Sit by the River or Engage?

“If you sit by the river long enough you can watch the bodies of your enemies float by.”  – The Art of War

This is an expression offered often by my good friend and colleague Jerry Nagel, particularly when conflict surfaces, and it comes from The Art of War. It is a provocative and intriguing statement and I have been viewing it as invitation.  An invitation to pause.  An invitation to host self. An invitation to sense whether to engage a conversation or situation with someone else or let it be.

Mississipi river

Not every conversation is worthy of engaging.  Not every conversation will produce results or take you to a clearer place. Not every conversation will do what you think or hope you want it to do. Coming from an Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter perspective, you might wonder if that is almost a sacrilegious thing to say; but perhaps part of the discernment is in whether ultimately the conversation will matter – and to whom?

To truly invite a conversation that might be powerful, it is helpful to discern your own desire and motivation in wanting the conversation.  This is part of the inquiry in the pause, in hosting self.  What is the reason for the conversation? Are you really wanting a conversation or do you just want to make your point or download on the other person and not care about or hear their point of view?

This is where a second bit of advice is useful:  “Feedback should be given from the part of you that wants to grow and learn to the part of them that wants to grow and learn.”  I’m not sure where it is from but I heard it in an Open Space session that Juanita Brown initiated on World Café at the Art of Hosting Stewards Gathering in October 2013 in Minnesota.  It gave me pause and invited me to reflect about some situations requiring my discernment – whether to invite a conversation or not – or a few.

When you ask yourself if you want to give feedback from the part of you that wants to learn and grow, it becomes pretty clear.  If you are willing to be in conversation, if you can do it without attachment to how the other person takes it in, you might be ready to invite the conversation.  If you are only wanting to download and don’t want to hear the other person’s perspective then it might not be wise to engage the conversation – because it is not a conversation you are wanting, only an opportunity to express yourself, your frustration or your hurt.  An opportunity to blame someone or point out where they are not hosting themselves – from your perspective of course – because how do you know they are not hosting themselves in whatever way they relate to that practice of presence?  It is your assumption, your lens, your perspective, your judgment and it might not be true. And, in all likelihood, it is not true in their experience of themselves – as hard you might find that to believe.

And it also quite likely the other person’s actions have nothing to do with you and more to do with them, what they need, what they hope for.  You just happen to seem to be in the way.  Sitting by the river will help you discern that.  If it has nothing to do with you, and the other person is either intentionally or unintentionally trying to cause harm, eventually it will catch up to them and they will, metaphorically of course, float down the river. We see or feel lack of alignment in others, even when it is not clear, even when we cannot put a name to things.  Simply waiting may reveal far more than engaging – in some situations, since we are our own worst enemies and motivation and intention eventually reveal themselves.

Sometimes when you are being challenged it has nothing to do with you. By hosting yourself you might be able to sort that out.  If you engage something in a defensive or challenging way you are more likely to fuel the situation than turn it into a powerful conversation. And you can ask yourself questions like: What is the point of engaging?  Will it be a learning field?  Is there an ongoing relationship that needs to be tended to? Can it be left alone?

When you do engage, engage the conversation, not the person. Invite the conversation with as much clarity as you can and bring the level of fierceness to it that will make it powerful.   Sometimes that is a light touch and sometimes it is very fierce and it can be more fierce when it comes from a place of clarity and compassion.

And sometimes the conversations “just” happen on their own – ready or not. Right timing. Right moment. Right circumstance. And if you’ve been in an exploration of your own motivations, intent and clarity, you will be ready, even if you don’t feel ready. And it is always a choice – even in the times you might feel it is not. Sit by the river or engage?

16 thoughts on “Sit by the River or Engage?

  1. Very timely for me, Kathy, and very helpful. I love the phrase “Feedback should be given from the part of you that wants to grow and learn to the part of them that wants to grow and learn.”
    Now let’s see if I can act on it!

    • Yes, Grady, that phrase also resonated deeply with me and was a good point of discernment in whether to engage or just leave be. And when engaging, to offer from that place, and from the place of compassion and generosity – for myself and for the other too. Good luck with your conversation(s).

  2. Lovely article, Kathy!

    For me, one of the wildest principles I ´ve learned from Art ot Hosting is “silence is part of the conversation”. The conversations that matter are already in the field. Didn´t every soul has decided to engage in the game of life for grow and learning? Is´nt grow and learn the very purpose of every living being? Is there something we do (or don´t) that does not serve to this original purpose? Many of the complex questions of our times has a lot to do with old hurt and pain, and the possibility to overcome it through love, compassion and forgiveness is also already “in the field”. So, the field contains itself a certain frequency, you and I are attracted to it; what defines if the conversation will assume material form (words) and what direction will it take maybe has to do with how we express and react to each other personalities , but the “invitation” for the conversation is already there. Even the process of choosing to engage in a verbal conversation or not is already a conversation, isn´t? Or, if we engage in a conversation and I am ” wanting only an opportunity to express myrself, my frustration or my hurt”, it doesn´t make of me your enemy. It does means you must be much more aware whem talking to me. Wouldn´t be possible to understand it as a great opportunity for mutual growing and learning? Would´nt be a great conversation if youI could still hold your presence, host my being and honor the field, in silence? And if I were inspired by this quality of presence of yours, how far could we go?

    Brazilian kisses, my beautiful friend!!

    • Darlene, I love the reminder that silence is part of the conversation. And I love what you have written here and I realize that not every challenge is mine to take on. Sometimes the learning and growth may be in letting some things be – in “sitting by the river”.

  3. Thanks Kathy, I have heard the saying about the bodies floating by but never knew where it came from and didn’t realise such a gruesome saying would have such applicability in my work! I enjoyed reading this article and thiking about that dilemma moment where i ask myself: “Do I bother telling them? Will they even listen? Will anything change?”
    I like the idea of taking the time to think about what part of me the feedback is coming from.
    Thanks for your insights.

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