Marvel’s Doctor Strange illustrates a problem we all share: Failure to Communicate. A power struggle fuels a conflict. But a lack of communication fuels the story, as it does all sagas. Quite often a missing piece of information or insight, which seem obvious to the audience, leads to catastrophes. The hero makes an error in judgement, typically caused by a combination of hubris and impulse, which leads to epic battles. In the case of Doctor Strange, his fall is literally caused by driving off a cliff while he’s texting. Although he miraculously survives, he can no longer perform brain surgery. In despair of fully healing his hands, he finds the man who walked again after a severed spinal chord injury. The man tells him of a mystic retreat in Nepal where he was cured.

Doctor Strange, genius that he is, quickly learns to become a Master of the Mystical Arts, using unnatural powers to protect the law of the universe(s). Villain and former disciple Kaecilius exploits the same mystical powers to thwart these laws for his own ends. Kaecillius makes a Goethian pact with Dormammu, a multi-universal demon, to hand over the world to him and thereby make himself immortal. Doctor Strange finds out Kaecilius’ motives during a fight in one of the sanctums where he entraps him in a magical leather and metal suit reminiscent of an iron maiden.

During this chat, Dr. Strange also finds out that the head of this super-mystical-power sect, “The Ancient One”, has kept her anti-aging formula to herself. Turns out she has a side-deal with said devil from whom she draws “dark energy.” As she reveals to Dr. Strange in her death scene:

“Dr. Strange: So I could have my hands back again. My old life?”

“You could and the world would be all the lesser for it. I hated drawing power from the dark dimension but as you well know, sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good.”

On our planet we find that following the rules, obeying the law (both god and man’s) typically prevents catastrophe. However, this habit often leads to shutting one’s eyes and turning a deaf ear to real solutions. We do not like to get or give unwelcome advice, so we listen to The One with the power. Typically this super-being is blind to the concerns of us ordinary mortals, and just trying to run the company as best he/she/it can.

In order to break the old order, and not just further our own agendas, we need to start having “brave conversations”. Rather than gossip and complain, this conversation should be about shared goals and paths to getting there. When meeting, the leader should state the purpose and agenda. Ground rules for the meeting would include actively listening to all present, sharing the floor, and framing criticism constructively.

When your back is breaking or your hands are tied, it may feel that supporting or reaching out to others seems impossible. If a path to resolution is not apparent, it will lead to demoralization, lack of commitment, and gossip.  All great projects start with a small group sharing a common goal.  However, even with shared goals conflicts about how to get there will arise. The only way to resolve these conflicts is to talk about them to the person(s) with whom you have a conflict.

This is difficult to do because we just don’t know how to do it.  Assuming good intent from the other party is key. You may agree on the goal, but have different ways of getting there.  Some suggestions I found for conflict resolution from my church association, the UUA, include:

  • Manage your own anxiety. As scary as conflicts may be to us, if our fears or anxiety overtakes us, we will not be effective. It’s not that you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel your emotions, but it is important to find a way to manage them so that there is maximum ability for everyone to feel some openness in expressing their concerns without overwrought feelings shutting things down. Breathe.
  • Try to find the learning opportunity in a conflict. What is it that all of us need to learn about what is important to us as a community? Asking the broad and deep questions in an open and deliberate way can get you “unstuck” from haggling over a particular issue.
  • Understand that a particular issue is always a part of a larger emotional system operating in a community. Rarely is a conflict only about a particular issue or person, as much as it may seem like that at the time. Find some help in uncovering the deeper concerns at play without scapegoating a particular person or engaging in the fantasy that you can “solve the problem.”
  • Build safety into your communal interactions. Create covenants in which you can name behaviors that might get in the way of healthy exchanges and deep dialogue. Using techniques such as “listening circles,” appreciative inquiry, and story-telling exercises can actually build community in the midst of conflict.

Big changes start with small groups effectively communicating. Some Friends And I Started Talking, by Margaret Wheatley, talks about how big changes begin not from the top, but from the bottom –with a small, committed group sharing the same cause.

“Change doesn’t happen from a leader announcing the plan. Change begins from deep inside a system, when a few people notice something they will no longer tolerate, or when they respond to someone’s dream of what’s possible. It’s easy to observe this in recent history. The Solidarity trade union movement in Poland began with conversation—less than a dozen workers in a Gdansk shipyard in 1980 speaking to each other about despair, their need for change, their need for freedom. Within months, Solidarity grew to 9.5 million workers.”

Further reading:

How Does a Lack of Communication Cause Conflict in the Workplace?
10 Ways to Reduce Conflict in Your Organization
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