used to create or negotiate the conflict. However, from my perspective, approaching conflict in the usual manner is like building a building from the second story upward.
The building blocks for high level behaviors are the basic behaviors of breathing, posture, and movement, and this is important to consider in conflict resolution. Imagine standing in front of someone who is angry at you. Perhaps he is leaning forward, getting too close, his fists clenched, his face red, his throat tight, his voice harsh and loud. What would you feel? In teaching about conflict, I often have students actually try this with a partner as a movement experiment, and most people find they have rather intense physical reactions.
Experiences in the experiment can vary somewhat, but people commonly report that when they are threatened, they restrict their breath, tighten muscles (often in their shoulders, throat, chest and belly), and contract their posture. Some people experience limpness and collapse, which is a more passive form of contraction.
This contraction results from two elements, communicative mimicry and defensive organization. Part of how we communicate non-verbally is to automatically and unconsciously mimic each other's body states. When we are around someone with a strong feeling, we perceive it, recognize it, and tend to do the physical actions of that feeling in our own bodies. This means that we may feel things that we do not choose to feel or find useful or enjoyable to feel. When we are faced with aggression, we naturally respond with the body state of aggression, and this contributes to the continuation and escalation of aggression.
The defensive organization is to constrict and get ready, either to fight or submit. However, shrinking in tense fear makes people respond weakly and ineffectively to attacks and actually encourages further aggression on the part of the aggressor. Needless to say, limp collapse also is ineffective as a foundation for defending oneself. Hardening with anger makes people respond to the attack in awkward, uncontrolled ways and also encourages escalation of the violence. Both fear and anger reduce the capacity to respond effectively to an attack. In other words, defensiveness is a completely unsatisfactory foundation for effective defending.
Soft strength, openness, and love are the basis for free and balanced movement and effective defense actions. In order to give people this experience and understanding in a brief, practical way, I use the basic exercises I have developed for teaching the body state of power and love. Once they have learned this, I have people to go back to the yelling experiment and see how it feels to be attacked while they maintain the somatic state of openness and fullness. They generally find that staying rooted in open breathing and posture transforms the experience. Rather than tensing or getting limp when they are attacked, people come to the experience strong and open and stay strong and open through it. They do not get overwhelmed by the attack but stay rooted in self-awareness and personal strength. The power people feel is constructed physically but is just as much emotional and spiritual as physical.
People find that staying strong and open vastly lessens the physical and emotional discomfort they experience when they are attacked, and they realize that most of the discomfort they experienced they actually created themselves by their tension or limpness and resistance. They realize also that when they were tense or limp, they were shutting down their awareness of both themselves and their partners, alienating themselves from themselves and from the attacker. Receiving the attacker and the attack in a mind/body state of power, love, and expansiveness, people find that they do not react with fear or anger and that they can continue to experience a calm connection to the attacker rather than feeling an urge to hurt and destroy him or her.
The somatic state of openness and balance is the foundation for resolving conflict and making peace. That state allows us to interrupt the back and forth non-verbal and verbal communication of aggression. It allows us to see our opponent as a human being, a partner. It is on the basis of the somatic state of openness that high level behavior can be convincingly changed. Imagine someone saying the right words about getting along and win/win resolution, all the while emitting physical signals of fear and anger. It would be awfully hard to keep from feeling threatened and threatening. Interrupting that somatic state and replacing it with the somatic state of calmness and friendliness would allow words and actions to be congruent with the body state. Expressing a desire for peace with both low and high level behavior simultaneously is a much better foundation for conflict resolution and peacemaking. And once that foundation is in place, the actual content of the dispute can be addressed with much less aggression and much greater clarity.
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