UnRival Spaces:
Resisting Rivalry Burnout

Baseballs on a field.
Transcript: A Discussion with Gena St. David & Lyle Enright

John Paul Lederach once said, “During times of crisis, when our instinct is to act and act quickly, we must take the time to choose our responses carefully, and to keep long term aims in mind.” He urges us to think about the day after the election, or the day after the peace treaties are signed, focusing on tasks like healing conflict, trauma, and loss caused by violence. Our first response when times are urgent, he warned, is not always the best one for long-term solutions.

A bit of African wisdom cautions us in a similar way. “The times are urgent,” so the saying goes. “Let us slow down.” It can be hard but essential to slow down during crises, and our responses to each other–in person and online–can help or hinder long term solutions.

This transcript from a recent unRival Spaces event focuses on slowing down. Artisan of Peace alumnus Dr. Gena St. David and unRival Research Director Lyle Enright invited our audience into their ongoing conversation about the art and science of nurturing peace in ourselves and our communities.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Gena, we’ve become fast friends over the last two years and have regular conversations about spirituality, the body, and maintaining our wellbeing. More recently we’ve talked about technology and how it influences our attempts to regulate and take care of ourselves. 

We’ve talked a lot about these kinds of cul de sac arguments that social media invites us into. Social media doesn’t invite us to slow down and think ahead; it thrives off our first reactions. You and I have talked a lot about how we oughtn’t trust our gut responses too much. But the truth is that the body can be such a helpful ally in our search for truth, when we learn to listen beyond our gut. 

For those just joining us, can you unpack some of your own work on these topics? How have you or your students been challenged positively or negatively by technology?

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

I’m appreciating the technological theme of this conversation, because it’s such an ever-present challenge for us that will continue being part of our daily lives. I’m optimistic about technology, about AI, and about the ways the internet and social media are creating a smaller world for us. I’m regularly asking myself, what are the small little practices and rhythms that will help us embody our highest values in these new formats? What is the larger goal we’re all after?

We should start by naming some of the complexities. One obvious one is that, whenever we’re engaging in a conversation with someone else online, especially if it’s asynchronous, we’re still having a human to human interaction. And there are some features of that interaction that are exactly the same as if we were face to face – our brains are still firing in similar ways. But there are a lot of features missing, which create a shroud of secrecy about the fullness of the person on the other end of the conversation. And when we are faced with the unknown, our imagination tends to fill in the gap with the worst assumption, the most threatening expectations about the other person and their intentions.

So I really appreciate this idea of slowing down! How do we do just that? On a neuro-biological level, how do we slow down? And what are the practices that help ?

"There’s a valid place for online debate. If we know what we’re doing, it may be one of the more fun ways to use social media; a sort of duel of opinions. If we know what’s happening in ourselves and others, those forums can feel like a practice field for the left brain, where we can refine our abilities to articulate a point or position or insight. It’s like Little League: practicing pitching and hitting and catching."

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

I’ve become much more interested in what my body is doing during a conflict. I felt my own online interactions get so tense over the last five years. I realized how often I was just trying to demonstrate my own righteousness, and had very little to feel proud of after the fact. There were a lot of physical feelings associated with that. Feelings of being “heightened” or fearful. Of anticipating the worst, like you said. 

Being aware of those chemical feedback loops is important no matter what kind of interaction we’re having. But you mentioned that some things about online conversation are actually the same as face-to-face. Can you say more about the similarities and differences, and the kinds of attention they require?

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

First off, I’ll say that I think there’s a valid place for online debate. If we know what we’re doing, it may be one of the more fun ways to use social media; a sort of duel of opinions. If we know what’s happening in ourselves and others, those forums can feel like a practice field for the left brain, where we can refine our abilities to articulate a point or position or insight. It’s like Little League: practicing pitching and hitting and catching.

Now, even in Little League, things get heated and people get hurt and parents throw things, but one of the benefits for the kids is that there’s an agreed upon set of rules and everyone knows they’re there to have fun and we’re not supposed to take it too seriously. I wish online debate functioned more the same way, because there could be value, some playfulness, if we all know we’re just exercising our logical muscles. 

So I think rivalry is a good word for what ends up happening, when our bodies go into “threat mode”. It can mean sparring with a worthy opponent in a safe, fun zone, making each other stronger and smarter and better. But it becomes a problem when we perceive our opponent as a threat to something I want or need, or to my wellness, my loved ones, my tribe. At that point, I’m thinking in terms of resources and scarcity. And when that happens we should notice what our bodies are doing: Why am I worried? What do I feel is at risk right now? What’s the harm I’m worried will come from this person saying what they’re saying? Or failing to hear what I have to say?

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

It took me a long time to recognize that “threat” response, especially in arguments with people I considered close friends. Just based on the fact that we were disagreeing, I found myself doubting whether we shared the same values anymore. I got defensive, and acted like our friendship depended on me winning the argument. How ironic, to think that fighting back would somehow prove we were still on the same side!

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

That makes a lot of sense, actually, because in that kind of context, if you win, it’s because they agreed you had made a solid case for the values you advocated.

