If, as Betty Pries writes, “the place of the deeper self is the location of oneness between self and other,” it follows that our journeys of inner growth are closely related to our journeys of relational healing. Her new book, The Space Between Us: Conversations About Transforming Conflict, provides fresh insights about the nexus of individual and interpersonal transformation.
As a veteran mediator and communication coach, Pries brings a wealth of experience to a timely topic. Typically, people view conflicts as barriers to personal growth or organizational thriving. This book takes the opposite view: Conflict can be the gateway to positive change.
The weaving of selfhood knowledge and conflict dynamics is enriched with spiritual practices and biblical references. Examples of how prayer and meditation can help lead people out of stuck places with past pain to places of new possibility and healing all stem from experiences of Pries and her clients.
After mapping out reasons why people end up in escalated conflicts, the author leads the reader into what she calls “the architecture of selfhood.” A diagram shows how all people have a descriptive self: our unique self that is neither good nor bad. Surrounding that is our defended self: the protective layer made up of masks and shields. And within everyone is the deeper self: the source of all goodness and grace.
A number of things play into the formation of our defended selves. Past trauma, unhealed pain, ego-based attachments, negative patterns of attempting to meet our unmet needs — these and more all serve to build up protective layers.
Pries includes a great story about a dragon-prince who peels off these layers one by one. Paradoxically, vulnerability gives way to new life and strengthening.
What does this model of selfhood have to do with interpersonal conflicts? Pries understands most conflicts are generated when the defended self feels threatened by others. Other people are viewed as the problem.
As we learn to recognize that others also have a threefold self — descriptive, defended and deeper — we stop feeling threatened by them and stop judging them. With compassion, we come to see how we share a common humanity, not only in our deeper selves where all people connect, but also in the commonality of having defended selves.
One of the Brightest stars in this book’s constellation is the concept of “both-and” thinking. This perspective allows us to grasp complex ideas beyond a black-and-white or either-or viewpoint.
At best, “both-and” thinking “opens space in our hearts for the other,” Pries says. She reminds us every person is a mixture of goodness and brokenness. This allows for a deeper solidarity around our wounded-and-wounding histories.
These issues are not only relevant in our relationships. Pries says, “Our interpersonal strife and the interior condition that supports it are a microcosm of larger systemic harms within our communities and the broader geopolitical world.” As we experience polarizing conversations on social and political matters, emotional reactions build walls. Both-and thinking provides a way forward, defusing emotions and recognizing truth on all sides.
This is a book for people in conflict and for facilitators who help people in conflict. I think it is best suited for people in conflict, though it is also an excellent resource for mediators. If you are struggling with past hurts and relational alienation from a friend, family member or co-worker, this book will give you support for journeying to a better place.
There is a lot of wisdom in this book, ranging from how to cope with one’s own defensive patterns to how to initiate a healing conversation. There are a lot of stories as well. These stories of mediation and communication coaching ground the wisdom Pries offers in a rich soil that is bound to give life to any seeds readers are willing to release for the sake of their own growth.
Ted Lewis is a restorative justice trainer and consultant and the founder of the Restorative Church project, based in the Agapé Peace Center, Duluth, Minn.
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