Look to the Future, Then Learn from the Past

University Essays: Lesson 13, Reading 4

by Dudley Weeks

Every relationship and every conflict has a past, present, and future, and resolving conflicts effectively requires that we deal with all three. The conflict partnership process encourages us to use positive power to focus on what I call the present-future, and to learn from the past.

The past provides an experiential landscape for the present and the future, but the past is not the soil in which the present and future are irrevocably rooted. The present brings past memories onto new ground and tills that fresh soil with improved tools, always mindful that the future will reap what the present has sown. The present and the future are inseparable, and the future develops in the womb of the present. They are all linked: past, present, and future. Blending the three into a dynamic reach for improvement is the essence of being.

We will begin by dealing with how the past can impede conflict resolution. Then we will explore how we can learn from the past. Finally, we will look at the present-future and explore how focusing on this time frame helps us to deal with present conflicts and improve the future relationship.

Here are a few of the more prevalent ways we allow the past to impede effective conflict resolution.

People sometimes allow the past to hold present and future possibilities prisoner by thinking that because they did not deal well with a conflict in the past, they cannot deal effectively with a current conflict. In this pattern, people think that because they were unable to deal with problems in the past, or because they have in the past defined their relationship as a struggle for dominance and advantage over the other party, it is futile to believe that they can ever act differently or even try to apply improved relationship and conflict resolution skills.

This negative use of the past is, in effect, a self-deprecating and self-disempowering pattern. It implies that people are incapable of growing and improving. Of course, those who use this pattern usually say it is the other party who is incapable of improving, but such a stance hinders the development of positive power and positive influence in both parties. However, when one party moves beyond this negative use of the past and takes the lead in demonstrating improved relationship and conflict resolution behavior, the other party usually begins to feel more hopeful that improved behavior can be implemented.

People sometimes see only the past negative behavior of their conflict partner, refusing to see the positive potential, even if their partner’s present behavior is encouraging. This particular pattern seems to be one of our favorite ways of using the past to obstruct both the improvement of relationships and the actualization of the positive potential of conflict resolution. Examples abound.

Perpetually harping on one or two incidents of a conflict partner’s especially negative behavior in the past when dealing with a current conflict, regardless of her or his stated willingness to avoid repeating that behavior, is one example. Another is evident when people and groups are perpetually held accountable for past mistakes or inadequacies, even though they have tried to make amends and have not repeated those mistakes. Another example involves perceiving people as they were at a past age and never allowing them the possibility and right to grow up, to change and improve. Sons and daughters who have reached maturity but are still seen by a parent as “my little boy or girl” in need of protection are being perceived as the role they once were, not as the human beings they now are and can be.

People sometimes blame themselves for what they were or did at some time in the past and continue to punish their own lives and their relationships in a subconscious attempt at penance. Perhaps no misuse of the past is more agonizing and complex than allowing a past mistake to cover with guilt and shame one’s own self-image in the present and future. People involved in such a pattern often become obsessed with a past mistake and ignore how they can improve in the present. They may even strike out at any person or event that reminds them of that past mistake.

People sometimes are unwilling to let go of a particular demand or behavior they expressed in the past, even though that demand or behavior is no longer relevant or helpful in the present. I’m sure we’ve all heard people say, “I’ve done things that way all my life and I’m not going to change now!”, or, “If I go back on that demand now, it will make me look weak.” There are usually several hidden reasons underlying this use of the past to justify a continuation of damaging or ineffective behavior in the present.

One of these reasons is that people do not want to admit that a past behavior pattern or demand was damaging or ineffective. They see that as an admission of failure. Another is that some people feel they have little insight or confidence in designing alternatives to ineffective or harmful patterns. Still another is that certain narrow, vested self-interests are perceived as being served by a continuation of the past behavior or demands. Finally, people sometimes hold onto old behavior patterns or demands because they fear the unknown of trying new patterns or making effective, shared need, positive-power proposals rather than demands.

Impeding conflict resolution by holding onto past patterns is evident, for example, when a parent invests a great deal of energy and money in a daughter’s education toward becoming a doctor or teacher and then cannot accept the daughter’s decision that teaching or medicine is not the most fulfilling profession for her. The parent stubbornly tries to force her not to change directions, or charges the daughter with being a failure.

Another example is a business that, for twenty years, has kept a particular organizational pattern, and now, when that policy is proving unpopular and counterproductive among the work force, refuses to change because that is the way they have always done things or because it would take too much time and expense to change.

People assume that because something has always been done a certain way, it somehow means it’s the best way. This obstructing use of the past might be called the wisdom-of the-ages syndrome. Just because a particular behavior pattern, or business policy, or family habit has been around for some time does not automatically mean it is best. It may have been appropriate for the past, but is it appropriate for today and tomorrow?

Involved in this pattern is that complex and resilient phenomenon we call tradition. Tradition certainly has its place, but in conflict resolution we need to rely on effective skills not just tradition. Sometimes traditional ways of conducting a relationship or dealing with conflict have, in part, contributed both to the conflict and to an inability to resolve it.

People sometimes romanticize or glorify the past to such a degree that present behavior or relationships can never compare favorably with that past behavior or that past relationship. Pleasant memories do not make demands or require attention to needs. They do not prove bothersome, stubborn, or intransigent. They do not have budget deficits, confused policies, or unfavorable public opinion. They don’t even call us in the middle of the night seeking help on a matter we feel totally incompetent to address. Pleasant memories just float in a lovely morning sky, reminding us of better times as we struggle through the storms and stresses of our present lives.

In other words, we not only use the past unwisely by carrying its negative behavior into the present and future, we sometimes use the past unwisely by creating glorified interpretations of the past that cause us to see the present and future as undervalued comparisons to the good old days. Pleasant memories of a past time, event, behavior, or relationship are wonderful and cherished gifts, but we must beware of using them as nostalgic hindrances to resolving conflicts effectively and making the present and future the best we possibly can.

from “Look to the Future, Then Learn from the Past” The Eight Essential Steps To Conflict Resolution

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372


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