The Art of Adversity

“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.”
~ William Ellery Channing

As a young boy with a severe learning disability, Chuck Close was told not to even think about college. Nevertheless, he went on to get his MFA from Yale and became a world renowned artist.  Even though he has a condition called face blindness and can’t recognize faces in three dimensions, Chuck Close is known for his portraits and his unique technique of painting on a grid.

Artist Janet Echelman goes to India to exhibit her works and discovers that her paints went missing in route from the U.S. to India.  This experience forces her to learn a new art material.  Now, she makes monumental, fluidly moving sculpture for urban airspace that responds to the environmental forces of wind, water, and sunlight.

Dale Chihuly is a glass sculptor and entrepreneur.   His story is described in the book “Iconoclast:  A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently,” by Gregory Berns.   In 1976, while Chihuly was in England, he was involved in a head-on car accident during which he flew through the windshield. He was blinded in his left eye and has been wearing a black patch over the injured eye since then.  The loss of depth perception forced him to look at the traditional art of glassblowing differently.  Ultimately, he departed from the traditional symmetry standard, experimenting with asymmetric sculptures he is now known for.   A few years after the accident, Chihuly dislocated his arm while surfing.  Unable to blow glass himself, he hired a team of artists to work in the hotshop he supervised.  This change in the work process led to large-scale operations and his commercial success.

We often hear that we need to think outside the box to be creative.  Adversity can lead to innovation in art and life because it destroys the proverbial “box.” Adversity forces people to perceive the world differently.  Some get lost without the “box.”  Adversity can unleash a whirlwind of emotions and sweep people off their feet into the dark tunnel of fear, denial, blame, shame, surrender.   Some, however, are capable of emerging on the other side stronger, more resourceful, and more creative than before.  They go on to construct a new “box” – their new reality where they continue to develop, probe, and fine-tune their new identity and understanding of the world.  The brain needs the “box” as a mental pattern and a symbol of control over our environment.   The brain is a prediction machine and the “box” makes things predictable.  Sometimes, the act of building such a “box” out of a new fabric of beliefs, in a new place, with new tools, among new people becomes a creative process in itself.

By | 2011-06-22T15:41:27+00:00 June 22nd, 2011|Books, Change, Creativity, Perception|0 Comments

Resilience is empowering, but so is revenge

“Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is power in the ability to take action and make a choice. Our brains like the sense of autonomy and control, after all, we want to feel comfortable in our environment. However, this human desire for autonomy and control can be expressed in a variety of ways, some of which may lead to more tension and longer conflicts.

In two recent discussion threads at The Conflict Coaching Guild on LinkedIn, we pondered the topics of resilience and revenge. Being resilient means being able to bounce back from life’s challenges, learn from different experiences, maintain a positive outlook despite setbacks and disappointments. Resilience requires a proactive, positive attitude and energy. It is hard to be resilient if your health is poor or you are depressed.  Resilience is empowering. But so is revenge.

It can feel good to fight back when we are attacked even when we know that the revenge may cause more escalation. It turns out that our reactions to the punishment of bad social behavior range from reduced sympathy towards perpetrators to pleasure. The Prisoner’s Dilemma experiments show that even though the subjects are able to empathize and feel the pain of others, the activity in the pain-related areas of the brain slightly decreases when the participants feel the other side deserved a punishment. Moreover, when men (but not women) in the study watched a defector get punished, they showed additional activation in the pleasure circuit of the brain.  Retaliating may feel so sweet because of the added sense of control we derive from our own actions.

The biological impulse to retaliate is strong. Conflicting parties are likely to be stuck in the continuous cycle of violence and revenge unless they find alternative ways to express their autonomy and choice of action.  In essence, one side feels autonomous and fulfilled by punishing the other side, and vice versa. Remove the crutch of revenge, and the parties may feel lost and helpless. The challenge is to move beyond our biology and channel the need for autonomy into creative action and true resilience.  Here are the choices:

Revenge Resilience
Blaming Sharing responsibility
Defending Acknowledging
Attacking Forgiving
Stonewalling Connecting
Threatening Harmonizing
Resisting Accepting
Listening selectively Listening reflectively
Ignoring Inquiring
Withholding Sharing
Assuming Clarifying
Catastrophizing Reframing
Reacting Anticipating
Judging Witnessing
Victimizing Empowering


When we let go of revenge and embrace our own resilience, we regain the inner source of power.  We no longer need an adversary to validate our significance.  Instead, we begin relying on our own strengths to carry us forward.

How The Grumpy Gremlin, The Inner Critic and The Mad Monkey Stole the Creative Seed of Discourse

CreativityOnce upon a time, Discourse possessed a creative seed that in the right conditions had the power to germinate into better understanding among people and offer new solutions to their problems.  The wise and the elderly knew how to take care of the creative seed and help it sprout into a peaceful growth until one day a stranger showed up at Discourse’s door.

“What’s your name?” Discourse asked.

“I am The Grumpy Gremlin,” replied the stranger. “You, Discourse, can’t even imagine all the threats and dangers that are lurking out there.  Hidden in the dark, nagging worries, stewing self-sabotage, debilitating doubt, and paralyzing fear wait for the right moment to pounce and send chills down your spine.  And slimy worms are about to eat your creative seed. “

Discourse looked around in horror.  “What  can I do?’  “Can you help me?”

“All right,”  said The Grumpy Gremlin.  “I will protect you against threats and dangers out there, but you have to give me something in return.”

“What can I give you?” asked Discourse.

“Your good mood,” The Grumpy Gremlin replied.

Discourse thought the Grumpy Gremlin’s request was strange.  What’s the value of the good mood, anyways?   And he accepted the offer.

