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on Conflict Resolution
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Nigel Hamilton

Director of the CCPE in London - a psychotherapy training programme to promote the spiritual perspective in psychotherapy.

Nigel is also Director of the London Sufi Centre and the British representative for the Sufi Order International.

Link to: CCPE

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Nigel Hamilton,

A Spiritual Perspective on Conflict Resolution

Conflict forms a major part of our lives. In nature, within our bodies and in our minds, in families, relationships, communities, and of course within and between nations. It is difficult to ignore it.

Conflict is usually seen as destructive and as creating suffering, but this need not necessarily be so. It doesn't have to be prolonged or lead to complete destruction. If the factors and forces involved in a conflict can be understood, then it can be managed, channelled in a way that creates change.

Firstly, however, it is necessary to emphasise that there sometimes is a place for destructive conflict, that is when the time has come for something to end or die. Having said this, there is naturally also a place for the complement to destructive conflict which I would like to call creative conflict. In the latter case, whilst there is pain and suffering, it does involve all parties, who ultimately all contribute to the creation of something new, and perhaps more enlightened. It is a principle which I have tried to incorporate in this very article—combining opposing viewpoints, liberal and conservative, even extreme opposites, so that all the forces in a conflict can be harnessed in a creative whole viewpoint.

I work as a transpersonal psychotherapist, and, as Director of the Center for Counselling & Psychotherapy Education, I am involved in helping people to look at their personal problems and conflicts, but in a way that involves the spiritual perspective, in other words a perspective that assumes there is always a purpose to one's problems and for the existence of conflict in our lives. The purpose being to help us unfold and grow our spiritual potential, become more creative and loving beings. Difficulties in life can open up our perspective on life, they can open our hearts to encompass other people's feelings as well as our own. Victor Frankl*, an eminent existential psychotherapist, speaks movingly of his time in the Jewish concentration camps during WWII, when the darkness and destruction left him with nothing to hold onto but his dreams, his ideals, and a faith in the future. Terrible as it was, stripped of comfort, safety, well-being, beauty, and faced with death all around, his experience opened him to a spiritual depth he had hitherto not known and which at the time changed his life. The suffering he experienced exposed him to a rich inner world, which, rather than serving as a compensation for his deprivation, acted as a real source of hope and inspiration. Later, he was able to make use of his experiences in helping survivors of the holocaust come to terms with their suffering and to create a new life. He became a renowned healer of souls and founded a school of psychotherapy in Vienna after the war.

One of the psychotherapists who trained at the CCPE, who herself was a victim of physical abuse, now works in London with victims of torture from all over the world** (ref Jenny Grut). She helps each person to create their own little garden patch out of barren soil. This creation takes place alongside the telling of their story and may take years. In this context the garden is a symbol of healing and regeneration, whereby the death and suffering of the past, symbolised by the barren soil, can be transformed into something alive and beautiful.

In our western liberal tradition and to the seekers of peace in the world, unpalatable as it may be, there are times when destruction must precede creation. For example, the Roman Empire (which incorporated Greek culture) became a foundation stone for the emergence of a new European culture. However, before a truly German, French or English way of life could blossom once again, the dominance and grip of the Empire had to be broken by the barbarian invasions of Rome. Out of the ashes of that destruction a fertile compost was created in which the seeds of resurrection were sown. When the Renaissance flowered a thousand years later, the freedom of artistic, cultural and scientific expression drew heavily upon the Roman culture and influence.

The extremes of all 'isms' need to be confronted and checked, perhaps even destroyed. Cultish figures such as Jim Jones, Charles Manson spring to mind, along with greater influences such as Adolf Hitler and nazism, Stalin and communism and religious extremism that seek to dominate and control the lives of any non-believer—whether these are Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu or atheistic in origin. All ideologies—capitalism, feminism, and even egalitarianism etc.—when taken to extreme become destructive, and need confronting, sometimes even destroying. Dialogue and negotiation do not solve every problem nor resolve all conflicts. The Second World War illustrated that point most painfully and dramatically.

A Process Model for Dealing with Conflict

The spiritual perspective on conflict and conflict resolution in finding purpose in the conflict can best be illustrated by a process model.

This model has four stages and is used as a guideline in our therapeutic work with conflicting couples, families and conflicts within organisations.

Stage One: The Ego Perspective

At this stage each party has their own point of view. Neither side is prepared to budge from their perspective, their beliefs or their prejudices. This is the stage we are most familiar with. Unless the parties can move on to the second stage, the conflict will become increasingly destructive, eventually leading to a split and possibly irretrievable breakdown of the relationship.

Victor, a semiconductor company manager, is in conflict with Thomas, a computer programmer in charge of production of operations at their factory. Victor expects Tom to be at work at 9am every day, when manufacturing operations start. One morning, Tom is late and turns up at work at 9:35am. Victor is furious, as a newly developed computer chip batch is now late for delivery—and Victor likes to fulfil his pledge to deliver 'on time.' He shouts and rages at Tom, suggesting that maybe Tom is not a suitable employee any more.

Tom tries to explain that he would normally have been at work on time, had it not been for the fact that his neighbour had a flat tyre and he needed to get to an important interview for a job— he has been out of work for some time and this was his first opportunity to get back to work and support his family. Tom is keenly aware of this and instantly responded to his neighbour's plight. Manufacturing, and its priorities, a somewhat impersonal activity, rapidly disappeared from Tom's mind in the face of his neighbour's personal pleas. Tom decides to take a risk and underestimates the amount of time taken to help his neighbour—which he manages to do successfully.

