September 10, 2013

Are You Fighting the War Within?

In Saturday’s New York Times, Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd described what she called “Barry’s War Within.” Imagining Obama’s inner conflicts over Syria, she asked: “In his head, is Barry at war with the commander in chief?”

I agree with Dowd that the President is grappling with different sides of himself. But I don’t think that means he’s “at war.” On the contrary, the President is engaged in the activity we all do every day, from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep.

It’s not war. It’s the negotiation within.

Of course, the pulls on Obama are stronger, and the stakes far higher, than they are for us. Absolutely. But it’s not just world leaders who face “conflicting identities” as they navigate the tricky waters of tough decisions. It’s me. It’s you. It’s every person leading a company, managing a team, doing a project, running a household, sustaining a marriage, or simply getting out of bed in the morning to start a new day. It’s all of us.

We’re of more than one mind.

It’s safe to say that Obama’s inner conflicts in this moment are more gripping than most of us can imagine. This is the man who wrote “The Audacity of Hope,” confronting a set of international breakdowns that – let’s face it – appear a tad hopeless. As I talked about last week in a post on Forbes.com, the debates going on inside of him are at a level of complexity all their own.

With that said, engaging different sides of ourselves, including parts in conflict with each other, is something we do all the time. As I’m writing this post right now, I’m thinking about my new diet, while I’m munching on a slice of apple pie. That makes no sense. But the part of me who wants to lose weight isn’t the part of me that called room service and ordered a midnight snack. See what I mean?

I suspect you’re no stranger to the inner push-and-pull.

Ever hear the risk-taker in you demand that you walk out on a lousy job, while the side of you who worries about the mortgage begs you to stay?
Ever feel the urge to make a snide remark when a colleague “forgets” again to do his part – only to think twice and decide to ask about what’s distracting him?
Ever want to take credit you deserve, but at the same time wanting to “take one for the team” and give it to a colleague who really needs a win?
Maybe your objective assessment points to one job candidate, but your gut tells you to hire someone else?
Inner dialogues, even debates, go on inside us on topics big and small. It’s a given in leadership. And it’s a fact of life.

But it’s not war. It’s the negotiation within.

Why does this happen?

For one thing, the regions of our brains evolved to point us in different directions. To over-simplify for clarity, we have a left and right hemisphere, as well as a front and back to our brains. At a fundamental level, that creates four sets of impulses, priorities and even values within every human being.

For another, our modes of operating aren’t one-dimensional. We think. We aspire. We work. We play. We love. We betray. We build. We destroy. And on it goes.

Which is the “real” me, or the “real” you?

You know from experience that’s a false question. Now we also know from neuroscience. They’re all real. Myriad parts combine to create what we think of as “you” or “me.”

With all of these parts, how can we function? How do we get anything done?

That leads us back to where we started: to the negotiation within.

We all have different sides to us, pulling us one way and then the other. I call them our inner advisors, or inner negotiators. Despite our discomfort when we can’t figure out what to say or what to do, our inner negotiators aren’t our enemies. Each one is making the best case it can for what’s right for us – from its unique perspective.

Appreciate the Negotiation Within

Without doubt, the drumbeat of war is getting louder. We watch the news. We’re looking out at a broken world. What can we do as things fall apart around us?

For one, we can heed the teaching of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote, “We have to stop the war inside ourselves…If we do not practice peace in our lives, war will continue to break out within us and around us.”

This approach won’t solve Obama’s daunting struggles. True.

But most of us aren’t leading on the global stage.

For us, accepting the pushes and pulls inside us with curiosity and compassion is a place to start. Treating our internal conflicts as what they are – inner negotiations – rather than seeing our inner life as a battlefield. Recognizing that complexity and multiplicity are a natural part of who we are.

No, it’s not a war.

It’s us doing the best we can every day while being human.

Even the President.

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