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Healing Space | Can we become friends with our enemies?

Sworn enemies make up and get on the same side. Is it denial or maturity? And how do we achieve it in our lives?

September 04, 2021 / 08:24 PM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

Agreed, partners in conflict share a complicated history. The Taliban is a by-product of a Cold War and born into a violence they didn’t ask for. But the aspect of cruelty they brought to the game outranked the initial provocation. How do people who have been so cruel to each other, to the point of no return, reconcile their differences? And does it signify hope for other areas of conflict in the world?

Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthCarl Rogers, the psychologist who founded the third-wave humanist movement of Person-Centred Therapy, graduated his theories to conflict negotiations in some of the most war-torn zones of the world, in his later years.

Rogers observed that in order to resolve conflict, a person requires three factors to be present: an atmosphere of acceptance, genuineness and empathy both within themselves and others. Especially in Northern Ireland and Russia, he worked with warring Catholics and Protestants, and created a conciliatory atmosphere in which they approached each other as human beings first. He noted that conflict emerged from a desire to control others, and to be free of control oneself.

A basic tenet of the Rogerian approach is the conviction that, “All individuals have within themselves the ability to guide their own lives in a manner that is both personally satisfying and socially constructive”, and he applied this to both individuals, and individuals within a collective. The helper’s role was not to be an ‘expert’, but an equal, to support the client’s “clarity, choice, decision making, and acceptance of personal responsibility.”

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While we have no way of knowing in what way the US and the Taliban came to an agreement, we can surmise that both reached a point of exhaustion from a 20-year war, and brought to the table a genuine appreciation of the loss afflicting both sides, and a mutual readiness to see it end. As the saying goes, we change when the cost of staying the same becomes too high.

Aggression against a minority community or a working group, such as fruit sellers, by a majority, or dominant group, may be explained by various theories of conflicted group dynamics such as the frustration-aggression hypothesis, or rationalisation devices such as stereotypes. Venting against a group channels aggression emerging from frustration and offers catharsis once released. Prejudices are used to justify the action, and projection enables it. A retaliation escalates the provocation, sometimes displacing the initial one such that no one knows who started it, furthering an endless cycle. Political scientists such as R.J. Rummel, Jean Brett, Peter Stearns, Richard Rubenstein et al. have examined conflict resolution at interpersonal, workplace, societal and state levels.

Common principles emerge from their research: Peace comes from a balance of power. You don’t have to agree, you just need clarity on aims. Look beneath the displays of aggression. Find what it is you can agree on. There are significant differences in how people negotiate across cultures. Violence emerges from seeking to frustrate the other’s goals. And you only win when there is an exchange and both parties leave the table with a perception of benefit to themselves.

Peace is a negotiation that begins from a present state of affairs, not from the unchangeable past or imagined future. Threats, violence, and vengeance destabilise the process, which is why a cease fire and a publicly-stated commitment to co-operation are vital. How we see forgiveness, not as a denial of loss and pain, but as a releasing of oneself from the control of another’s provocations, is key.

Rogers held that in order to negotiate effectively with the conflicted zones in our lives, we each have to come to congruence first. “When my experiencing of this moment is present in my awareness and when what is present in my awareness is present in my communication, then each of these three levels matches or is congruent. At such moments I am integrated or whole, I am completely in one piece. Most of the time, of course, I, like everyone else, exhibit some degree of incongruence. I have learned, however, that realness, or genuineness, or congruence—whatever term you wish to give it—is a fundamental basis for the best of communication.”

Healing Space - can enemies become friends box September 4
Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of Sit Your Self Down, a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and the forthcoming Anitya, a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]

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