“Depending on the circumstance, you should be: hard as a diamond, flexible as a willow, smooth-flowing as water, or as empty as space.” – from Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, as quoted in “The Spirit of Dialogue”
CORVALLIS, Ore. – Aaron Wolf trained as a groundwater hydrologist and he would often meet with groups of people angry about the fate of their local river or lake, so he used his science background to try to convince them that a solution was at hand.
It usually didn’t work.
So he began to shift his career to engage in conflict resolution and quickly discovered that neither science nor the Western model of resolving conflicts were enough to engage many people around the world. He eventually began looking at how people of faith addressed conflict to see if there were lessons he could translate into his world of water rights. He was surprised to find there were.
After 12 years of traveling and research, the Oregon State University professor has written a book called “The Spirit of Dialogue: Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict,” which will be published by Island Press on Sept. 14. In the book, Wolf describes, for example, how the Buddhist practice of true listening can identify the root cause of anger, and how Christian grace can look at an energy beyond oneself to transform personal goals into community concerns.
As a scientist, Wolf engages religion not for the purpose of dogma, but for the practical process of mediation.
“Many of us were brought up thinking that science will answer all of our questions,” Wolf said, “but people are people and my background is not going to solve all their problems. The Western model of engaging conflict is based on science, pragmatism and often economics. But there also are transcendental moments of sudden understanding that occur by engaging people spiritually.”
Wolf’s “aha moment” came in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he was one of the facilitators at a tense series of meeting about water rights between Azerbaijan and Armenia. After conducting a series of simple ice-breaking exercises, the leader of one of the delegations stood up, threw down his notebook, and began shouting at Wolf from across the room – loudly and angrily, in Russian.
“My fight-or-flight instinct kicked in immediately but I knew that something must have triggered that reaction,” Wolf said. “As it turns out, many of the scientists in former Soviet republics felt marginalized because outsiders coming to ‘help’ them were treating them as if they were uneducated. He said some aid agencies had actually tried to teach him how to properly wash his hands and he had a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
“Now when I work internationally, I try to team up with a local facilitator for precisely this reason – you can never fully understand all the political nuance and sensitivities of a region, and a poorly informed facilitator can do more harm than good.”
Although he has done most of his work with water conflicts – including working as a facilitator in the Middle East with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders – Wolf believes the lessons he has learned in his career are applicable in many areas.
That includes gun control and climate change.
“When people express anger, it usually is a shield that masks vulnerability,” Wolf said. “So when people get indignant about gun control, it often can mean they feel their physical well-being is threatened. One person will argue that they feel unsafe and therefore want fewer guns on the street. Someone else will have similar feelings of not being safe, but wants more guns around for protection.
“When you peel away the anger and look at the vulnerability, then you can begin to look for ways to move forward. The good thing about conflict is that it can get two sides into a room to begin a conversation.”
Wolf said climate change arguments frequently result from one group or person expressing disbelief that the other is ignoring overwhelming evidence, while the counter-argument revolves around data manipulation or extrapolating results.
“Many climate skeptics actually believe the Earth is warming, but they don’t believe humans are the cause. Cramming science down their throat hasn’t worked. If you skip the causation for a moment, and begin working on adaptation – “if the Earth is warming, how will we handle it?” – you take the first step toward something positive.”
Wolf said when he began looking at spirituality for lessons, he learned that many faiths look at conflict through the same four lenses – physical, emotional, perceptual and spiritual. He recently returned from the Ganges River region, meeting with water resource managers who were Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist.
“When you sit around a table with them, you can talk from the same construct because of those lenses,” Wolf said. “Then it becomes a matter of transforming conflict by focusing on shared values.”
Understanding this apparently universal structure is extremely helpful in facilitating difficult conversations, Wolf noted.
“When I’ve worked on water disputes, the physical or intellectual nature of water is generally the focus of discussion, while it is actually the emotional or spiritual relationship communities have with their water resources that make the dispute so difficult. Addressing these aspects explicitly allows for the conversation to be elevated and enriched.”
Wolf is a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.
Island Press is a non-profit publisher founded in 1984 to shape ideas for solving environmental problems. “The Spirit of Dialogue” is available at: https://islandpress.org/book/the-spirit-of-dialogue