Humankind has always been a hurting race. We are a race in which individuals and groups hurt and get hurt by others. Sometimes, we are unaware that we are hurting others, and sometimes we are quite aware that we are doing so. Sometimes we are culpable of the hurt we cause, and sometimes, we are not. In this regards, I have come across two sayings which capture the situation very expressively: “Hurt people hurt people” and “We often do unto others what was done unto us”.
When one party hurts another, a vicious cycle may be born which then flows across time, space, and generations. This might involve an individual family or an entire population. To an outsider who is not personally (and emotionally) involved, it can easily appear as though the parties to the conflict are trapped in an “emotional bubble” that defies reason, logic, clear thinking, or effective decision.
In such a world, merely existing side by side with a certain person or group can be a deeply emotionally trying process. Interacting is much harder. Negotiating is almost impossible.
It is hard to negotiate when I don’t even see the other as being fully human. I am of the opinion (and I may well be wrong in this) that nothing tests a person or group’s willingness to negotiate, or their mastery of negotiation as much as negotiating with those who have harmed, hurt, or humiliated them or those they know or love. These negotiations reveal our deepest own insecurities, vulnerabilities, and antipathies. Often, each side is fully – logically and rationally – convinced they are right and the other is wrong. They perceive their respective actions and behaviors as being benign and innocent and perceive the other’s as being filled with malice and dripping with guilt. Far too often, right and wrong don’t even figure too much. The focus and effort to hurt the other takes over and overwhelms every other consideration.
Hurt people who hurt others can manifest in the most diverse of ways: war, genocide, family feuds, demagoguery, gossip, organizational politics, mob justice and mob violence, emotional (or verbal, physical, or psychological) abuse, sibling rivalry, love triangles, close relationships that disintegrate into acrimony and blame, marriages that end up in court, class warfare and class struggle, and more. To all this, when we add the consideration that we humans are capable and willing to pervert every good and noble human reality into a means and cause for strife, division, and dissension – education, knowledge, wealth, power, fame, position, physical strength or beauty, gender, religion, age, history, access to resources, human rights, economic or military strength, ideology etc. – the picture that emerges is one that is monstrous and ugly.
How does all this arise?
I don’t know! Tracing the roots of all these are deep waters into which I dare not step. It’s easy to come up with simplistic answers of humans being bad and rotten through and through, or good who have chosen to go bad. It’s easy to trace the effects to a traumatic childhood, or to mental ill health, or to emotional damage. It’s easy to mention the impact of ideas that reduce the human person to a “thing”. We might locate a traumatic event that affected a person deeply and caused some physiological damage which spilled over to behavior. All these have their place. But none of them, singly, can capture the full complexity of the human person.
Complex questions often have complex answers. The simple answers that might be put forward are the fruit of engaging complexity, not running away from, or minimizing it. I cannot adequately understand, much less explain how some people end up as psychopaths and sociopaths; how siblings end up as sworn mortal enemies consumed by desires of revenge; why adults harm, maim, and deform children; or why people kill in the name of God. The more I study, reflect, and observe these things, the more I come to the conviction that no single explanation suffices – regardless of who proffers it.
Many wake up to, and live in, a very hostile world, daily
Innumerable people are under tremendous psychological pressure from the moment they wake up till the moment they fall into an uneasy and fitful sleep, daily. Too many lives are totally devoid of peace, serenity, or harmony. It is not surprising at all that this spills over in many ways into the lives of others. Every mob is composed of people who are venting their frustration – regardless of whether who or what they vent their frustrations on are actually responsible for such frustration. It is also not surprising that people seek and use numerous ways to compensate for this lack of joy, peace, meaning, happiness, fulfillment, or harmony. If you have a boss, peer, subordinate, client, vendor, business partner, or family member who is living such a life, you will be exposed to the effects of these raging storms. If you are a person who experiences such inner turmoil, those who live, work, and interact with you are not shielded from its effects.
The perception of a hostile world is something that all of us can easily fall prey to. Such a perception can profoundly affect your decision making and judgment, and mine. A hostile world is filled with threats. Survival becomes paramount.
