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Ask A Buddhist: How do you deal with small disagreements?

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By Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

In Buddhism, how do you deal with small disagreements?

Throughout life, we are confronted with many opportunities for disagreements to unfold—small, medium and large. You want Chinese takeout for dinner, but your boyfriend wants pizza. You want to sleep late on weekends, but your roommate is a noisy early bird. You hold certain political views based on your values, but your sister feels just as passionately about her opposing views and shares them with you on social media. Your boss is more interested in productivity and the bottom line, while you’re committed to good customer relations. How do we deal with the inevitable disagreements that we encounter day in and day out? If we simply react to disagreements, we are likely to generate unproductive emotions like irritation, anger and resentment which will lead to more problems now and in the future. But if we’re committed to a peaceful outcome for ourselves and others, we need to find skillful methods to communicate and connect.

Self-awareness is a key to avoiding conflict when disagreements arise, to keep small disagreements small. Most important in any situation is to understand what’s happening in our own mind. What are we thinking? What’s going on? Have our buttons been pushed? Do we feel threatened in some say way? Is our drive towards accomplishing happiness thwarted? Are we feeling a lack of respect or criticism for our opinion or point of view? What’s actually happening in our mind as the disagreement unfolds?

To understand how greater awareness helps diffuse a small personal disagreement with someone, let’s do an experiment. Call to mind a recent disagreement you’ve had and examine what you were thinking and feeling at the time. So often, we focus on what the other person is saying and doing, but it’s much more productive to look into our own thoughts to understand how we were describing the situation to ourselves. Now check: how did the way you described the situation to yourself influence how you experienced it? Were you attached to your idea, point of view or way of doing things? Were you assigning a negative motivation to their speech or actions, or blaming others for how you were feeling?

Next notice how your initial attitude affected what you said and did in the situation leading to the disagreement. How did the other person respond to what you said and did? Was your view of the situation realistic? Were you able to see all sides of the situation, to see the other person’s point of view? Or did you have a narrow perspective, seeing things only through the eyes of “I, me, and mine,” what’s in this for me?

Check to see: was there another way you could have viewed that same situation if you had had a broader perspective? And how might that broader perspective have changed your experience of the situation?

We often assume that what we think is 100% true, right? But often we’re unaware that how we interpret events biases our thinking and subsequent actions. If we can learn to step back and try to see things from the other person’s perspective, we’d probably avoid 90% of the disagreements that we get into.

It’s also important to actually communicate with the other person—to ask them what their concern in the situation is, because it may not be what we think it is. It’s helpful to become interested in the other person, to ask how they are feeling, and what they need. Showing sincere interest in them and listening to their concerns often solves the problem, because what the other person wants is to be heard. At the very least asking respectful questions and listening to the answers helps us understand where the other person is coming from and what they’re needing.

In his public talks and books, His Holiness the Dalai Lama often reminds us of our common humanity, that all living beings equally want happiness and want to avoid suffering. Since we all want happiness and don’t want suffering, if we show others kindness, love and respect, they will respond with kindness, love and respect. If we show others anger, disrespect and contempt, they will show us the same. For this reason, he says that we would be wise to treat everyone just as well as we treat those close to us. Keeping this advice in mind, I suspect we can prevent many disagreements.

About Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Venerable Tenzin Tsepal met Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey, in Seattle and studied Buddhism with her from 1995 to 1999. During that time, Venerable Tsepal attended the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India in 1996 as a lay supporter. An interest in ordination surfaced after she completed a three-month meditation retreat in 1998. She lived in India for two years while continuing to explore monastic life. In 2001, she received sramanerika (novice) ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

While Venerable Tsepal was in India, some Australians friends introduced her to the 5 year Buddhist Studies Program at Chenrezig Institute (CI) north of Brisbane, Queensland, where she subsequently lived and engaged in intensive residential study from 2002-2015. As the Western Teacher at CI, she tutored weekend teachings and retreats, and taught the Discovering Buddhism courses.

Prior to ordaining, Venerable Tsepal completed a degree in Dental Hygiene, and then pursued graduate school in hospital administration at the University of Washington. Not finding happiness in 60 hour work weeks, she was self-employed for 10 years as a Reiki teacher and practitioner.

Now a member of the resident community at Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Tsepal is compiling and editing the many years of Venerable Chodron’s teachings on monastic training as well as leading a review on the Buddhist philosophical tenets for the residents.

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