The Anti-Antagonist: Conflict and gratitude

Wednesday, 20 June 2012 07:28 AM Written by  Ann Begler

20120620_thanks_photocom140258756_150A couple of months ago I was working with a family that was embroiled in conflict and everyone seemed to be a real place of entrenchment. One person would speak and it seemed no one could let him get out more than a sentence before another person jumped in, then everyone was in the “free for all.” Every time someone spoke the focus was on what someone else in the family did that was wrong or didn’t make sense. The room was full of personal judgments ...

As I sat with this family I found myself seeing them as a whole unit, not merely letting my focus only be on the person speaking. I saw how much two brother’s looked like each other, how one daughter seemed to have her father’s eyes, and another laughed like her mom. I noticed that at one point the parents caught each other’s eye and I saw their heads shake -- as though they were trying to figure out what was happening. I knew from some preliminary information that this family had a breadth of experience in the world.

Finally, I looked up and said something like, “before we keep talking I’d like to learn a little more about the ways you’ve interacted with each other in the past. Would you take some time to talk with me about the best family vacation you ever had? They looked a little confused, but after some struggles with reluctance, several family members began to describe a few of their times away. The stories started to bring a laugh or two and the conversation shifted, for just a short time, to some of their highlight moments. When the talk hit a lull I said, “ Before we go back to trying to think through some possible approaches to the issue that brought you to meet with me, I’d like you to take 120 seconds, two minutes, to just feel grateful for some of those wonderful times you’ve had.” When we went back to the difficult issue, I found everyone with more patience; more of an ability to listen and the climate in the room lacked the fierce judgment that had been so dominant.

The experience I had with that family brought home, once again, the vital role gratitude can play in our lives. So often when we find ourselves in a conflict with another person, a group, an organization we also find that there is some deeper source of conflict that rests within us. When that internal conflict grows it fills up our internal space and, at times, it seems to be all we can feel, see, hear and experience.

I find that gratitude is a force that has the power to disarm conflict. When we allow ourselves to find a reason for gratitude our sense of gratitude is what fills our internal space. Conflict may not disappear, but the location of conflict and thus our experience of it, changes.

Not only does gratitude work in an isolated circumstance. The practice of gratitude actually has a way of re-patterning our brains, shifting what stands out and changing our experience. When that happens we are different in our approach to a conflict and in the way we manage conflict when it occurs.

Many people who practice mindfulness meditation or other forms of mindful reflection have turned to a practice of gratitude as a way of finding support to bring a more positive spirit to the complex world that surrounds all of us. One way to create a gratitude practice is to simply keep a gratitude journal. Make a commitment to record one thing each day for which you’re grateful. It can be a simple as getting up early enough to see the sunrise to getting a bonus at work. Another way to track gratitude is to merely keep a little recording device and, again, each day record one thing that brings gratitude. Here’s a link to a person who developed a gratitude practice by taking one photo a day of something for which she was grateful. She speaks on this video about the way in which a practice of gratitude changed her life.

I’ve never been much of a gambler. However, I’m willing to bet that committing to a daily practice of gratitude will strengthen your connection with yourself and with others. It won’t make all conflict you face disappear. I’m convinced, though, that it will change your relationship with conflict and the way conflict affects your life. I see it making a difference in my own life and the lives of many I love and many with whom I work as a mediator, coach and consultant. So, in this moment, I’m grateful for the person who first told me that gratitude could be a practice.

(Top photo: Julie Hagan/Getty Images)

The Anti-Antagonist is a personal opinion column by Ann L. Begler, founder and principal of the Begler Group, a Pittsburgh firm providing services in mediation, advanced facilitation, conflict coaching and organizational development. You can e-mail Ann via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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