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Reframing Political Conversation

Date: November 3, 2011
By Mitzi Hicks
Each season brings clear signs announcing its presence: autumn is heralded by turning leaves and cool nights, winter brings snowflakes, and election season blows in on a wind of heated political rhetoric.  We are at the beginning of a new presidential election cycle, and if the past few years are any indicator, the coming months will be chock full of sound bites designed to divide us along ideological lines.  The political climate wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to stay this way.  But does the average person have the power to change this?  Absolutely!  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Civilized political discourse is essential if we are to uphold the spirit and ideals of our democracy, and creating this conversation is within everyone’s power. 
If anything is to be learned from the ongoing struggles between political factions in Washington, it is that we must find ways to reframe political discussion around values, beliefs, and visions of the future for our communities and our nation as a whole. By reframing the discussion we can move from treating politics as a zero-sum game in which winning is a goal in itself, and focus on collaborating to achieve shared visions and goals for the future. 
One way to defuse conflict in the political arena is to seek out the common ground that is often masked by political posturing.  Even the most opinionated person, if asked to describe the future he or she desires, will likely agree that safe and thriving communities in which to raise families is a shared goal.  Once common ground is established, then the conversation can be enlarged by asking questions like “What do safe and thriving communities look like?” and “How can we work together to make it happen?” 
Identifying common visions of the future for our community and our nation will allow us to start creating ways to realize those visions.  If we work together we can return to the concept of “We the People” on which our country was founded, and bring about a brighter future for all.
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Parenting: Letting your children deal with their own conflict

Date: October 31, 2011

By Tamara Sherwood

A woman found a cocoon of a butterfly and a small opening appeared.
She sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to squeeze its body through the tiny hole. Then it stopped, as if it couldn't go further. So the woman decided to help the butterfly. She took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bits of cocoon.  The butterfly emerged easily but it had a swollen body and shriveled wings.
The woman continued to watch it, expecting that any minute the wings would enlarge and expand enough to support the body. Neither happened! In fact the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around. It was never able to fly.
What the woman in her kindness and haste did not understand: The restricting cocoon and the struggle required by the butterfly to get through the opening was a way of forcing the fluid from the body into the wings so that it would be ready for flight once that was achieved.
Sometimes struggles are exactly what our children need in their lives. Going through life with no obstacles would cripple them. Wait a minute, if our children are struggling and making bad decisions aren't we impacted? That might mean leaving work early, spending money, or another sleepless night worrying. It only makes sense that a parent would want to do their best to end the struggle, and besides what would the neighbor's, friend's, or the in-laws think.
Parenting with guilt is universal. We all had the notion that somehow we would do a better job than our parents. The first time we find out our child skipped a class, got an “F”, said a bad word, hit someone, drank, smoked…we feel responsible. As parents we have read parenting books, articles, attended workshops and sought out counseling to prove we are good parent's, yet we still can feel angry, afraid, guilty and a failure when our children struggle.
Sometimes our children who we love, do things we don't like or approve of. The trick is before we react and escalate the problem, to think about whose problem is it anyway. The only person who can solve the problem is the person who “owns” the problem (or feeling) and by allowing the child to solve problems for themselves helps build self-esteem. This means we detach and consider the child's behavior and ask how it will effect or hinder our life. When the problem is our child's concern, then be ready to listen and offer support.
Often, detachment (watching the butterfly) to our child's behavior or struggle appears to be the least likely, or possible thing to do when we are hooked into a power struggle – an attempt to control or force our child to do it “our way” or force the cocoon open. Long-term problem solving can't be accomplished while in a power struggle.
Once there is an awareness that reacting and controlling don't help the next step is to find a peaceful place – it can be an actual place, a thought, a song, a friend, but a place that restores balance. Don't forget to breathe deeply and soon there will come clarity on how to determine who owns the problem and what is needed to solve the problem while building the relationship.
Sometimes the struggles are exactly what parents need to transition their own self-awareness and acceptance, that than expands their capacity to model for their children a happy and healthy adult, which than contributes to their children's ability to spread their wings and fly.
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Brain Science and Conflict

Date: September 30, 2011

By Martha Woods
A shorter version of this article appeared in The North Denver Tribune in Sept. 2011

