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The Making of a Peacemaker

An Interview with Christian Conte

@CANDACE LANG PHOTOGRAPHY

In his new book Walking Through Anger, Christian Conte describes a clear and simple path to inner and outer-peace using what he calls Yield Theory. Proven in prisons, this practice works—if you choose to live it.

S&H: You write that your mom didn’t tell you to stay away from fights in high school. Instead, she told you to step in a break them up.

Christian: That’s right. My mom taught ninth grade English. She was a really thin woman, and still the kids were scared to death of her because she was a real disciplinarian—the kind you really appreciate later on. She told me just before ninth grade that she’d better never find out that I’d watched a fight. So I never did. I’d always jump right in to break it up.


S&H: What did you learn from that?

Christian:That you don’t wait for somebody else to do something. After high school, when I started studying psychology, I studied what’s called the ‘diffusion of responsibility.’

Basically, that means the more people who are around, the less likely anybody is to do anything to help. That really seems to be true—and I learned that years before I learned there was a term for it. My mom told me that when you see something, you do something. That was a huge lesson.


S&H: What gave you the confidence?

Christian:I was a tall, skinny kid in high school. I probably weighed 150 and graduated at 160. But I took martial arts and boxing and kickboxing. So I felt physically confident to step in and help where I could.

Now, my message is never to tell people that they should go jumping into violent situations. I feel confident in han- dling violent situations partly because of my background and my training, but also because I really do lead with love. If I go into a violent situation on the street, I’m saying, ‘Listen, I’m here to help you. That’s all I’m here to do is help you. I’m trying to help you not spend time behind bars.’ All of a sudden that shifts the energy. I’m not coming at you like somebody else. I’m saying I’m here with you.

S&H: You’ve worked out a formula for how to deal with anger and potential violence. How did that come about?

Christian: [Laughs] The first time I read Hegel, I said to myself, this

is ridiculous. The writing was so convoluted that I swore to myself that when I got older I would help make stuff make sense for people. Make it easy. So I really stepped back

and asked myself, ‘What do I do?’ I listen, I validate, and I explore options. That’s what I do. That’s the essence of it.

And those three steps are something other people can latch onto. Of course, it’s how you listen, how you validate, how you explore options that makes a ton of difference. It’s almost like Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point: You repeat the three steps, and once you get to a certain point, it does become easy.

S&H: You’re walking into a maximum-security prison with people on death row …

Christian: I’ve always had a philosophy of meeting people where they are. I think that’s such a powerful phrase, and I hear a lot of people use it who don’t actually do it. I genuinely make an effort to meet people where they are—not just in that moment, not just that one time—but in every moment. Sometimes people really want to change, and 10 minutes later they changed their mind. So I need to constantly assess where people are.

When it comes to prison, I think we put up barriers between inmates and ourselves that are imaginary. What I experience are inmates saying, ‘Thanks for being interested. Thanks for actually listening.’ It’s not even a whole lot of effort. It’s just the effort to listen and treat a person like a human. That doesn’t mean I’m going to get you whatever you ask for. It doesn’t mean I’ll do whatever you want. But I can listen. I can be here, I can empathize.

Bringing that home, we’re coming into the holiday season and we’ve got readers who may be dreading the interactions. What’s the best preparation?

One tip I give to people who are dreading going home or

apprehensive in some ways is this: There’s generally a big difference between the world as it actually is and the world the way you think it should be—what I call the cartoon world. The vast majority of the problems occur because people align their expectations with the cartoon world. ‘Aunt Sally should be interested in what I’m saying this year’ or ‘Uncle Tim shouldn’t cut me off at dinner.’ So long as you align your expectations with the cartoon world, you’re let down. When you learn to align your expectations with reality, however, you’re more prepared.

