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Blog: Articles, Tips and Tools for Conflict Resolution and Couples Communication

Articles, inspirations and explorations to support personal growth, healing, and conflict transformation in relationships. 

A Tale of Two Boxes: Re-Visioning the Nature of Conflict

Stuart Watson

“Nature has a three-track mind: it seeks to grow/mature, heal/cleanse and increase diversity/complexity for the greater health of the system.”

This quote from the card entitled “What is this Medicine” from Breaking Through: The Relationship Repair Game has resurfaced in my awareness as the most astounding, clear and hopeful way to see what is what is happening in conflicts between individuals, groups and society.  While I have known this conceptually, recent situations in my life have undeniably demonstrated these universal principles, and will forever change how I work with people in conflict. 

Essentially, each person (or organization/group) exists within a box. 
The floor, ceiling and walls are a durable, complex fabric woven of personality and ego identity habits, past wounds (and unconscious avoidance of them), nervous system wiring, and deep belief systems about self-worth, one’s purpose, relationships and life.  All of these habits, reactions and beliefs (many inherited) developed as adaptions to keep us focused and safe, as we respond to our environment throughout life. 

Yet it is still a box, limiting our ability to holistically interact with the full breadth of what life throws at us.  Meanwhile, evolution has its own agenda, it is perpetually surging through us, trying to surface those wounds for them to be healed, for the organism to upgrade to grow into a healthier, more adaptable version of itself.

I have tended consider the main purpose of counseling and mediation work as healing the relationship between those people, with benefits to all relationships. 
Now I vividly see that anytime a rupture, frustration, or wound is triggered between people, this is really each person sitting within and pushing up against the limitations of their own box, struggling with the edges of their own evolution.  The stress of a specific conflict has us push on all the sides, which tighten and constrict the more we resist the healing or growth that life is asking, and sometimes demanding of us. 

With enough safety and structure (often provided by a skilled therapist or mediator), each person will eventually break through and transform some personality or belief program then gradually settle into to a slightly larger box (until the cycle begins again).  “Breaking through” might look a lot of ways, such as grieving and releasing some old wound, re-connecting with a lost part of themselves, increasing their capacity for compassion, connection, humility or self-acceptance, or finding and trusting an un-shakeable strength at the core when all else falls away.  Unfortunately, when people are lacking the awareness, skills or support, these moments when life is trying to grow and heal us can be misunderstood and mishandled so that they sustain old wounds or even become new ones.

There is never a conflict in which only one person is struggling to mature/heal/diversify, it is always both. 
For example, if I were my completely healed, whole, healthy and vibrant self, and my partner expressed anger and blame toward me, there wouldn’t be a charge or tension; I may simply recognize they were suffering, respond with empathy and support for their healing, and be curious if there was something I could learn about myself that is in my own blind spot.  No ego to protect, no defensiveness. If my angry neighbor came at me screaming and swinging his fists, I might feel fear and the effects of adrenaline, have immediate clarity and take quick action about the most effective way to protect myself now and in the future.  I likely wouldn’t be hampered with thoughts of “how dare he” or “I’m not going to let him bully me, I’ll teach him a lesson”. 

I’m definitely not my completely healed, evolved self, and neither is anybody else.  Luckily, Nature (evolution) will continue to set up these circumstances for us, to nudge us on our way.  In fact, Nature will use any circumstance it can to cue up the psycho-emotional blockage to be removed or re-configured.  It is so brilliant in the orchestration of this task that the same circumstance will surface different and often unrelated growth edges for all involved, with each person or group pushing the edges of their own, unique self-limiting boxes.  Here are two examples:

  • Susan, (who regularly denies her own needs in favor of serving others) reaches her limits and has an emotional break-down at work, leading her to ultimately reset these beliefs and habits with stronger self-care and healthier boundaries.  Susan’s break-down triggers co-worker Leon to become aware that he was avoiding some of the shared work due to his competence insecurities lingering from a prior job, and to rewrite that story now with renewed confidence for the work he has been unconsciously avoiding.  The circumstance further triggers their supervisor Laticia to restructure the overall system by clarifying expectations with the customers.
  • Elena overcomes a habit of “being nice” and not “rocking the boat” when she tells roommate Tobin that he is not doing his part in cleaning, then proceeds to hold Tobin accountable for improving his cleaning habits.  This process triggers Tobin into a wound from his youth, when anything he did around the home was wrong or not good enough for his parents…a wound that is healed as Tobin begin to clean more and receive the other roommates’ approval and appreciation.

Ever noticed how a cat will use any hard surface to scratch against? 