As days passed, Discourse grew sad and blue as he became aware of every possible threat out there.  This realization even gave him indigestion.  One evening, Discourse was sitting by the fire when he noticed a shadow darting across the wall of his house.  Spooked,  Discourse jumped around and saw a strange creature creeping across the room.  “Who are you and what are you doing in my house?” Discourse yelled.

“So sorry to bother you, Discourse.  I am your Inner Critic.  I was always here, but you were too happy to pay any attention to me.”

Discourse listened in disbelief as The Inner Critic’s voice grew louder and louder.

“Just look at yourself, Discourse.  You turned into a laughing stock.  You are just fuming and fuming, but you have nothing useful to say.  What will people think of you?”

“What should I do?” asked Discourse meekly.

“Here is what you do,”  The Inner Critic replied angrily.  “You listen to me carefully.  I will protect you against the harsh judgment and the ridicule of your neighbors.  But you have to promise me something in return.”

“What is it,” asked Discourse, embarrassed and upset with himself.

“Promise me that you will always carry your creative seed in a tightly closed sack and you will never venture into unknown territory.”

“But if I always keep the creative seed in a closed sack, how will it grow without the sunlight?” protested Discourse.

But The Inner Critic just hissed, “What do you know?”

So, Discourse reluctantly agreed to The Inner Critic’s offer.

Discourse kept the promise.  He carried his creative seed in a tightly closed sack as he walked along the beaten path.  One day, during his usual walk, a monkey jumped from a tree and grabbed the sack with the creative seed.  Discourse was too absorbed by his own sad thoughts to notice The Mad Monkey sooner.  He tried to catch her but she ran into the forest and just kept jumping from tree to tree.  Discourse chased The Mad Monkey for a full hour but had to stop because he got tired of running in circles.

And that is how Discourse lost his creative seed, tricked by The Grumpy Gremlin, The Inner Critic, and The Mad Monkey into giving away his good mood, courage, curiosity, and a peaceful, open mind.

By | 2011-05-03T23:21:31+00:00 April 2nd, 2011|Change, Communication, Creativity|0 Comments

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 1: Collaborative Informal Problem Solving

I am writing this post as I wait at the LAX airport for my flight back to New York, while the memories are still fresh.  The 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress is over.  It’s been my pleasure and privilege to spend three days with so many wonderful people, doing great work all over the world.  I learned a lot and got the opportunity to present a workshop with my friend, colleague and a masterful communication coach Nancy Kay. Our topic was “Rewiring Your Brain: Neuroscience and Leadership in Conflict.”

The Congress took place on the beautiful UCLA campus.  The weather was perfect, sunny 70F, a welcome break from the harsh Connecticut winter this year.

The energy of the MBB Congress was truly global, with participants from various countries, speaking many different languages, involved in projects all over the world.  We heard about their work in Liberia, Sierra Leon, Colombia, Zimbabwe, and other places.  Mediators Beyond Borders is a relatively young organization, which is growing rapidly and extensively.  The MBB website says, “Mediators Beyond Borders – Partnering for Peace & Reconciliation is a non-profit, humanitarian organization of skilled volunteer conflict resolution professionals established to partner with communities in troubled locations worldwide to support them to build their conflict resolution capacity for preventing, managing, resolving and healing from conflict.”

MBB brings together mediators who volunteer their skills and expertise to work on various projects in the world, from supporting the re-entry of Liberian women ex-combatants into their communities to improving collaboration among professionals in Colombia, to exploring the post-genocide process of social healing and reconciliation in Rwanda through the documentary “Coexist.”

One of the take-aways from the MBB’s Congress was the realization that you don’t need to be a part of the government, or NGO or some other big entity to make a difference in the world.  MBB educated its members on how to start, plan, and implement projects through published guides and the vast knowledge of its mediators who have years of experience in international work and who are willing to share their lessons.

Each day at the Congress began with a brief meditation to help us center through breathing and appreciate the importance of being kind and loving to ourselves before we are able to give to others.  We had keynote addresses, break-out sessions, and panel discussions on various topics.  It was an intense but very rewarding experience.  I tried to take notes here and there and even tweet from the Congress under the hashtag #MBBCongress – it’s not an easy task to break complex ideas into 140-character soundbites.  Here are some highlights of what I was able to capture, which is just a small portions of what was transpiring at the event.

Lawrence Susskind gave a keynote address entitled “Mediating Human Rights and Other Corporate Social Responsibility:  Disputes on a Global Scale.”  He spoke about adding collaborative informal problem solving as a step to formal proceedings to generate agreements.  As Susskind observed, one of the challenges of treaty negotiations is that key negotiators arrive at the negotiation armed with what the truth needs to be, which precludes real explorations and discussions.  Informal problem solving can engage participants while addressing potential sovereignty concerns.  It doesn’t require rewriting of the formal rules of proceedings.  Participants can be invited in their personal capacity, rather than as governmental officials.   Finally, informal problem solving can be a step towards a proposal, rather than a decision.

Susskind addressed some common misconceptions about mediation, specifically, the notion that mediation requires the pre-existence of trust among parties and that it is about concessions and altruism.  He pondered whether the language of collaborative informal problem solving could be a better choice to overcome those misconceptions.  In his words, informal problem solving is about helping parties meet their needs most effectively – that’s all.

I will stop now as it’s time to catch my red-eye flight to New York…to be continued.

Related posts:

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 2:  Cross-Cultural Communication

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 3:  Compassionate Listening


By | 2011-03-20T21:52:09+00:00 March 7th, 2011|Change, Communication, Conflict Management|0 Comments