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Resolving Disagreements

Disagreements are inevitable in any community, and spiritual communities are no different. Often we fall back on familiar processes and our conditioning when disagreement and conflict arise. We become triggered, which means that we do not access the practices and teachings that offer wisdom and compassion for ourselves and for others. There is an alternative: bringing the light of awareness and the skills of our practice together.

07/07/17 03:09:pm

A sangha is an ecosystem, a dynamic web of interactions, practices, ceremonies, people, teachings, and places. Every sangha, in any moment, is a reflection of its history of these processes up to that point. Every sangha is actively constructing the story of its future. Disagreements are an inevitable part of that process, and the way disagreements are discovered, met, and resolved is critical to the health and well-being of the entire ecosystem. This fact may not be obvious to individuals who find themselves involved in the disagreement. But because of the interdependent web of relations in the sangha, the entire sangha is affected by disagreements, whether expressed or submerged. One way to recognize this is to reframe a disagreement or conflict as a situation. That situation includes the entire sangha, and therefore everyone in the sangha, and possibly even some people outside the sangha has a stake in addressing the situation in a beneficial way.

Often, spiritual communities give the impression that disagreement within the community does not exist, or that it is not welcome. And of course we are learning together how to live in harmony with each other and with all beings. But the health and future well-being of a sangha depends on the awareness and skillful resolution of disagreement and conflict. A Zen sangha is not a monoculture with one right path, nor a coercive belief system all members must adopt. To the extent that we discover how to welcome differences and bring liberation and relief from suffering in our community we become better able to provide this in the larger world, where it is sorely needed. So it is very important to recognize the contribution that difference and disagreement makes in the life of the sangha, how it fosters reflection, discernment, and wise action. I’ve written a bit about that in the previous post. 

Here is a suggestion for a process to address disagreement and conflict in a sangha. There are many other models that might be used depending on the specific needs, time constraints, and conditions for a particular disagreement. But I think this one uses the practices and experiences we’ve developed at Appamada, with our focus on relational Zen. It adapts the Conversation Cafe model for our purposes. It takes longer to describe than to practice, so don’t be daunted by the explanation here. These are the steps:

  1. Awareness: The realization that there is a situation in which there is disagreement. 
  2. Discovery: Who is part of the disagreement? Who might also be part of resolving it? This includes not only affected parties, but also neutral counselors or teachers. 
  3. Convening: Bringing those involved in the disagreement, as well as those who might be helpful in resolving it, together. 
  4. Definition: What is the disagreement about? What is the situation? Clarify only the topic, not the positions, at this point. Participants agree to stick to this topic. 
  5. Conversation cafe process:
    • Post the topic where everyone can see it. Clarify it if needed, and remind participants to stick to the topic
    • One minute of silence
    • Round one. Each person will speak in turn for an exact amount of time. The time allotted depends on the number of people and the total time available. One minute to five minutes is typical: five minutes is used when there are only two people. 
    • One minute of silence
    • Round two. Each person speaks in turn for twice the amount of time in round one. 
    • One minute of silence
    • Round three: Open discussion, staying on the topic. Time depends on time available: 15-20 minutes is typical. Check if more time is needed. Use a “silence” object in the center, such as a stone or shell or stick. If the conversation becomes too heated, off topic, or chaotic, anyone may pick up the silence object and all conversation stops. The person then says what he or she has observed. Conversation resumes when the silence object is returned to the center. 
    • One minute of silence
    • Round four: Appreciation. Each person in turn has one minute to express appreciation for something that another person has said. 
    • Conclusion: Open discussion. Is the disagreement resolved? What is still needed for satisfaction? Is there a vision for future well-being for the participants and the sangha?


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