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Mindfulness and Empathy in Action – Defusing Tension in Interactions with Others

By New Lotus, Buddhistdoor Mariusz Popieluch
Buddhistdoor Global | 2011-02-21 |
I'd like to focus here on a quite common phenomenon which arises among human interactions which in its most general sense could be referred to as tension. It is not the subject of tension itself and potential conflict that often arises from it that will be the main focus here, but rather how to skillfully defuse it.
Each of us has come across a situation such that whilst interacting with another person an atmosphere of tension emerges, and soon after the conversation loses its focus and it seems that there is some underlying agenda feeding the atmosphere's stressful substance.
The key aspect to realizing that a certain interaction has gone astray is the identification of the causes - firstly the existence of those causes within ourselves and secondly within the situation and our interlocutor(s). This is certainly not an easy feat, but a necessary initial step in defusing the emerging tension. Am I aware, mindful, of the immediate causes of my action? Are they relevant to the topic of conversation, and how does my behavior influence the other? Once we have allowed ourselves this mindful repose, and have found that there may be some uncontrolled emotions driving our interaction, and if such are found and may in fact be contributing to the tension of the situation, we should pause and attempt to control them. If this is achieved and the tension does not subside, it may be the case that either there's something present in the immediate environment causing irritation in our interlocutor or some internal astray emotions may be inadvertently driving their motives for behaving in a certain way and saying certain things. The first step of defusing our inner tension is usually easier to achieve if we're genuinely mindful and motivated by compassion. If the environment or certain external circumstances are the culprit, it may help to make the other person mindful of that possibility. In most cases the existence of an “audience” may cause the interlocutor to prioritize a social image over genuine engagement in the topic at hand. Again this second step is relatively easy if we're truly mindful of the contingencies of the situation. It may be suggested, for example, to continue the debate or the point of apparent contention at some later time. The last and most difficult source of tension to deal with is when it becomes apparent that it springs from the other's ignorance of their internal emotions inadvertently disrupting the tranquility and direction of discourse.
From my of experience I've found dealing with the last option the most challenging and delicate – “defuse” here becomes a fitting metaphor, because if carried out unskillfully tension can explode into conflict. Once it has been established that the cause of tension is most likely channeled through our interlocutor we should avoid making them aware of that directly and explicitly, since the same emotions or thoughts that are the cause of the tension may irritate the person since it is implied they’re ignorant in some respect (in some gross cases the contentious point of discussion may have been just a trigger, a cue for venting of some built up emotions). In most cases the ill-founded emotions result from a blind clinging on to the ego. If we address their nature directly, the ego may resort to reactive and protective tendencies which may be unpredictable and ugly. This is why it is best to maintain a certain emotional status quo in our interlocutor’s emotional state despite its drawbacks, and use subtle ways of changing the subject which often itself is the cause of contention.
Agreement and subtle retreat of our own line of reasoning is also a good healing approach. Naturally the matter may have to be addressed again in the future, but a momentary retreat is certainly beneficial in terms of defusing immediate and present tension (forgive the similarity to legal jargon). Be very careful here not to lead the other to believe that your motive for retreat is based on the conviction that they can’t be reasoned with. This is very important since unskillful retreat can be seen as an offence and may be in fact interpreted as “Yeah, you’re right and I’m wrong - nice one! I’m done talking with you!”. For the sake of a peaceful resolution we should act as if we see our own error (naturally in half of the cases we actually may be in error, but the above method is to be employed when we’re certain that our interlocutors clarity of thought is clouded by destructive causes). This skillful retreat can only be carried out if our own ego is transcended and controlled, because effectively what we’re doing - despite believing or knowing otherwise - is momentarily creating the impression of being the less wiser, where in fact the opposite is the case. This method will be difficult to employ successfully by anyone dominated by their own ego and hence compelled to maintain a certain social image.
It should not be understood that skillful defusing of tension by the above methods is the completed task. If anything it only avoids certain issues whose root causes will have to eventually be addressed directly.

Visit Mariusz's blog here!

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