Hello, meet Your Brain! In recent years, there have been amazing discoveries about the human brain. We are used to thinking that the brain leads and we follow. Scientists have been studying how the brain works among different groups of people including persons with brain injury, meditating Buddhist monks, and ordinary people who are just trying to change a behavior or learn a new skill. At the most general level, the scientific studies reveal that the brain is much more changeable than previously thought. This concept of the brain being changeable (or “plastic”) is called neuroplasticity. In the past, scientific dogma held that, after a critical period in early childhood, the structure and function of the brain was mostly immutable. These more recent findings reveal that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even well into adulthood, as a result of input from the environment.   For example, areas of the brain involved in certain activities will become more active or enlarged the more that activity is performed— or even thought about! Two particular activities illustrate this—playing a sport or a musical instrument. One exciting implication of brain plasticity is that initiating these changes can be intentional and self-directed, since we make choices as to what activities we pursue or what behavior we may want to change. Using sports again as the example, professional athletes engage in “mental rehearsal” of their plays prior to games as a means of increasing performance. It is known that the more attention you give to an existing idea or behavior, the less likely it is to change. But if you want to change an idea or a behavior, the more attention you give the new behavior, the more likely it is to change and become habit. For behavior change, what this means is you get much more bang for your buck by directing your focus to the behavior you want to acquire, rather than focusing on what you want to stop doing. For example, if you want to stop smoking, it is much more effective to focus on becoming a non-smoking individual, than to focus on stopping smoking. The latter keeps the brain busy trying to stop something, when you could have all that brain energy to help identify where you’re trying to get to and how to get there (e.g., what steps could you take in the direction of becoming a non-smoking individual). It’s like the old example of someone telling you “Don’t think of an elephant.”   Try it some time. So, it turns out that your brain is not the boss of you. In fact, if you lead, your brain will follow.

You may well ask “what’s this got to do with conflict?” Well, it opens the opportunity to see if a person can self-direct positive changes in areas of the brain associated with, for example, anxiety, depression, fear, or anger. These are states of mind that we know contribute to the emergence of conflict and how we then react to it.     Studies of a group of Buddhist monks, conducted in cooperation with the Dalai Lama, have shown that the practice of meditation affects those areas of the brain involved with these states of mind.
So an offshoot of the neuroplasticity studies is the relatively new field of contemplative neuroscience, whichexamines the effect of various types of contemplative activities, of which Buddhist meditation is but one, on the brain. Although we may associate meditation with religion and spirituality, a person can practice contemplative activities in an entirely secular way, without framing it in terms of a particular—or any—set of religious beliefs.   The various practices have several things in common: a self-directed activity (environmental input to the brain) that involves focused attention, intentionality (purpose or goal), and repetition/practice. Contemplative practices have some specific benefits in terms of affecting states of mind, but also in terns of calming the fight-or-flight response, reducing chronic stress, and possibly the ability to enhance the body’s healing processes. But you can begin to see how the basic process as described above (self-directed activity, focused attention, intentionality, and repetition) could be applied to almost any change that we might like to make. Mindfulness or Mindfulness Meditation is a type of Buddhist meditation, which is now being used in a variety of secular contexts (stress management in medical students, psychotherapeutic tool, negotiation/mediation, health/wellness) and has spurred research demonstrating its effectiveness. Greatly simplified, mindfulness  basically involves learning to be fully present and aware (focused attention), ultimately being able to just notice one's inner state without judgment. Another tool for self-directed change is mental rehearsal, commonly used by athletes, which involves practicing/visualizing in your mind each step of what you want to do. There is also a tool from cognitive psychology called self-talk, which in this context, refers to labeling one's inner state, especially emotions, or talking oneself through situations in which one tends to have habitual or reflexive reactions that are counterproductive. Cultivation of these skills in ordinary daily routine makes it easier to call them up when having emotionally intense feelings, which in turn has a calming effect.
It is now well-accepted science that the human brain has neuroplasticity. The very idea opens up a world of potential applications, only a few of which have been the subject of scientific study so far. In the meantime, we want to explore further how the concept can be useful specifically in the field of conflict resolution. Imagine being able to intentionally cultivate areas of the brain that are associated with happiness, kindness, and cooperation!
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