There is a famous Jewish story about rabbis arguing vehemently about a particular law. They become so irrational in their anger and self-righteousness, they ask the river, trees and walls to perform supernatural acts in order to prove their own conviction. In a final act of bravado, they call upon the voice of God to support a particular rabbinic position. What a shock it is when God’s voice indeed descends from the heavens! But, God does not say what they expect. Instead, God says, “Both these and these are the living words of God!” Both sides of a conflicted argument, both diametrically opposed views, are True.
This story informs the work I do. When working with parties in conflict, I remind myself that everything I am hearing is true. Even when I have a strong suspicion people are consciously lying, I know they are still telling the truth. How is this possible? I simply ask myself why people might lie. Perhaps they are so worried their true selves will not be seen they need to embellish so the feelings are evident. Perhaps they believe so strongly in the truth of their position they need to distort the facts to make the truth come alive. Rather than concentrating on what might be a lie, I try to hear the truth people are telling. I reflect this truth back to them to make sure I have diagnosed it correctly and to show them their truth can be seen.
I can then move on to the most delicate, challenging, and exciting aspect of conflict work. I hold within me the truths I hear in the room – the diametrically opposed, often combative, conflicted truths from all the parties.
This is why before walking into a conflicted situation; I take a few minutes to become “empty” (by drawing on my practice of meditation). Not only do I need room in my psyche to hold the stories I am hearing, I also need to ensure my personal feelings do not influence my ability to be neutral and entirely present.
Once I discern the truth in everyone’s story and help people feel seen, parties naturally begin to see each other’s truths. One of my favorite moments in conflict is when a person realizes s/he can see the other side of a conflict without delegitimizing his or her own story. This is the turning point, after which authentic, deep, and valuable conversation can begin.