It makes me think about my brother. I’ve felt close with him our whole lives. But now we’re in very different contexts where our social circles are reinforcing different values for us. I know that, at our core, we both care deeply about people. But a few years ago, he posted something I’m sure he’d been told by his pastor or his community. It was about immigration, or some specific immigration law, and his position felt very threatening to other people in my circles–people I feel deeply and empathetically connected with.

So I saw his position, saw the direct threat to my friends’ wellbeing, and I really wanted to debate him in that same forum. I can’t actually remember how I navigated that, but I’m sure I did say something, and that it didn’t make any difference. 

And the thing is, the chances of actually shifting anyone’s core paradigm around anything is so low online. It takes multiple repetitions of being exposed mostly to people’s stories that pull on our right-brain, the emotional-relational side of us. Logic alone rarely makes a long term difference.

But I had an epiphany months later. After my brother posted those hurtful things online, I visited him and went to my niece’s soccer game. My brother and sister [in law] have five kids, they both work, they’re really busy. This time, someone was sick, somebody had to take the kids to soccer, somebody had to figure out dinner, and I saw people in their community that were so helpful–that were like, “Let us pick up this one from school, let us bring you a casserole.” I realized that, in order to influence my brother’s theology or his opinion about immigration, I would need to be the person picking his kids up from soccer and bringing the casserole when they’re sick. Because it’s that kind of bodily relational connection that opens up space inside us to really hear somebody challenge our way of thinking.

I’ll add a layer of research that helps me make sense of that phenomenon. It comes out of relational cultural theory, which suggests we need a core circle of about five trustworthy relationships we can rely on. Relationships that meet our physical, relational, and emotional needs. When shifting our perspective on something like immigration is going to violate one of those core relationships, those stakes prevent us from even entertaining the possibility of thinking differently about it.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard you tell that story, but I’m hearing something new in it this time: when your brother posted something, it not only made you uncomfortable, but it made you uncomfortable for the other people in your circle. And that’s another distinction between being online and face to face: online, we are always being watched by others. People who agree with us watch us to see how we interact with those they disagree with. We never quite leave our circle, our tribe; even when they’re not involved [in an argument], we feel seen by them, right? We feel the weight of their expectations. So you, you had to actually go out of your way, to be physically present with your brother and his community, to have your insight. As long as we’re online, we can never really do that. Never fully immerse ourselves in another’s life and in what’s valuable to them. 

But even so, what are some small ways we can try? Few of us ever have a chance to eat dinner with someone we’ve fought with online, but what are ways we can bridge the gap? Let’s put your optimism about technology to the test!

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

The first place my mind goes is Dan Siegel’s interpersonal approach to neurobiology. He always says, “Connect before you disconnect.” What he means by that is, find some right-brain to right-brain resonance with the other person, whether through facial expressions or eye contact. If you’re not in person, use video. If you’re working with just text, ask some right-brain questions. Reflect back what you’re hearing. “I think you’re letting me know you really care about this.” Try to connect with the person under the words. For example, I’m in Texas. Our politics is that we need a strong border. But underneath that political talking point is a diversity of people with a diversity of values and worries. Try and speak to those.

Also, when in doubt, go to the body. Admit to how something makes you feel. Nervous, or fluttery. We all have those body-feelings in common, and mentioning it just adds a different element to the conversation.

"Rivalry is a good word for what ends up happening, when our bodies go into threat mode. It can mean sparring with a worthy opponent in a safe, fun zone, making each other stronger and smarter and better. But it becomes a problem when we perceive our opponent as a threat to something I want or need, or to my wellness, my loved ones, my tribe. "

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

These are such important habits because they’re things that anyone can do. It doesn’t have to be a labor every time. But as you mentioned, it is harder to do these things in writing, rather than in person or on video. How do we signal peace with the written word? You’ve already mentioned some strategies like mirroring and naming values, but it feels very difficult to communicate that says we’re there to understand, not to have a fight. Correcting misinformation is a good example; how do we show up peacefully when someone is in need of correction?

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

That can be hard! Even for me, correcting someone factually still makes my body feel tense because I’m anticipating withdrawal, or a shame response for them. I empathize with that and feel I somehow caused it. But tolerating that stress in my body is part of the work; I need to build that muscle of trusting my own judgment and holding on to what I’ve discerned. You can be open and relational without compromising your sense of what’s true. One example is something I’ve seen you do in our interactions over time, which is inviting an open feedback loop. Testing the waters, seeing if someone is even open to a different perspective or piece of information.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

The speed of information also makes it hard to be confident, to feel like we have a handle on the truth. Things go so fast, and what I think is true might not be true! So there’s a tension between sticking to your guns, being uncompromising about the truth, but also admitting you might be wrong. You have to show that your own “will to truth” wins out over your desire to be right.

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

I like that as a goal. I believe humility and confidence can coexist. I think there are easy phrases we can keep in our pocket that help signal that. Just saying, “You could be right, I could be wrong,” builds a bridge between us. I’m also a fan of the phrase, “I’m working with the idea that…” This signals that what I’m about to say is just an idea. I’m not sure of its truth. It’s still evolving. Then I can ask, “How does it sync up with your ideas? What you’re reading? Might they both possibly be true, and if so, how?”