That is precisely how evolution operates, it will use any surface to accomplish its task of growing, healing, and diversifying its participant subjects.  With this insight, I no longer strive to facilitate healing between people…I am instead inspired to assist each person or group in accomplishing the growth and healing they need.  The relationship transactions are merely the format, or leverage in this timeless natural process, and the connection or reconciliation that occurs is a beneficial consequence of what is actually happening.  As a matter of full disclosure; while I know these universal principles to be true, I am still having difficulty trusting that the current chaos of the U.S. political system is a macrocosm expression of the these principles.

A version of this article is available on

Using Art Images in Counseling / Therapy

Stuart Watson

Research shows that 95% of the mind's activity is occupied by the subconscious…the language of images. It is also estimated that the subconscious mind is one million times more powerful than the conscious mind.  For this reason, artistic images such as the cards in “Breaking Through: The Relationship Repair Game” are an engaging and effective tool to use with clients in counseling and therapy.  Provocative, stirring images provide a non-threatening way to convey meaning, surface difficult to express emotions, and reveal unconscious patterns. 

When using art images as part of an intervention, clients can experience a cathartic release that is grounded and more deeply integrated by having something to physically hold and manipulate. The ways to use the deck images with clients are only limited by the imagination. What follows are some tips and ideas to get you started. 

Introducing Art Images to the Client  
I recommend pre-sorting the images into different piles selected for specific purposes, and only setting out 11-22 cards at a time, as to not overwhelm the client with options.  Introduce images to the client in a way that invites their deeper truths and intuition to circumnavigate their habitual stories and defense mechanisms. This is especially important the first time you use the cards, you can use simple reminder cues for subsequent uses. This might sound like:

“Notice which ones you are drawn towards, even if it doesn’t make sense or seem to fit what is on your mind. Try to let the images choose you rather than you choosing them; maybe by some feeling that is evoked (pleasure/curiosity or discomfort), basically either noticeable attracted to or repelled from. Or you might just notice which ones your fingers linger over, trusting the body to guide you.”

Once they have chosen a card, encourage them to sit with the image in silence for a minute, noticing thoughts and feelings that arise.

Rapport Building
In the beginning stages of the appointment you can invite the client to pick an image which calls to them, then after reflecting on it, ask them how it represents what they are bringing in (how they are doing at the moment) or what their goals are for the session. If used early in the session, it is best to use more broad and open ended prompts such as “what do you notice”, “what about the image strikes you”, or “how does that apply to your life?” to let them find the connections that are relevant to their life.

Ask the client to select a card that represents a specific relationship dynamic in their life. It could be a relationship with their partner, parent, or work, or a relationship with another part of themselves, such as their inner judge, their child, their higher self, their past or future self. Some questions you might pose are:

“Describe some of the elements of the image, in terms of how they represent your relationship?”, “What are the primary and secondary (more hidden) emotions the image evokes or expresses?”, “What parts of the image seem fixed/unchangeable and what parts might be altered?”, “What happened right before this moment or what will happen next?”, “How do you imagine the other person feels about being in the image?” (assessing empathy), “What is missing from the image or not adequately represented about this dynamic?”

The images can also be used to identify and work with a troubling or dominating emotion. That might sound like: “If anxiety (or anger) were one of the bodies in one of these images, how would it look? How does it relate to you (the other body)? What would it say? What does it care about?”

Art is an excellent medium for creating and integrating new awareness, rewriting the meaning of old wounds and adopting new narratives, and developing new skills for higher functioning. Having identified an image that represents the prior experience or functioning in a relationship (maybe an image selected in a prior appointment), ask them to select a new image which symbolizes how they want to be, feel, express their new healthy boundaries, exemplify a realistic way to counter the negative cognitive distortion. 

This might sound like: “Pick a new card that symbolizes what it would look and feel like if this problem/habit were solved.” Or, “What card represents how it might look if you could trust/accept yourself more?” Or, “How would it look if anger (or anxiety) were no longer present?”

The client can also describe, or re-draw the image themselves to represent the change they are seeking, changing some of the features and positions of the two beings in relation to each other. For more tangible integration you might ask: “What will it take, and what will you need to do to make that happen?  Metaphorically, how would that look in this image? (To ground their learning with an image they can remember). Are they any potential obstacles, and how would you handle them? What will practically support you in incorporating this new way of acting/being?”

Send the client home with a photocopy of the image they worked with as a reminder of the healing and growth they are undergoing.

End of Session/Closure
Art images can be used to reflect on an emotional shift or progress made pre- and post-session. Make the client a copy of the text side of each card which describes a specific skill, practice the skill with the client during session, then encourage the client to practice that skill with people in their life between sessions.

Other Uses of Art Images
This article is intended to only scratch the surface of ways to use artistic images in counseling environments, and spark your own creativity. Keep in mind that the most potent interventions are ones in which you create in the moment, that are custom tailored to the client and the issues they are currently working to manage, heal, and transform.

What new ways have you discovered to use the art or tools in the card deck?