Such a world is one in which
- Power gives us a sense of worth, security, or emotional/psychological comfort
- Our self-image gets a boost only at the expense of others
- We must wear masks to hide our vulnerabilities, project a certain image, or hide our deficiencies or insufficiencies
- Forgiveness is seen as a sign of weakness
- The wounds left on us by those we love (or the wounds we leave on them) create thick and impregnable walls to develop between us and them
- “Winning” is all that counts. If “winning” is not possible, the least acceptable is “not losing”.
- “Adversary” means “adversary/threat/enemy/rival/opponent”
- The concept of a “respected opponent” who remains both respected and an opponent without being seen as a threat seems to be an oxymoron
- The best of us easily fall into the WIIFM mindset and exhibit WIIFM behaviors
- Differences are unsettling and threatening
- Fear of others, their motives, their intentions, their basic goodness etc. is a dominant force
- Individuals and entire populations live trapped in and by the past – and all this means in terms of suspicion and baggage that is faithfully transmitted from one generation to the next
Time, willingness, and openness to healing and growth
When people harm us, it is normal for us to experience an emotional reaction. Such emotional reactions alert us to danger, and help us protect ourselves. It takes time to heal, for emotions to rage and then become calm, for us to grieve our losses, and then accept and embrace them, and for the memory to perceive the same reality differently. We cannot force or hasten the process.
We must never underestimate the power of habit and conditioning. We must also never use habit and conditioning as a crutch, a trap, or an excuse. It takes time to heal but it also takes personal responsibility, openness and willingness. It’s easy to get trapped in and by the past. But we must leave it, and progressively let go of it. This leaving and letting go can only occur at our own pace. It cannot happen until we actually begin to perceive and interpret it differently. When we are able to do that, our emotional reactions begin to change.
Few of us will have as dramatic a life as Nelson Mandela. I have often be fascinated by his words – which I also found quoted in this article titled “Ubuntu and Forgiveness: Keys to Living an Abundant Life”:
“As I walked out the door toward my freedom I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind I would still be in prison.”
Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” makes for gripping reading and introduces us to a normal human being who underwent a transformative experience over time until he stopped seeing his oppressors as the enemy. Without compromising and without giving in, he slowly humanized himself in their eyes and came to see them as fully human, in his own. Then, he was able to see them as equals and treat them as his “respected opponents”.
What can you and I do?
In certain situations or for a certain period of time of strife and conflict, there’s not much we can do. Sometimes, the most we can do is to absorb the effects of the brokenness and dysfunction of others. Just as often, we must learn to be patient with our own brokenness and dysfunction. It takes time to stop perceiving those who have harmed, hurt, or humiliated us as “threats” to our peace, happiness, and well-being. No amount of preaching, teaching, or intellectualizing can do this for us. We can’t force or hasten the process. But we can stop impeding the process. The less we feel “threatened” by the events, circumstances, experiences, or people, the more we can engage them. It must be done gradually and compassionately. We must extend such compassion to ourselves and to others. In this way, we will be open to humanizing the other. As we see the extent of our feebleness, foibles, blindness or ignorance, we will see that the other is also not immune to such things. They may or may not accept the damage they have done to us. The more we do it, the less their behaviors and responses will matter. We will learn that our happiness cannot be held hostage to the behavior or reciprocation of others.
The necessity of compassion towards self becomes important when we see the hurt we have caused others. Often, there’s little or nothing we can say or do that will reverse or undo the hurt. Of course we must satisfy – in whatever way we can and is appropriate – the demands of justice and truth. But we will encounter the human limits that cannot be crossed on the basis of our willingness or desire to set things right.
A crucial decision: Should I negotiate or not?
Very often, we must continue living, working, or interacting with those who have hurt us, or with those we have hurt. Other times, in order to move on with life, we might have to have one last negotiation – before setting out on our respective journeys. At such moments, the question “Should I negotiate or not” becomes acute. There’s no easy answer and it is always a question of exercising sound judgment.
I of course have a professional bias towards choosing negotiation as the first, second, and third course of action. And yet, I recognize that there are some situations in which negotiation is not feasible, or even advisable. Some people must experience the pain and the cost of not negotiating in order to feel drawn to the negotiation table. Some people are so deeply conditioned by their decisions, habits, perceptions, and interpretations that building vision becomes possible only after they and their near and dear ones experience the pain they inflict on others. But these situations are few and far between.