We also have a tendency to minimize the harm we cause others, but maximize the harm they cause us. So, if we say something hurtful or annoying to our family members, we readily excuse ourselves: ‘I didn’t mean to do that. They shouldn’t have taken it so seriously.’ But when they do the same to us, whoa! It’s enormous! That’s why it’s so important to align your expectations with reality. Lead with humility. Recognize you also mess up. Be easy on others just as you would want them to be on you.

S&H: What about dealing with somebody who you really think is completely just full of it.

Christian: People are entitled to believe whatever they want. One time I was in a maximum-security women’s prison and there was a woman in a single cell—the hole—and she was telling me how she saw 28 other people in there with her. Now, I didn’t see those 28 other people, but who am I to say they weren’t there? That’s what she saw from her perspective. They were real to her. So, I’m going to listen to her. I’m going to validate her. And then I’m going to explore options. What can we do from here?

I told her that I wasn’t able to see the other people. But I respect that she could. And I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in a space that small with so many other people.

So I asked, ‘Where do we go from here?

We’re not able to open the door. We can’t just let you out. What can we do? What can I do?’ And that human connection proved to be transformative because I actually cared.

S&H: When did you begin to figure this out in your own life?

Christian: I’ve meditated for many, many years, and it was after a meditation that I first thought of Yield Theory. I started imagining driving along and seeing another car going the wrong way down the road. If I smashed into it head on, I would stop the car, but we’d both get hurt. But what if I could merge with them, yield with them. Then I could drive down the road the same way until eventually they would invite me into their car and I could start to see out of their windshield—to actually be seeing what they’re seeing. And then over time they would allow me to drive—to steer them down a different path. That’s where the idea of Yield Theory originally came from.

It actually started as a child. My dad was an English professor and he taught me to ask questions about literature. And I wondered why we were supposed to dislike the bad guy. I became fascinated by how we villainize people—how we decide who is going the wrong way down the road and what we should do about it. When I graduated college and started to work, I went into homes with dirt floors and fly traps hanging about, and I realized it’s one thing to judge people from the outside, but another to live a day in their home. When people are struggling for resources, how are they’re supposed to do everything as consciously as someone with every comfort?

Really listening and learning other people’s perspectives wipes away judgment. I really do believe this, and I work with people who are serial murderers and serial rapists. I believe that if I lived every day as that person, I would’ve made every single decision they made. It never puts me in a position to say, ‘You should have known better.’ No, you did everything you possibly could have done with the information you had.

Now I absolutely know that some people need to be in solitary confinement forever because of what they’ve done to every cellmate they’ve ever had. There are some people who definitely need to be in isolation, but that doesn’t mean we need to dehumanize them. I can still listen to you, I can still treat you with kind- ness, and I can respect you.

S&H: It’s easy to get trapped in anger. How does a person break out of that? And why should they? Anger can be fun.

Christian: Yeah. Anger is fun for a lot of people. Breaking free of anger is about understanding levels of consciousness—and by consciousness, I just mean awareness. One of the lowest levels

of consciousness is shame. When you live in shame, you act out of shame. If I feel like I’m a no-good piece of nothing, then why not hurt you? Above shame is depression. Anyone who’s ever struggled with depression knows that it’s awful. You feel like there’s nothing you can do. You’re stuck. Above depression is anxiety—and the stress hormones of anxiety feel awful, too.

Now, here’s the point: Above anxiety, depression, and shame is anger. In other words, we would much rather be angry than live in shame, depression, or anxiety. So anger certainly can feel good for people, and you’re not wrong or bad for feeling anger. But we lash out in anger. Neurologically, when we lash out, our brain is flooded with endorphins. It feels good. The problem is that most healthy people then regret lashing out. So they go back own to shame. And they get stuck in what I call the cycle of shame. The real challenge is this: People see your actions, not your intentions. So it doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to lash out at somebody. If you do, you do. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t mean to hurt somebody. You did.

One of the most profound lessons I teach is there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to every emotional experience, which means that no matter how angry you get, it will eventually go away. So the question is, will you make a decision in the beginning or middle of that anger that you can’t take back? Because remember, emotions come and go, but actions are permanent. You may be dealing with the consequences of your actions long after that emotion went away.