Victor is even more outraged at Tom's explanation, as Tom's obligations and contract say he starts at 9am. Tom feels misjudged, feels he does other things at work to make up the time anyway. He sees Victor as unfeeling and as someone who has no understanding of people.

Stage Two: Empathy Perspective

At this point, the parties suspend their own point of view and simply listen to the other person's feelings, perspective, point of view and acknowledge that that is a point of view too. Each party has a turn to express their perspective and to listen to the other's perspective.



Tom (who is better at empathising), instead of resenting his boss, puts aside his point of view and starts to empathise with Victor's dilemma, being a manager who is responsible for, among other things, delivering on time. The pressures on Victor must be great. Victor is now caught off-guard by this sudden change of perspective in Tom. Usually this sort of incident ends in a big row. Victor softens a little, and sees that it is difficult to be in Tom's position as well, caught between two loyalties.

It is important that sufficient time be given for each party to experience 'being in the other person's shoes or inner world' —even though they may not agree with it or like it. The principle here is that inner change is facilitated by moving on from the ego perspective and experiencing and empathising with a different reality. In addition, the fact that the other party is starting to understand what your problems are and what your perspective is and the realities you face, begins to take you out of your own perspectives, or at least to include another perspective apart from your own.

Stage Three: Appreciating each other's qualities

Once the stage of empathy has been fully explored, the process can move on to having the participants begin to appreciate each other's strengths or qualities. In other words, the participants begin to relate to what I would call the core or essence of each other, even though they may be very different. It's about appreciating the qualitative differences in each other.


Victor is by now beginning to appreciate that Tom has some qualities that he (Victor) does not have much of, i.e. Tom is much more a compassionate man than being just a computer programmer. So Victor begins to appreciate this quality in Tom as a potentially valuable asset too, even though it may detract a little from the manufacturing production of the company. Tom may also begin to voice appreciation of Victor's qualities of being focussed and always honouring what he his contracted to do, to the letter even. At this stage, it is necessary to enable each participant to really see and appreciate that these qualities determine this perspective or point of view. Furthermore, it allows them to broaden their outlook by voluntarily incorporating that perspective (and something of that quality too).

Stage Four: Purpose

Now the purpose of the different conflicting viewpoints can be realised. By incorporating something of each other's quality, a richer mixture, one that is more whole and which can accomplish greater things, is realised.



Victor may decide that Tom is a valuable resource in terms of helping people and he may decide to move Tom into a position in the company where Tom's compassion is used for the benefit of the company. Alternatively, he may decide to accept Tom's occasional 'blips' in time-keeping because he likes Tom for his compassion and knows that Tom is a good computer programmer anyway. Tom may also become more mindful of Victor's responsibilities and have more compassion for Victor—by being on time more often. He may begin to incorporate Victor's qualities of focusing and reliability without necessarily losing his understanding and compassion for others. Basically, by incorporating something of each other's 'richness,' far greater possibilities open up for the company. Equally so, both parties may see clearly that their qualities are better used in very different work areas, for example, Tom may realise that he needs to work in a different type of job, one that incorporates his compassion more. Both Victor and Tom can accept this and agree to part on amicable terms. Either way, the outcome does not have to be destructive.

In a multi-party conflict, such a process will naturally be harder and will take longer to facilitate. However, the principles outlined above are the same and if the four stages are worked through, a very rewarding result will be the outcome.

Often parties get stuck at Stages 1 or 2 and it may be necessary to allow for much more time than what was originally planned for. Negotiations between conflicting countries often take years—many years—before stages one and two are completed. However, once completed, stages 3 and 4 are more quickly realised.

You may well ask in what is the spiritual perspective being represented here? It is precisely in the opening of the human heart to each other, transcending our limited viewpoints, that the possibilities of richer qualities, or 'Divine Qualities,' combining is realised. The relationship is enriched by these qualities and can evolve to be more complex and richer in its nature, much like the development of culture in a city where diverse people meet each other.

Nigel Hamilton

Director of CCPE • Director of the London Sufi Centre • British representative for the Sufi Order International


Contacts and developments since my attendance at the 1999 International Conference on Conflict resolution in St Petersburg, Russia.

It was an honour to have been asked to give the opening address to the 1999 conference in St Petersburg. It was an opportunity to meet diverse groups from around the world, who were interested in working with a resolving conflict. In particular, I was privileged to meet two members of the faculties of Psychology at Tomsk State University, Siberia—Yuri Krassin and the Head of Department. I was then invited to attend and address a conference at Tomsk State University on Noetics and Humanistic Psychology, as the prelude to the opening of a new research department in the faculty. Our contacts with Yuri then progressed to the running of seminars in Moscow. Let's hope this work continues.

*Logotherapy by Victor Frankl

** The Healing Fields. Working with psychotherapy and nature to rebuild shattered lives by Jenny Grut and Sonia Linden. Published by Frances Lincoln 2002.

Link for CCPE: Center for Counselling & Psychotherapy Education

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Editors note:

Steve Olweean invites visitors to this segment to share their comments with us. Your insights about conflict resolution, compassion, cross cultural harmony and creative problem solving are important in creating a world of harmony and concilliation..

Thank you for your participation.
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