It is also important to recognize that there are situations in which a person may feel that the decision of whether or not to negotiate is out of his/her hands. This is an illusion. The fact that others are unwilling to negotiate must not lead us to thinking that we are constrained to either negotiate or stay away from negotiation. We might choose to build their vision of pain in order to bring them to the negotiation table. But we must never believe that certain problems are of such a nature that their very nature precludes negotiation.
The problems that come between people or that are created on the basis of the behaviors, activities, and decisions of one or both of them must be identified, engaged, negotiated, and solved. In such situations, the ability to negotiate a valid 5-point agenda is indispensable.
When our emotions are raging
In many situations of (protracted) conflict, it is a lie to say or believe that one party was or is wholly responsible for what has gone wrong or is going wrong.
We must be honest with ourselves. In situations and circumstances of hurt and pain, is building a valid M&P an attempt to square a circle? Is it possible to build a valid M&P that is set in the world of those who have hurt or harmed us, and set to their benefit? I know it is not impossible. I also know that you and I will often need help to do so, and to be held accountable to such a valid M&P.
Given that we might be in a state of emotional turmoil and find it hard to commit to a valid M&P, it might help to:
1) Get support from another person who will help you, unflinchingly, to be faithful to your valid M&P.
2) Take it in small steps – one decision at a time.
3) Envision what is a threat and what is not, and distinguish between both.
4) Recognize your own contribution to the problem.
5) Negotiate baggage unflinchingly.
6) Negotiate an agenda.
7) Negotiate on the basis of a valid M&P. (More on this, below.)
We can use the help of a third party to negotiate for a bit more time – until we are able to start making effective decisions. Building a valid M&P that is set in the adversary’ world and to the adversary’s benefit, and seeing the adversary as our “respected opponent” is, perhaps, the initial hill that must be climbed. We can’t do it by gritting our teeth and forcing ourselves on the basis of will power alone.
The effort to build a valid M&P is a mark of the utmost realism. It also requires courage. Even if the negotiation involves each party going his or her separate way, a valid M&P gives us the strength, focus and resolution to make all the decisions required to do so.
The best gift you can give yourself and your loved ones
Lots of alternatives to negotiation exist. I hope you won’t be shocked if I state that killing, maiming, blackmailing, or hurting the other, are some such “options”. It goes on uninterruptedly, all around us. Other options include escalating the conflict with threats, counter-threats, ultimatums, displays of power, acts of intimidation and more. We can scream, shout, play to the gallery, or cast aspersions on their good names, or assassinate their characters. We can demonize the other. None of these requires any special skill or ability. Very ordinary people demonstrate a capacity to do all this and more. What does take skill, ability, maturity, insight, emotional calm and balance, and more is to build a valid M&P that helps us see the benefits we are bringing to the other side, during the negotiation. Thinking in terms of benefitting someone who has harmed us is something that only the truly courageous can embark upon.
Despite the words, deeds, and example of the Gandhis, Martin Luther King Jnrs, Mother Teresas, Dag Hammarskjolds, Nelson Mandelas, or John Paul IIs of this world, the state of our homes, organizations, and societies is what it is. We can celebrate their lives and feel attracted to their words, deeds, and example. But no other person can walk our own road for us, or make the decisions that we alone can make. This is why the best gift we can give ourselves and our loved ones is to master negotiation.
Negotiation mastery enables us to engage the most difficult problems that arise in human interactions and relationships. It gives us the confidence to engage those problems and to confront our own mistakes as well as our own contributions to those problems. We can learn to gradually overcome our conditioning and not to perceive the other as a threat to our happiness, joy, and well-being. Whether we choose to let go of a dysfunctional relationship or to try and fix the problems that are causing such dysfunction, we won’t simply be resorting to flight, fright, or fight reactions. Gradually, we will be able to remove the labels we stick on the foreheads of others. Negotiation mastery – and the effort to negotiate – will be a unique stage in our personal growth and evolution.
Nelson Mandela famously said: “Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.” Recognizing the prisons we build for ourselves or for others, and then unlocking the doors and stepping out and allowing others to step out is the first step to negotiating. It is the first of many steps to freedom, and though the walk may be long, it always leads to a better place.