Tom Crowley - Hawaii Mediator - Arbitrator - Attorney

Turning to Face a Dispute

book©Thomas E. Crowley
Excerpt from:  Settle It Out of Court
How to Resolve Business and Personal Disputes
Using Mediation Arbitration and Negotiation
(John Wiley & Sons, 1994)

It’s painful to turn and face our disputes.  Like disputes themselves, the initial pain in facing them is natural and unavoidable.  Wanting to run from the pain is natural too, but doing so can end up making the pain worse.  Fortunately, once we begin to face our troubles, the pain is usually fleeting and always less than the thousand little deaths we endure fearing the pain and worrying helplessly about the dispute.  As Hamlet told himself, when he finally committed himself to action:  “Let bad begin to leave worse behind.”

Nor is the suffering we experience merely a nasty consequence for which there is no saving grace.  We do not suffer the inevitable pain of confronting conflict in vain.  The pain takes us on a mysterious odyssey that can lead to a personal heroism we thought might be reserved for others.

An abundant reservoir of wisdom, strength, and courage waits within us for dealing with our disputes, and we need only to draw it forth.  To do so, we must first take the time to stop and focus on the dispute, even though we feel as though we’re a little too scared and overwhelmed to do so.  That familiar but false friend, procrastination, looms up, promising us that tomorrow for sure, when we’re fresh and ready for battle, we’ll really go for it.  Today, though, the dispute seems like a horror movie in which all our fears and problems ominously sprout arms and legs and begin lurching our way.

When old temptation strikes, yet again, to postpone confronting the dispute, we can apply some commonsense methods for easing into the decision to “take our time.”  We’ve heard them before, but they’re pretty effective.  Getting away alone somewhere can really help us shut out the interruptions that keep us from facing the music.  The simplest way we can do this is to close the door of our study or office.  Next, we’ll get everything – all those documents and other junk about other problems begging for attention – off the desk.  This sounds like a minor thing, but peripheral vision can lure us away with the false urgency attached to everything other than our dispute.

Sitting up straight, with eyes closed, in a quiet room with a clean desk, we’ll want to concentrate only on breathing until our body and mind begin to quiet down.  If we’re too worked up to sit still, a few push-ups can help us feel more relaxed and serene.  Sitting down again, we’ll try not to hold on to any thoughts, good or bad.  When the thoughts come anyway, we’ll liken them to clouds floating by or leaves drifting past on a gentle stream.  When negative thoughts stand up and deliver, and won’t budge, we’ll let them cast their surprisingly short shadows.

We take our time, slow down our breathing, and seek to balance breathing, posture, and concentration.  We visualize the body and mind in harmony.  An immediate way to approach this harmony is to concentrate on breathing.  While doing so, we can say to ourselves:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.

We’ll notice right away that concentrating on our breathing slows us down, and calms body and mind.  We’ll begin to feel less pressured, and more at ease.

Okay.  Let’s assume we’ve been able to quiet our mind a bit, and slow the trip-hammer succession of contradictory feelings about the dispute.  The second thing to do is to focus on the present moment of the dispute.  We don’t dwell on the guilt we may feel about hiding from the dispute, or the anxiety about what horrible thing might happen in the future.  The reason “focusing on the present moment” works is simple:  It helps us detach from the guilt and worry that immobilize us.  We must let go of thoughts about how unfair it is for this dispute to have happened to us, even though we’ve tried hard to do our best in life.  Instead, we will accept the fact of this conflict and visualize ourselves with the talent and the strength to be the boss of our dispute.  To be the boss, we must exercise mastery over the moment.

