The Conflicted Path to Freedom

Feb 21, 2018

There is a lot of conflict in the headlines these days. People are outraged by current events and activism is on the rise. Celebrities are using their popularity to get the masses aware and activated and people are talking about very serious issues that impact us all. And yet with all these voices getting louder and louder and children organizing marches and walkouts – who is listening? Where is the resolution? Who is engaging with these voices to come to open the conversation and address the issue?

We searched and it seems that one of the last times we publicly witnessed profound conflict that turned into resolution was in 1991.   

It was December when formal negotiations began. More than 200 delegates from 19 political organizations gathered at the World Trade Center near Johannesburg’s airport. Among the central figures were Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk.

The period of negotiations to end apartheid between de Klerk and Mandela is a remarkable example of using conflict to create extraordinary outcomes. By the time they started negotiating, political factions of South Africa were preparing themselves for an armed struggle. It was these two politicians picked by destiny to teach the rest of us lessons on conflict resolution.  

Conflict can be rife with fear, anger, frustration, impatience and other triggers of pain. It’s no wonder we would rather remain silent than engage in it. We make ourselves believe that avoiding disagreements keeps us from emotional pain. This is an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves. We justify it with the social code of politeness. How many times have you felt it’s best to shut up and not stir the pot?

The illusion engages us in low-risk conversations like elevator talk, dinner with the neighbors and schmoozing at parties. You may hear something that urges you to speak up but it’s much easier to swallow your words than face the awkwardness or nastiness (yikes!) that could come up if you offer a contradictory opinion.

In personal relationships, we are less guarded and less polite. Conflict triggers deep-rooted emotions within intimacy. It’s not uncommon to use accusatory language like, “you don’t understand!” or the quintessential classic, “you’re not listening!”

While some people use conflict as a means of airing anger, others develop conflict-aversive behavior. Both impact relationships among family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. They are masked with the passive-aggressive heavy sighs, eye rolls, door slams and the I-don’t-care-you-choose tone that leads to resentment.

Productive Learning trainers often see participants avoid conflict in workshops. Someone has an opinion but they anticipate it will upset others so they don’t share it. Ideas get stuffed, withheld or watered down because there’s fear of others’ reactions.

But if we examine the De Klerk and Mandela negotiations we see that resolution comes with a willingness of engaging with the opposing view. Disagreements show where the cracks are in your thinking and ideas. That’s why conflict to resolution is the journey of empowerment and extraordinary thinking. We at Productive Learning believe the presence of differing opinions channels new ideas. Collective creativity will always outperform our singular perspective.  

One of the tactics de Klerk and Mandela used was detaching importance from certain concessions and communicating with temperance despite their dislike and mistrust for each other. Throughout negotiations, details were picked apart and new ideas were born.

Even negotiations of Mandela’s release from prison showed that both men were willing to compromise without abandoning their beliefs. Mandela wanted a later release date—to better prepare himself—and from Victor Verster prison. DeKlerk wanted to release him immediately and at Johannesburg airport. In the end, de Klerk got his way on the release date but Mandela got his way for the prison. Their negotiation was marked by a compromise that detached importance from certain ideas.

Detaching importance from your ideas allows you to speak up and actively listen. In order to do that we need to understand the attachment, we feel to any particular idea. We need to understand our assumptions and investigate why we believe something is important. Until we recognize our attachments they feel true and therefore cannot be questioned, challenged or negotiated.

In our Conflict to Resolution workshop, we invite the unpredictability that happens when the code of conduct is shaken up. We explore our assumptions and anticipation of conflict. We practice speaking up for what feels right while inviting another to engage in sharing what is true for them. Conscious disruptors know how to disagree with each other while being authentic, respectful and genuine rather than contrived and polite.

Consider where in your life you could be making a stand as conscious disruptor. What area of your life could use some healthy conflict? What do you think gets in the way of conflict resolution? Where do you compromise what you really want for the social code of conduct? Do you think it is possible to use the energy of conflict to create harmony? With others? Within yourself?

Mandela and de Klerk were both highly criticized by their parties for negotiating with each other. But they were willing to be ostracized because a non-violent transition to democracy was a greater priority. Most of us, unconsciously, prioritize ego-driven needs—like being right or being accepted—and we inadvertently rob ourselves of extraordinary outcomes.

It took several years for de Klerk and Mandela to bring reluctant politicians, various coalitions and a country on the verge of civil war into the fold of reform. In 1993 they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.” A year later, the Government of National Unity was elected with Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president.

Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Facing conflict is liberation from fear. It’s where you gain the momentum and alignment with your truth.

Next time you’re confronted with conflict, think like a conscious disruptor: consider using conflict resolution to create your journey to freedom. When you do this you also empower others to walk on their path to freedom.

May we all be liberated from the thinking that traps us.