S&H: So, I’m trapped in my anger …

Christian: If you’re telling me you’re really angry, I’m going to listen to you, and I’m going to validate it. I’m going to do my best to see the world the way you’re seeing it. I want to see your anger. And once you feel like someone else actually hears you— and that’s true validation—you’re going to release some of that anger. You will feel better. Now, from my perspective, I’m thinking, now let’s figure out what can we do from here. Let’s explore options.

Let’s say you’re the one who’s trapped in the anger. What can you do for yourself? In your case, you want to sit with it and ask, Can I step outside myself? Can I become the observer and say, ‘Wow! this person is really angry right now. His heart is racing and he seems really upset.’

We master what we practice. We master whatever we practice. If we practice impulsivity—’I’m really angry, so I’m going to lash out’—we get really good at that. We become masters at lashing out impulsively.

I once wrote an article called ‘Master Complainer Syndrome.’ If you complain a lot, you’re going to become a master complainer. But if we can practice self-discipline, we get really good at that, too. We master what we practice. So I try to teach people that when you’re angry, it’s okay to be angry. It’s not something wrong or bad. Sometimes anger is an awesome motivator and you need it to get yourself out of a tough situation. Sometimes anger is pushing you to be impulsive: ‘I want what I want, when I want it’— and it’s okay to say to yourself, ‘This feeling is going to pass.’

I was at a prison in Georgia, consulting there for the first time, when a guy was stabbed. They had taken another guy down to the hole. He was furious, fired up, doesn’t want to talk to anybody. So at first I said to him, ‘Listen, I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I have no idea what happened. But you’re pissed. I see that.’ He said, ‘I’m going to get [attack] the guards. You wait, I’m going to get the guards.’

I said, ‘Listen, my man, if you need to get the guards then that’s what you need to do. But how old are you?’ He said 23. ‘In two years, how old you gonna be?’ He said 25. I said, ‘If you attack a guard right now, in two years you will still be 25. And you will probably still be down here in the hole. So what I’m asking you is not for me, not for anybody else, but for your future self. Can you think about your future self? Because right now you want to lash out. Say, ‘I didn’t do it,’ all this stuff. But can you think of your future self?’ He said, ‘Man, I wish I met you under different circumstances because I can tell you’re a very encouraging individual.’

I said, ‘Listen, my man, I know this isn’t you. This is one moment of your life. I don’t think this is all of you.’ He said, ‘It’s not.’ And then I said, ‘I believe that you have the discipline and the strength to fight through this moment. Not lash out at the guard, not lash out at someone else. Not just for them, but for you.’ I went back down in like two months and they said the dude had been doing really well.

One last thing: I’m not seeing your side so that you see my side. This is not a trade. I’m seeing your side because I want to see your side. The byproduct of being all in is that people then want to see what the heck you’re doing. They’re reaction is, ‘You’re able to see my side in the midst of all this anger. I want to do that, too.’

Walking Through Anger Cover
Walking Through Anger

The Practice of Acceptance

The word “acceptance” can seem misleading in the context of a discussion about anger and conflict, especially if someone assumes that it refers to accepting violence or mistreatment in any way; of course, it does not. The fundamental component of acceptance centers on meeting others where they are and accepting the reality of what is actually happening, who is involved (including you), and, perhaps most importantly, where people are in their readiness and preparedness to change.

The goal is for you to employ the kind of self-discipline that allows you to leave where you are to go meet others where they are, not expecting them to know what you know or do what you do, and then help them take the most effective next steps for them, without irrationally

demanding that they should magically skip forward to where you want them to be. As you practice recognizing what is actually happening, you can begin to make whatever realistic changes are possible. —Christian Conte, PhD

From Walking Through Anger: A New Design for Confronting Conflict in an Emotionally Charged World by Christian Conte, PHD. Published by Sounds True.

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