I picked up a little book at my daughter’s house last week while riding out the ice storm and long power outage here in Oregon. The author was Thich Nhat Hanh, a beloved peacemaker. The title was How to Fight. * How can that be??
Thay (his familiar name) points out when someone says something unkind, we want to retaliate right away. That’s where the fight begins. He reminds us that our usual responses create neural pathways in the brain, making these responses habits. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now know the brain has plasticity. We can change our minds, our brains and the way we feel by creating new habits and neural pathways. This is very important for those who want to have a Collaborative or mediated divorce. And new habits need to be established from the very beginning to keep the process peaceful, informative and productive.
How not to fight? We can begin to notice our habitual responses and change to more healthy habits. The good news is we all have the inner tools and we just have to cultivate them. It’s an inside job. And like anything else worthwhile, it doesn’t mean change is easy.
The first step is to stop. Take a pause. Notice the thoughts racing for that comeback. Take a breath, or a few breaths, maybe slower and deeper than normal. Settle down. Bring yourself to calm before you respond.
This is easy to say and very hard to do, that is until you have practiced it and gotten past the inertia of the normal pattern. It’s like stopping a train hurtling down the track of that very familiar pathway. But that pathway has never made us happy in the long run, even though it might have felt satisfying in the moment.
What does it cost to take those few extra moments to break the momentum? It can be as hard as jumping in front of a speeding train and putting our hand out to stop it. It takes tremendous personal energy and strength at first, until it becomes more natural.
What do we miss by allowing a break before a comeback retaliation? We’re likely afraid we might lose the fight, but what we gain is actually much more powerful and influential. We give ourselves the time to think and to formulate an intelligent response. That intelligence gives us more than hurling back a “smart” or angry comeback. It’s from a deeper understanding, maybe ultimately from a place of wisdom where we recognize we are out of control.
What do we gain by the pause? First, and perhaps foremost, we allow our nervous system to relax and balance. This has a significant physiological effect on our well-being, our health and our longevity. Every moment we allow ourselves to center and come to balance, we become more coherent physically, emotionally and rationally. If we can do that, we have an effect on the other person which can bring them into coherence and balance and rationality. Ultimately the other person will respect the strength and courage it takes to restrain and self-regulate when it’s necessary and not to remain driven by primitive impulse.
This is the “Fight.” It takes all our strength to stop our response and have it go onto a different track. For the engineer of a train, it’s called a “switch.” When we are internally self-regulating it’s called a “choice point.” It’s a moment in time where we create an opportunity for ourselves. We give ourselves a break, a moment to calm and then think of the better response. Normally that response is a question rather than a statement. The question comes from curiosity to try to understand the other person and the source of their emotional state, need or opinion. This is a reflection which causes them to start to notice what’s going on within themselves and to see and make friends with their inner world.
Thay uses the analogy of wanting to make a cold room warmer. It doesn’t happen by the warm air fighting the cold air to push it out. Just by radiating warm air into the room it becomes warm. This was a very apt analogy as my husband, and I had huddled in our cold apartment. We wanted to push the cold air out, but the ultimate answer was to be in the presence of my daughter’s wood stove which radiated soft heat into their living room.
Over the years we professionals at Bridges have looked for ways to guide families through the process of restructuring with peace and understanding. Peace is possible. It begins inside each of us. We will do our best to do that for ourselves so we can help you get there too.
*How to Fight by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press, 2017)