Can an Ancient Hawaiian Philosophy Resolve Workplace Conflicts?

Scholars, psychologists call ‘Ho’oponopono’ alternative to conventional approaches

By Dana Wilkie May 19, 2014
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The next time you’re confronted with two quarreling employees, you can sit them down, get the back story, then teach them to start sentences with “I hear you saying … ” or “When you do this, I feel … ”

Or, you could go the ancient Hawaiian route and employ the “Ho’oponopono” philosophy of conflict resolution.

Although the philosophy has roots in Eastern traditions, it’s one that Western psychologists have started to research—not only for individual counseling and mediation sessions, but for companies’ HR departments.

Ho’oponopono—pronounced with all long vowels, as in “ho-oh-pono-pono”—is a Hawaiian term that means “to make right” or “to make balanced.”

First used by healing priests among quarreling relatives throughout the South Pacific, its modern iteration focuses on reconciliation and forgiveness, and bears some resemblance to a school of thought in the field of psychology known as transpersonal psychology. In this view, there are three levels to the mind—the subconscious, conscious and superconscious. The subconscious mind contains not only one’s own memories but, at deeper levels, a universal memory bank of all people’s experiences.

Before you laugh—or stop reading—consider that the practice has been studied by reputable U.S. scholars interested in exploring non-Western approaches to conflict management, including Ronda Callister, a professor at Utah State University’s Department of Management and Human Resources, and James A. Wall Jr., the University of Missouri Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Management and a past president of the International Association of Conflict Management. On her website, Harvard University-trained psychologist Betty Phillips, who practices in North Carolina, touted it as a promising approach to “correct relationship problems.” Psychology Today published a May 2011 article about the practice titled “The Hawaiian Secret of Forgiveness.” In the late 20th century, some Hawaiian courts ordered juvenile and adult offenders to work with an elder versed in Ho’oponopono so that offenders and their families could engage in alternative dispute resolution. The court even provided a list of approved practitioners.

“According to Ho’oponopono, whenever I experience something as a problem, it is not the external event—the conflict, the deadline, the other person—that’s giving me the problem; it is rather memories that have been activated in the subconscious mind,” said Jim Nourse, a North Carolina-based clinical psychologist and Chinese medical physician who wrote Opening the Aloha Mind: Healing Self, Healing the World with Ho’oponopono (Balboa Press, 2013). “I do not know what [the memories] are, but I feel their effects as subjective distress.

“Methods that rely only on what [the] conscious mind can strategize only have limited effect. Conscious mind, the one that is always assessing, obsessing, planning, strategizing, trying to make sense of it all, is the least powerful level of consciousness to solve problems from. Subconscious and superconscious levels of mind are far more vast and more endowed with healing capacities. Ho’oponopono is a practice to access these levels of mind.”

Nourse acknowledged that the approach is “a tough notion to grasp for a person educated in Western ways.”

Ho’oponopono employs some modern conflict-resolution tools—listening supportively, offering interpretations, clarifying statements, planning what to say and how to say it. For instance, in traditional Hawaiian practice, sessions typically start by stating the conflict or relationship problem, discussing perceived transgressions, acknowledging everyone’s feelings, and silently reflecting on the emotions and injuries that surfaced.

But there are also spiritual or mystical elements that involve confession, repentance and forgiveness. There are rituals that symbolize letting go of the past and ending the conflict, perhaps with a ceremonial feast of kala seaweed or by giving gifts of leis made from the fruit of the hala tree.

“Ho’oponopono has religious underpinnings, but even if participants chose to eliminate the steps that were clearly referencing God, it still has valuable metaphors and insights that are useful today,” Callister said. “It is common when a difficult dispute arises in organizations that the first place that one side or both sides will turn for assistance is to human resources. It is often of critical importance that HR managers have some understanding of mediation when people come to them for assistance. If HR managers have mediation skills, they may be able to assist in resolving the dispute before the conflict becomes intractable or seriously undermines productivity.”

Ho’oponopono also uses what are called “cleaning tools”to free the subconscious mind of negative, subdued memories. For instance, while listening to a client, Nourse and his clients use words, phrases or visualizations that Nourse believes have the power to “activate a chain of inner events that ultimately results in the erasing of the problematic memories, and therefore the problems that they cause us to experience.”

For instance, when Nourse works with a client, he silently recites mantras—such as “I love you” or “thank you,” both considered “cleaning tools”—that can free the subconscious mind of bad memories and begin to address the conflict, whether it’s internal or with another person.

“The angry husband begins to feel more peaceful,” Nourse said. “Insights come to him about what he feels when he experiences emotional abandonment. From a calmer place, he can listen to his wife’s reactions to him and learn about how he comes across.”

HR Application

So how would this look in the workplace?

“As I get to know the person and hear their story, whatever my internal reaction to their story is, I clean with it—I think to myself ‘love you, thank you’—and as I return to a place of peace and equanimity, my patient begins their own journey of returning to a peaceful place within themselves. If this process were applied to an office conflict, I would be practicing this internal process as I was listening to the stories,” Nourse said.

Nourse acknowledged that applying the philosophy in modern psychotherapy and conflict resolution is “pretty outside the box.”

“But this sort of thing is not without precedent,” he said. “Not so long ago, meditation and acupuncture were dismissed by mainstream medicine and psychology as superstition, but now they are nearing mainstream status as treatment modalities. I would encourage HR departments to consider trying this approach. If for any reason it’s found unacceptable, an alternative would be to send all parties to the conflict on a monthlong, all-expense-paid vacation to Hawaii with the assignment to find a way to get along.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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