Bruce Frantzis, an experienced Taoist Marital Artist, asked his students the following question:
When you walk towards someone, what walks first, your feet or your mind?
For most people it’s “your mind and all that you bring with it.” The anticipation of an encounter activates the mind. You begin to react to what you think the situation is rather than to wait and to react to the situation as it actually exists. As Bruce Frantzis points out, “it’s not the bang that kills you, it’s the bullet.”
This process of “mentalizing”, coming to conclusions about what is going to happen before we have the facts, is all too common. The call from the school is usually bad news about your child. Your boss wants to see you because he wants to fire you. Your co-workers are talking in hushed tones so they must be talking about you. Your partner is irritable so your relationship must be on the rocks. We judge situations by what we believe them to be rather than to inquire about the situations and judge them for what they actually are.
Tammy Lenski, in her book The Conflict Pivot, Turning Conflict Into Peace of Mind (MyriaccordMedia, 2014) tells a story about Fred the farmer who wanted to borrow his neighbour’s tractor (at pp. 76-77).
As Fred was walking to his neighbour’s house, he remembered that his neighbour had an odd look on his face the last time Fred saw him. Fred eventually concluded that his neighbour must have been angry with him, but Fred didn’t do anything wrong. The more Fred ruminated on this thought on his walk to his neighbour’s house and became increasingly angrier. When Fred finally arrived at his neighbour’s house, he knocked on the door. His neighbour answered and Fred said, “You can keep your damn tractor you selfish SOB.” Fred’s mind walked first.
The famous trial lawyer, Gerry Spence, in his book How to Argue and Win Every Time talks about the “perception of power” (at p. 33), which is another way in which “mentalizing” can get in the way of resolving conflicts:
Power is first an idea, first a perception. The power I face is always the power I perceive. Let me say it differently. Their power is my perception of their power. Their power is my thought. The source of their power is, therefore, in my mind.
The power others possess is the power I give them. Their power is my gift. … If I have endowed the Other with power that the Other does not possess, then I face my own power, do I not? My own power has become my opponent, my enemy.
Whenever we are in conflict, our minds often walk to the conflict before our feet do. We create mental images of what the other person is thinking and feeling and of what the conflict interaction will be like. We may also give power to the other person. People often avoid talking about their differences because they want to avoid what they believe will be a painful interaction. Unfortunately, the longer the conversation is avoided, the more difficult it is to have.
It is goes without saying that you can’t solve a conflict without talking. Communicating is the only way out. Would it not make sense then, as you walk toward the person with whom you are in conflict, that your mind focuses on the hope of resolution and that your feet arrive first before your mind does? At least if you get there with your feet first, you have a chance of making things better.