I like how we can use language to signal what we believe to be possible, rather than objectively true. Because we’re all coming from different perspectives. We’re all discerning together. The more of us that speak about our perception and perspective, the more reality settles.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

And when we signal that we’re showing up in good faith, that we’re not here to get into a fight, that feedback loop settles us, too. That’s ultimately what this is about, right? How to resist the burnout of rivalry in ourselves. Can you say more about what “showing up” in these ways does to us, internally?

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

I love everything about that question. What is the impact on our own body, when we’re being humble and kind with another? Because there is an impact; our mirror networks light up when we treat another person as if we were that person. Within that is the insight that we can only be as nonviolent with others as we are with ourselves first. So what does it mean to be nonviolent with myself?

The first place my mind goes is back to that question of having wrong factual information. How often am I violent with myself about being wrong, shaming myself, criticizing myself? Or could I instead have compassion on myself in those moments? Can I just be genuinely grateful for receiving correct information, and not go to any kind of violent shame place inside my head for having been wrong? 

I’m also a person who cares passionately about many things, and I want to be involved in advocating for those things, to the degree that sometimes I neglect my body. Slowing down, eating well, drinking water, sleeping, meditating, not overfilling my schedule, those are all ways to be tender to myself, to treat myself nonviolently. And if treating myself well prepares me to treat the other well, those tiny micro practices in daily life might be the number one peacebuilding difference we can make in the world, and everything else may flow from that.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

A few questions from the audience: “The thing I have trouble dealing with is when issues get framed as existential, as life or death sorts of issues. How can I discern if something is an existential threat? Because my heart does race, and I have trouble not getting angry if I think someone else is part of that problem.”

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

I so resonate with that racing heart! When I hear that, I’m like, “Oh, that’s it. That’s how terrible things are perpetuated: [by being framed as life-or-death.” The anxiety] multiplies exponentially across time, and it leads to awful tragedy. And it’s tempting to play whack-a-mole, to think I can just squash those things one by one, and the tragedy will never manifest.

But what does the research show about how change actually occurs? It’s not [through squashing arguments]. It’s through relationships. We are essentially the sum of our top four or five relationships. So [we have to be] really investing well in those relationships, seeing what kind of ripple effect we can have. I’ve heard it said that in every group of 25, it only takes five relentless people to eventually shift the opinions of the other 20. 80% of the time, they can pull it off. But it takes slowness, thoughtfulness, and repetition. It’s a marathon.

The little things we do add up to make a big difference. That helps me discern what is my patch of garden and how to tend it well. I don’t have to respond to every “life-or-death” issue. But if I’m not going to respond, it has to be because I’m focused on a better, more effective response elsewhere.

"If treating myself well prepares me to treat the other well, those tiny micro practices in daily life might be the number one peacebuilding difference we can make in the world, and everything else may flow from that."

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Here’s one from someone who shared about their grief over the violence in Gaza. Someone then asked for evidence that civilians were really being targeted. The poster says, “I was really angered by the lack of empathy for such vast human suffering reflected in that question.” As if having our facts straight would get us off the hook of feeling anything about such violence. This seems to be an example of conflicting values, where one person focuses on the facts and doesn’t realize how cold and jarring they sound. And I think we’re especially sensitive to that when trying to express grief, confusion, vulnerability in a public space. We are being as humble as we can, and then it feels like we’re met by a stone wall.

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

Stonewall is a good word for it. I have a lot of empathy for that. It makes me think of marginalized communities who put limits on their public practices and on social media because they receive messages like this. That question reality. That’s really what it is. And setting limits becomes hugely healing and helpful and connective, an act of nonviolent resistance and so on.


And I don’t know that I have a technical answer for how to respond. Feeling alone or questioned in our grief intensifies that grief; isolation makes it worse. But I think feeling the grief and the isolation also connects us with what we care about and value. Feeling that pain transforms us and makes us more empathetic. And it’s not like we need pain to make us more empathetic, but sometimes that’s all there is to do, is feel. Feel the racing heart or the shame. I’m feeling it now. And in the end there’s value in just feeling what we’re feeling, and not rushing to respond.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Thank you, Gena!

Dr. Gena St. David
Gena

Thank you for having me!

Dr. Gena St. David works as a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, with a specialization in systems, trauma, and brain science. She took part in the inaugural cohort of our Artisans of Peace program and is currently researching commonalities among nonviolent practitioners across global traditions.

To learn more about Gena’s work in theology and neuroscience, we encourage you to visit her website and get a copy of her book, The Brain and the Spirit.

To get an invite to our next unRival Spaces event, click here to subscribe to our mailing list.

If you enjoyed this post, consider the following blog posts:

Want to learn more about how unRival Network and the Artisans of Peace program are disrupting rivalry and advancing the cause of justice and peace? Click here to access our free resource, Peace is Possible.

Hold onto hope with us.


When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

By contributing as little as $25, you join us in supporting peacebuilders who are bringing creative solutions to the world’s toughest problems. Your donation funds leadership formation programs, research, and resources for those resisting rivalry with you.