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Bring a beginner's brain to conflict

Everybody tries to avoid conflict. But conflicts are a given part of life. So, you might as well make the most of conflict. Instead of fearing conflict, see it as a learning opportunity.

The key is curiosity—seeking to understand the other person. In mindfulness training, this is known as having a beginner’s mind.

The phrase refers to an attitude of openness, even eagerness—as if you are encountering something for the first time. Hence the name.

Beginner’s mind is about dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something—or someone—and seeing things with fresh eyes. Remember what it is like when you learn something new/meet someone new. Yes, you are confused because all the information is new, but you’re filled with curiosity—even wonder. That is beginner’s mind.

In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shun Ryu, the Zen teacher explains it this way: “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

It is an attitude you can bring to every experience in life, even the mundane ones—for example, eating an orange. Imagine this is the first orange you have ever seen in your life.

  • Hold the orange in your hand, feeling its roundness, its weight.

  • Run your fingertips along the peel and experience its almost leathery texture, that sea of little pinpricks on the outside of the orange.

  • Pierce the skin of the orange with your thumbnail and feel a little bit of the juice on your fingertip.

  • Slowly peel the orange, taking note of what it feels like when you pull the peel from the fruit—the tugging.

  • Once the orange is peeled, bring it to your nose and take a smell. What image do you get in your mind from the smell of the orange?

  • Take stock of the peeled orange. The differences in color. The small white seeds.

  • Listen closely as you separate the segments of the orange—that nearly inaudible sound.

  • Eat the orange slowly, chewing and swallowing deliberately. How does it feel in your mouth?

Bottom line: Slow down. We tend to glide through life quickly, looking for the most effective path, not fully taking in each unique moment.

Beginner’s mind in conflict

Employing a beginner’s mind is critical in managing conflict. You are only going to get from conflict to collaboration if you drop your assumptions about the other person’s perspective.

Hold off on judgment to allow what is unfolding to take shape. Stay open-minded about the other person, their perspective, and solutions that you may not have considered yet.

People feel seen and valued if you engage with how they are and what they do now, instead of how they have to be in your mind. We tend to move through the world quickly, looking for the most effective path, not fully taking in each unique moment. Avoiding preconceived ideas helps others open up—and share more deeply. This increases the positivity and connection which can lead to a solution everyone can get behind.

In our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration, we call this Perspective Taking. Drop your assumptions about their perspective. Look at them and the position they are taking with a beginner’s mind.

Here are the steps you must take:

First off, put yourself in the other person’s place.

When we are communicating with others, our natural state is to consider our personal goals. In this first step of perspective-taking, we mindfully decide to set aside our own goals. Instead, we purposefully center on the other person.

We let go of our egos. We decide, instead, to engage with their lived experience and the way they are perceiving the world.

What might they be trying to accomplish? What might their motivation be? Approach the conversation with curiosity: “I wonder what is motivating them to think/act like this?”

Try not to make assumptions. Assumptions are based on your own life experience, not the other person’s. Assumptions will prevent you from really hearing the other person and understanding them and getting to a mutually agreeable solution.

Second, reframe the situation

Is there another perspective that could also be true? Challenge your assumptions about what their behavior means.

Reframing is looking at the situation with a new set of eyes—and with a beginner’s mind. It’s asking yourself if you have a clear picture of the situation and of what is happening around you. Could there be another perspective or view?

Third, ask open-ended questions

Ask the person to explain their reasoning. Go beyond the first answer. Ask, “What else?” and “Tell me more.” In fact, ask it three times. The first time you ask, they’re going to give their memorized answer. The second time you ask, they have to dig a little deeper. And when you ask “what else?” the third time, they often have to stop and think. This can get you to the real issue that’s not on the surface, and that can move you from conflict to collaboration.

If you don’t understand, admit it and ask for further explanation.

A good technique is to ask them to give you an example of the point their making. Don’t be afraid to ask for more than one example.

Finally, summarize your understanding

Paraphrase back what you’re hearing the person say. Ask them if you got it right. If not quite, ask open-ended questions and ask for examples until you can agree on the meaning.

Remember, you can acknowledge the other person’s position without agreeing with it by saying, “That’s an interesting point of view” or “Many people have that same position.”

Wrapping up

Curiosity is key in the effort to manage conflict. Approach the other party—and their position—as if for the first time, with a beginner’s mind. This will let you see things more clearly. It will help you see solutions you wouldn’t see if you were focusing on defending your position.

Want more strategies for managing conflict? Check out our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.


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