Enduring wisdom is profoundly simple, which is perhaps why it’s often ignored or forgotten.
“The way for humans is to act without contention.”
If there were a single, most valuable lesson to be gleaned from the “Tao Te Ching,” it would be the quote above; the last lines of the last of the 81 verses (Derek Lin translation).
With increasing contention, opposition, argument, division, strife, distrust, and violent aggression, humanity is headed towards a bleak future — to put it mildly — unless we consciously choose a more loving and humane path.
6 Principles for Cultivating Open-Hearted Personal Leadership
Over the next while, I will be introducing six personal leadership principles based on my study and contemplation of the Tao Te Ching. This ancient wisdom offers timeless advice for the modern world that we can immediately put into practice to cultivate humane social evolution, eliminate inequality, and save the planet.
In this article, I will introduce the 1st Principle of Non-Contention.
So that we are all on the same page, here are the 6 Principles:
- Witness with Impartiality
- Flexible Yielding
We Have One Mouth and Two Ears.
As the wise old saying goes, use them wisely.
When we listen intently, openly, without judgement, and without thinking about what we need to say, we hear more completely what the other person is saying. If we listen with our mouth closed and with compassion, we will discern the vivid details of their story. We will hear with a level of attention that the person speaking will subconsciously recognize as us paying them undivided attention.
This simple act of compassionate listening reduces the threat response for the person talking. As a result, the energy of the person speaking is mirrored back to us in ways we are also not conscious of, but that we sense and interpret as providing safety. This feeling of safety (the lack of threat) diffuses the potential for opposition and argument and offers the opportunity to foster and cultivate new relationships (the Principle of Oneness).
When was the last time you felt deeply heard by another person?
Ask yourself the following questions:
- How did it make you feel to be fully understood?
- How did you respond and interact with that person as a result?
- What words would you use to describe the experience?
- If the interaction started as an argument, what did you notice, and what happened when you realized you were understood and you no longer needed to defend your position?
- What did you notice about your body as your defences dropped?
Pull out your mirror and flip this scenario.
Consider the following questions:
- When was the last time you fully listened and supported someone else, hearing fully what they had to say, without judgment and without anticipating what they might say next and what you wanted say in response?
- What did that feel like?
- Which scenario did you prefer and why?
The Space for Non-Contention Exists Between Two or More People, Face-to-Face.
The shorter the communication medium, e.g., 256 characters on Twitter, and the more that technology is used in place of sitting next to someone in conversation, the greater the possibility for contention.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as news platforms, are primarily one-sided and designed to be contentious. Anger, suffering, controversy, and tragedy sells news and drives the dopamine hit for ever more stimulation in the form of emotionally triggering information. Each tweet, each Facebook status update is a possible trigger for primal, emotional threat response — a sure-fire way to publicly share your annoyance with a politician, call someone out, shame, blame, or call someone a bad name online.
This has been one of my biggest struggles in practicing non-contention. When I read a tweet that I vehemently disagree with, it almost feels like an injustice if I don’t write something in response. The number of replies I have written in anger, only to delete them or hit refresh to not published them, has been steadily decreasing (thankfully).
Attacking someone for their beliefs is the least effective attempt at communication — and attempting a dialogue on Twitter is challenging at best.
Non-contention requires our greatest humanity.
We are social animals conditioned as babies and through our childhood by our parents to seek connection, care, attention, love, and belonging. These are the core needs of the mammalian part of our brain that responds to social safety and security. When we face another human being, if we feel safe enough to open up and be vulnerable, we build a potential relationship bridge towards understanding that person and their side of the conversation.
Non-contention as an action consists of compassion, humility, and impartiality.
When we understand and accept that we are all one, that we are all connected in our humanity — however different we may appear or act, however different our beliefs — we will recognize that we all want essentially the same things: to be loved, respected, and to belong.
With the conscious practice of non-contention we can work together to exist harmoniously in the middle ground, the space between dualities where our humanity is the same — where we all want the same things. This harmony will only be disrupted when dualities become contentious polarities and discussion turns into an argument, or worse, violence.
The Ultimate Practice: Silent Listening.
This is when silence becomes a great strength; not silence in the sense of not speaking up, instead, silence practiced as a form of impartial witnessing, of being open to understanding the other person’s beliefs, values, and morals, and as an equalizing practice.
Two ears — one mouth.
When you allow the space for the other person arguing from their side of the polarity, without reacting or responding, they may just begin to speak towards the middle-ground — the centre that connects both sides of the argument. It’s human nature for us to want to close conversational loops, especially sentences that end with a question. The other person might eventually talk themselves out of contention when they realize you are not adding fuel to the argument.
When you stop resisting and pushing back, you allow the other side to take cautious steps towards you.
This is not an easy practice, especially when it is in our nature to defend ourselves when under threat, even if that defence is standing up for what we believe to be right using our words.
Yet this is the equalizing part of the practice. By not reacting with anger, you are most likely not feeding further contention. And make note that silent listening is not about ignoring the other person, rather, this is about paying full and impartial attention to what they are expressing.
You might consider silent listening as a form of passive resistance, but in the case of this 1st Principle of Open-Hearted Leadership, the intention is not resistance, instead, this principle incorporates the Principle of Yielding.
Yielding is not about being a push-over or giving up.
Yielding means giving way, and in this context, it’s an appropriate metaphor.
We are all travelling — sometimes together, sometimes apart, or concurrently — in different lanes. On the road of life, we will all take unique paths towards our destinations. Sometimes the best thing to do when a situation becomes too difficult is to slow down and fall back, perhaps not getting off the road all together but moving into a slower lane or taking a break at the next rest-stop. Another way of saying this is deescalation — slowing down the rise towards anger and unresolvable argumentation.
None of the 6 Principles Are Definitives.
In other words, these principles are elevated in the sense that they require practice and constant conscientious attention and personal responsibility. If you fail at any of these leadership principles more often than you succeed, then your success is the fact that you are practicing.
For as long as we have egos, we will never achieve a perfect practice for any of these principles. The best we can do is consciously and continuously give our best effort. For me, this is what makes these principles the ultimate expression of the best of humanity.
What makes us human is our fallibility.
When we are not feeling at our best, it’s exceptionally difficult to employ one if not all of these leadership principles. Sometimes deescalation is best (and safest) accomplished by walking away — but I would suggest that not be your default.
The point I wish to drive home is this:
If we want to create a more loving and humane world, improvement and social evolution will take time, never-ending practice, focused and clear emotional intentions, conscientiousness, self-awareness, personal responsibility, and perhaps most importantly, hope.