Elections offer an excellent time for reflection, and Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi, a Buddhist monastic who teaches courses on compassion, says we all can do better at handling conflict. She works at the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County and offers several examples — from a barking dog to Measure D — to showcase how we can reduce animosity in our lives.
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Two neighbors, Jesse and Isabel, sit stonily across from each other. They can’t agree about Jesse’s dog.
It barks all night, keeping Isabel up.
Isabel is a first responder in Santa Cruz and works long, stressful hours. Niko, a shepherd mix, has frayed her nerves and made her irritable and fearful she won’t function well at work. Jesse feels it is unfair to keep his dog inside all the time just so he won’t disturb Isabel. Jesse thinks Isabel is exaggerating the problem and should just “get over it.”
For months, their conflict about Niko has been escalating.
It started with Isabel leaving angry notes on Jesse’s windshield. It devolved into shouting matches in the street in front of their houses. Isabel is now threatening to call animal control.
Conflict is an inevitable part of life, and shows up in families, between friends, in neighborhoods and workplaces, and also at the national and global level. It’s here in Santa Cruz on peoples’ yard signs, where I see neighbors’ obvious disagreement on which candidate to choose for supervisor and State Assembly and how to vote on Measure D.
Combine that local angst with the stress we have all felt during COVID-19 lockdowns and the virus’ constant resurgence. Our nation has lost more than 1 million people. Add the economic downturn, our increasingly polarized political environment, the possible overturn of Roe v. Wade, the war in Ukraine, climate change, the unspeakable tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde and our inability to agree on the role of guns in our society. On and on and on …
There is just too much grief we are holding.
We are stretched to our limits.
I first started volunteering for Santa Cruz’s Conflict Resolution Center in the mid-1990s, and moved on to help facilitate the community mediation training for several years. I just returned to CRC last year in the position of training and curriculum specialist. In addition to the CRC trainings, I am a certified teacher of Cultivating Emotional Balance and Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training, both of which inform my work with CRC.
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I worry about our community and about how we handle the conflict and stresses of our days. Lately, I’ve been worried about Measure D and the way it is damaging the fabric of our community.
Tuesday, our choices will come to a head.
We will vote and decide — on Measure D and other measures and candidates. Some of us will be happy. Others will be left with the disappointment of defeat and the answer that inevitably accompanies conflict.
Here’s the thing. We need alternative ways of thinking about and resolving conflicts so they don’t chew us up inside and make us hostile to our families and neighbors.
We can’t solve Ukraine. And our legislators have so far been able to solve gun violence or house everyone who needs a home.
But we can manage the smaller stuff. Like Niko. Like our conflict over which candidate to vote for.
Like Measure D.
When the world seems overwhelming, taking charge of the small conflicts in our lives can be empowering. Uplifting. It makes us more productive — more able to take on the bigger issues.
Unmanaged, the conflict over Niko led Isabel to consider calling animal control, possibly initiating a lawsuit that could dominate many lives for months. Instead, a friend of Jesse’s suggested conflict resolution to try to arrange a mediation as an alternative to court.
A volunteer from Santa Cruz’s Conflict Resolution Center contacted Isabel to explain the process of mediation, and she agreed to give it a try. There is a sliding scale for fees; sometimes it’s free.
The CRC — founded in 1986 — does community and workplace mediation and offers restorative justice alternatives such as victim-offender dialogue and victim awareness education. We just began a neighborhood courts system and offer training in deescalation and conflict management and a 40-hour training for volunteer community mediators.
I have witnessed the magic of mediated dialogue many times. I’ve seen mediation prevent court cases and violence between co-workers, neighbors and families, often about inheritances and shared possessions.
The session between Isabel and Jesse began with high tension.
Both gazed downward, with their arms folded.
Yet, over three hours, the volunteer mediators invited them to talk and open up, using techniques such as reflecting what they heard each other say, asking open questions, and at times reframing their statements.
It sounds easy, but it’s not. We are not used to verbalizing our fears. Especially to people we disagree with. It makes us vulnerable. That is scary.
Isabel explained how much Niko affected her sleep and her job performance. Jesse spoke about his love for his pet, and his wish that Niko have the freedom to stay out in the yard during the day.
Slowly, they relaxed with each other. They uncrossed their arms and began to turn toward each other.
They needed mediated dialogue to start listening to each other, to express their underlying needs, values and the interest that fueled them.
Underlying needs and interests are often invisible — like the part of the iceberg that is under water. What is visible is the position a person takes.
But with some exploration, these needs and interests can surface. When we understand the needs, our position often softens, and the discussion can lead to an agreement that takes everyone’s needs and interests into account.
That’s what happened with Jesse and Isabel. Once they reached that space of mutual respect and understanding, they could talk. They could also come up with a plan. At the end of the three hours, they came up with an agreement that they put into writing and which they and the volunteer signed.
I know this is not always easy or obvious, but this approach, of looking below the level of fixed positions to underlying needs and interests, can often help us address many of the conflicts in our lives — even the big, seemingly intractable ones. Even Measure D.
In that conflict, everyone wants better transportation, cleaner air, an end to inequity and an answer to Highway 1 gridlock. There are places we can meet.
It’s worth at least trying.
Jesse and Isabel teach us that in this increasingly polarized country and planet, it’s still possible to have conversations with people on opposite sides of an issue and end up in a place of increased understanding, not division. It requires courage. It requires a willingness to open up.
If we head to the polls hardened in our views, it increases division, and the possibility of reconciliation becomes small. Instead of thinking about winners and losers (which increases division) let’s try to think about how we can work together once the democratic process ends.
Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s races is, let’s promise to react with kindness and decency. Let’s reach across and talk to our neighbors again. Even if we don’t agree with their yard sign.
And let’s promise to look for ways we can solve future problems collectively.
In every situation — from Niko’s barking to the partisan divide in our country — I can’t help but wonder if we all were a little more curious, more open-minded, were more willing to listen, and to speak from the heart, if we couldn’t find ways to understand each other better.
We also might be able to imagine creative solutions that serve everyone, not leaving us with winners and losers, festering resentments and disappointments, but rather with innovative solutions leading to a more harmonious world.
Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi is a Buddhist nun and certified teacher of Stanford University’s Compassion Cultivation Training and the Cultivating Emotional Balance program, a secular program for managing emotions that draws from Buddhism and was developed at the request of the Dalai Lama. She is passionate about social justice, and has taught in prisons in the U.S., Colombia, Australia and New Zealand. She participates in interfaith collaboration for the Interfaith Speakers Bureau of the Islamic Networks Group of the Bay Area. She hosts the “Unlocking True Happiness” podcast. She started working at the Santa Cruz Conflict Resolution Center in the 1990s and currently serves as a training and curriculum specialist. She has made Santa Cruz her “home base” for 30 years.