Third, we must be open to doing whatever it takes to resolve the dispute fairly.  This includes preparing our plan of action, facing our opponent, and carrying out our plan.  It may be that “doing whatever it takes” for us to handle our dispute appears a lot harder than what it might take for somebody else, who appears carefree and blessed by the gods.  Maybe it’ll take us a little longer, maybe it’ll take us a lot more effort than it would Clarence Darrow or Abraham Lincoln.  But even Shakespeare, with all his energy and talent, must have had his moments of doubt and fear, for he wrote of wishing to be like:

… One more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least, …

But we aren’t somebody else, we are who we are, and though we may not be some mythical brave Ulysses, or Shakespeare, or Abe Lincoln, we can be open and willing to do whatever it takes for us to fairly resolve our own disputes.

To reach the point of willingness to do “whatever it takes,” we can reflect on what life was like before this serious dispute became part of our life.  In retrospect, we expected life to be a gentle float downstream, perhaps a little white water now and then, but never more than allowed in a comparable ride at Disneyland:  a little exciting, but always safe.

Then we got hit with this dispute.  Our reacts swung from one extreme to another.  Sometimes, we conjured up the most dire consequences emanating from the dispute, and were worried to death. At other times, we denied the reality of the dispute, still clinging to the illusion of a more innocent past.  During the denial part of this contradictory tag-team match, we might have acknowledged a little unexpected turbulence, but mostly we tried not to get wet.  Although the waters became ever more swollen and angry, we still thought we’d be past it in moments, a transitory inconvenience that wouldn’t last long and immediately after which we could go back to things exactly as they were.  From this perspective, we couldn’t imagine the dispute churning our calm and untroubled stream into a treacherous, raging river.  We couldn’t comprehend how arduous, compelling, challenging, mysterious, and ultimately transforming the experience of the dispute would be.  We couldn’t yet perceive that the dispute might require nothing less than everything we’ve got to keep from being pulled down forever into the raging currents of the conflict.

It is not until we are ready to commit the full measure of strength, skill, and courage to resolving the dispute that we will not only survive it, but be transformed by it into something greater.  To put it most strongly, when we are willing to die for what we believe in, we are willing to do whatever it takes to overcome the obstacles within us and resolve the dispute fairly.  Of course, practically speaking, “dying” to resolve the dispute is rarely if ever appropriate.  But when we place the dispute in heroic terms, the inconvenience of doing what it takes to resolve it becomes secondary, the discipline required becomes achievable, and the fear we encounter becomes manageable.

Finally, we should visualize calmly turning and facing the dispute, bringing to bear on it the power of our intelligence and composure. If we take the time to focus on the present moment of the dispute, and if we’re open to doing whatever it takes to resolve it, we’ll find that the fortress walls of our fears about the dispute will begin to crumble.  The issues surrounding the dispute, which had seemed so formidable, will begin to yield.  The solutions to the dispute, which had seemed so unattainable, will begin to surrender to our understanding.  Once we have swept aside our negative emotions and expectations, the power of our mind will begin to find the answers to our dispute.

There is a saying:  “Everything is complicated until you find out how simple it is.”  This is even true of resolving disputes.  I’ve seen for myself again and again that once I take the time to focus on the dispute, no matter how frightening and complicated it appeared beforehand, I have been able to start finding simple, common-sense answers to resolve it.  It’s never easy to turn and face conflict, and doing so will always cause some initial pain; but once we do so, we can – with some common-sense tools – bring forth our wisdom to work it out.

With the right attitude – and the right process – resolving disputes can actually be a positive, healing experience, not only in retrospect, but even amid the roar and rage of disagreement.  We can learn to live with conflict without having the rest of our daily life immobilized, waiting for the dispute to somehow be over.  We can learn to address and resolve the conflict, and enjoy doing so, rather than feel tortured from beginning to end.  We can reach a result that’s fair and dignified, and serves our real interests.


  • Take the time to stop and focus on the dispute.
  • Focus on the present moment of the dispute, not on how guilty we feel about hiding from it, or how scared we feel about the horrible things that might happen in the future.
  • Be open to doing whatever it takes to resolve the dispute fairly.
  • Visualize bringing to bear on the dispute the power of our intelligence and composure.

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