In my work with clients I always strive to offer a customized and needs-based approach. I believe that no two situations are the same and each mediation or facilitation requires its own style and process.
Depending on clients’ needs and preferences, I sometimes like to invite them to experiment with a somatic approach to conflict and communication. This approach is influenced greatly by my experiences with mindfulness practice. It seeks to simultaneously cultivate an open mind, an active heart and an alert physical presence. Central to this approach is the understanding that mind, heart and body are not separate entities and that conflict has a somatic dimension (that is, it can be sensed clearly in the body). This dimension is influenced by our thoughts and emotions and, conversely, influences our thoughts and emotions. This is why bodywork can be so useful in cultivating a more effective conflict behavior.
When people feel triggered by someone during a conflict or tense conversation, strong reactions can quickly occur. Anger, judgment, accusation, outrage, or immediate appeasement and withdrawal are among the conflict patterns that many of us repeatedly experience as if by some self-executing, internal program. Somatic practices such as mindful breathing and walking, body scans and physical movement, especially if practiced regularly, can help by inserting a “wedge of awareness” into these internal programs.
The wedge of awareness creates the space to:
- sense important signals our body is sending us, e.g. of exhaustion and overextension, indicating that we may need a break or to otherwise care for ourselves, and
- become conscious of our conflict patterns, evaluate if they are actually serving our interests and possibly replace them with other responses.
For clients wishing to soften their conflict behavior and to engage more cooperatively, it can also be helpful to practice “activating the heart,” which is to say, to direct their purposeful attention toward generating an empathic (“heartfelt”) connection with themselves, with the conflict, and, if possible, with the other party. Doing so trains the “empathy muscle” until it becomes strong enough to offer a real alternative to more established conflict patterns involving anger, indignation or accusation.
Conflict as Opportunity
Last but not least, part of the approach I’ve described here is my belief that conflict is not only a threat, but also an opportunity — an opportunity to stop and listen, to ask questions and be curious, to sense into our bodies and explore our hearts, to get to know ourselves better and ultimately to find ways to meet people’s ever-changing needs. It is my very personal wish to use this opportunity with respect and care, long before conflicts escalate.
How can we live together peacefully and sustainably on planet Earth? This question has occupied me most of my life, and it has taken me on a journey through world, nature and self.
It has taken me from my native Germany to Los Angeles, where I worked as a television journalist and later studied Regional and International Development at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
It has taken me on a year-long voyage that started in Istanbul and, after winding through India and China, ended in the American Midwest, where I became an organic farmer and permaculture designer.
It has taken me to Kansas City, where I co-founded Cultivate Kansas City and spent eight years working with diverse urban communities to facilitate a dialog about growing food in cities and sustainable urban design.
It has taken me to the South of France, where I lived for two years in Plum Village, the monastery of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Besides studying meditation, I helped guide the establishment of Happy Farm, where mindfulness and Earth stewardship are cultivated alongside organic vegetables. And in 2016, after nearly 28 years abroad, it has taken me back to Germany and the Prinzessinnengarten Kollektiv Berlin under the heading of “healing and seeing anew.”
I have worked with refugees in Berlin and Kansas City. As an adjunct professor I have taught sustainable urban design at the University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), discovered the healing power of transformative mediation in a restorative justice program and volunteered in a prisoner rehabilitation program, walking with inmates the often difficult journey toward self-acceptance and self-love.
In Berlin I completed training to be a Certified Mediator. This is in addition to similar training I received at the Kansas City Center for Conflict Resolution in the USA in 2014. I am thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to realize my long-held intention to contribute to greater understanding and peace in the world. In these difficult times, I really cannot think of a more meaningful challenge for myself.
And so I hold out hope that we will eventually adopt ways to live peacefully and sustainably on this planet. Amid news of ecological breakdown, climate change, political turmoil, refugee crises, pandemics, economic insecurity and war, I am encouraged that simple practices such as mindfulness, meditation and new ways of handling conflict can change the way we speak and listen to one another and to the Earth. With practices like these we can learn to be happier and kinder; we can gradually transform the pain within us; and we may stop chasing that which we don’t need, leaving more for those in need.