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IGNATIAN DISCERNMENT: A Resource for Times of Polarization and Conflict

by | 4 April 2024 | Blog

Ignatian discernment can be a valuable resource for managing conflict in several ways. It includes three dimensions of experience: the subjective, the intersubjective, and the objective, which differentiates it from many methods of decision making that are all about reason and facts, or which neglect emotion, dialogue, or the intuition. Most importantly, discernment understood from an Ignatian perspective is not limited to human capacities on their own, but draws on the resource of grace through prayer. That might seem quaint for some, but my experience is that prayer, both individual and in common, makes a qualitative difference in the process and the outcomes of dialogue and conflict resolution. Here are some key ways in which Ignatian discernment can be applied to times of polarization and conflict management:

  • Seek understanding
  • Analyze reflexively
  • Pray and Meditate
  • Observe the movements of Spirit
  • Seek God’s will
  • Trust the structure and process

1. Seeking Understanding: Ignatian discernment encourages individuals to seek a deep understanding of the perspectives, motivations, and underlying reasons behind conflicts. 

By practicing discernment, individuals can gain insight into the root causes of conflicts and develop empathy for the parties involved. 

We are inspired to seek understanding from a deep reverence for our interrelatedness, our inter-independence with one another and creation, acknowledging that God created all and blessed us with an original dignity and value, and any sense of separateness from others or the rest of creation is an illusion of the fallen self, what we might call the ego. The desire to understand the other expresses this desire to see past this illusion and reconnect, forgiving and reconciling if that’s what is called for. 

Jesus’ instructions related to our neighbor point to this profound sense of our interconnectedness of our consequential duty to care. By extension, so much of conflict management is about reconciling ways that the use of unilateral power has betrayed this connectedness and undermined the mutuality that we’re called to both in relationship, and in our exercise of power, and our use of resources. 

In these polarized times, seeking understanding is helped by a spirit of humility, the clarity that my perspective, no matter how well researched, is partial and full of blind spots. If in humility, I recognize the inherent dignity of the other person, I may at first find myself in vehement disagreement with their perspective, but trusting that they are a person with integrity, intelligence, and a desire to pursue the good as they understand it, how can I not be curious to understand their reasoning, their values. This can help me recognize that we are often stuck holding one value within a polarity that would seem exclusive of the other perspective or value. But holding this stance of humble, genuine curiosity can open up a whole world, or at least an alternative worldview with its own validity and merit.

2. Reflective Analysis: Ignatian discernment involves reflective analysis and introspection. When applied to conflict management, it allows individuals to carefully examine their own reactions, attitudes, and biases in the context of conflict. 

This self-awareness can lead to more effective and empathetic communication. What is my part in this? How do I acknowledge my own sin, attachment, bias and brokenness so that I can avoid projecting these on others? How do I remove the beam of wood from my own eye?

3. Prayer and Meditation: Ignatian discernment emphasizes the importance of prayer and meditation as a means of seeking guidance and wisdom.

In the context of conflict, prayer and meditation can help individuals find inner peace, clarity, and a sense of direction when dealing with difficult situations. Trying to see or strategize without the benefit of prayer means that we are relying on our own partial and limited thinking for solutions. It is often our partial thinking that got us into trouble in the first place! Without prayer, we are like the blind following the blind. This is why Jesus constantly entered into prayerful communication with his Father, so that he might have a wider view.

4. Consolation and Desolation: Ignatian discernment recognizes the experiences of consolation (inner peace, clarity, and positive movement) and desolation (inner turmoil, confusion, and negative movement).

When managing conflict, individuals can use discernment to recognize moments of consolation as affirmations of positive steps and desolation as indicators for further reflection and action. We need to be mindful of the spirit in which we are entering into any decision or action, otherwise we are not acting with consciousness, but rather from a reactive and often self protective set of unconscious defense mechanisms and patterns of compensation. 

5. Seeking God’s Will: Ignatian discernment involves seeking God’s will and aligning one’s decisions with spiritual guidance.

In the context of conflict, individuals can use discernment to discern the most just and compassionate course of action, seeking resolution that reflects God’s values of love, justice, and reconciliation. Seeking God’s will helps us make space for the good of others, for the inclusion of their well-being, their protagonism for their goals, not only our own. We need to be challenged and helped by grace to transcend our limits and expand our perspective, to be liberated from our fears, our biases. Jesus, too, had the experience of needing to expand his view of his mission, and of being led beyond his own fears.

6. Decision-Making Framework: Ignatian discernment provides a structured framework and process for decision-making, including the consideration of various options, potential consequences, and the greater good.

Applying this framework to conflict management can help individuals make well-informed decisions that prioritize reconciliation and understanding. Conflict management is messy, so having a process of dialogue, consultation, decision making and decision taking can help to structure the way forward. These boundaries help shape expectations, build trust, consensus, etc. 

Overall, Ignatian discernment offers a holistic approach to conflict management, integrating spiritual, emotional, and intellectual elements to guide individuals through challenging situations with insight, empathy, and a mutual commitment to seeking God’s will.

Fr. David McCallum, S.J.

Fr. David McCallum, S.J.

Executive Director of the Program for Discerning Leadership

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