In my most recent post I shared some emerging thoughts on the notion of redefining our relationship with conflict.  I continue to be engaged by this challenge, as I am daily reminded of the approach/avoidance relationship many have with conflict.  I encounter so many in my work who define themselves as conflict averse.   Given a choice they work hard to avoid and even deny the existence of conflict in both their personal and professional lives. 

And yet, for example in a teaching context, I might share a quote such as the following from Peter Senge: 

In great teams, conflict becomes productive.  The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own.

Some, who have just described themselves as conflict averse, upon hearing this perspective, light up, nod their heads, and acknowledge that yes this is indeed a possibility.  For many, it is more than a possibility but descriptive of actual experience.  It is but one more example of our polarized relationship with conflict.

I recently attended a conference at which Bernard Mayer, author of Staying with Conflict: A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Disputes, was a keynote speaker.  As I have shared previously, this book has been instrumental in triggering my interest in this challenge.  During his presentation he shared the following quote:

Conflict flows from life. Rather than seeing conflict as a threat, we can understand it as providing opportunities to grow and to increase our understanding of ourselves, of others, of our social structures. Conflicts in relationships at all levels are the way life helps us to stop, assess, and take notice.  One way to truly know our humanness is to recognize the gift of conflict in our lives.

John Paul Lederach

This takes the issue to a different level for me.  In the first quote the emphasis is on improving our collective capacity to engage complex challenges with creative thinking and innovation. While I recognize the truth and importance of this statement, it does not strike me as deeply as does the second.  Lederach connects me to conflict at a much more fundamental level. 

  • “Conflict flows from life”.  Conflict is.
  • Conflict has the potential for creating a deeper understanding of self, others, and the groups we form.
  • Conflict facilitates a deeper awareness of life.
  • Conflict is a gift.

Conflict as a gift in our lives?  Hmmm.  I have not heard many use the term “gift” to characterize their relationship to conflict.  And yet we find ourselves drawn back to and intrigued by this vision.  It connects us to a sense of possibility.  For many it creates a vision of how we would like things to be.   Even more than a sense of possibility it connects some of us to a sense of the way things are meant to be. It kindles a sense of hope that there is another way to be with this experience we call conflict.

So back to the beginning and the issue that started this conversation.  What will it take to begin to experience conflict as a gift in our lives?  What will it take to break out of deeply ingrained strategies for dealing with conflict such as the one described below?

  • In any context where we are experiencing significant differences of opinion, there is obviously a “right” and a “wrong” answer.
  • From my perspective it is obvious that I am right.
  • Given that we cannot both be right, then you are obviously wrong.
  • My job is to “fix” you by convincing you of this “truth”.

We have all experienced this strategy and are aware of how counterproductive it is in satisfactorily engaging and navigating our differences.  We have observed its toxic impact on relationships, in teams and in communities.  There is really no way to simply tweak this strategy to make it effective.  It is not a useful model for people with diverse experience and perspective to engage complex challenges.  Framing our challenge in the context of simply identifying and/or learning a new strategy is also not sufficient.  What is required is a radical shift in our understanding of the challenge.

I am reminded of an alternative approach that was shared with me years ago by an instructor at a course I was attending at the Justice Institute of British Columbia.  He said that our fundamental challenge is to “shift from judgment and fear to curiosity and compassion”.

Shifting from Judgment and Fear to Curiosity and Compassion

I have reflected on this quote over the years and as I apply it now to the context of this conversation, I believe that it opens the door to some key considerations for achieving our objective.

As I stated earlier, learning some new strategy, or adding new tools to our proverbial toolbox will not be sufficient to achieve a shift in our relationship to conflict.  Nothing less than a shift in our way of being with conflict will be sufficient to the type of change needed.  This type of shift is at the heart of what this quote is inviting us to.

Judgment and Fear are ways of being with conflict and are typically what triggers the right/wrong strategy described above.  A key characteristic of conflict is the perception of incompatible difference or threat.  To the extent I am threatened by your idea or perspective I become fearful and anxious.  The conversation is moving me outside my comfort zone.  In this context the only way I can get back to my comfort zone is to “fix” the situation.  I can do this if I can bring you to accept and agree with my perspective.  Then the world will be right.

Curiosity and Compassion describe alternative ways of being when experiencing conflict.  Our ability to shift to this orientation requires that we recognize that we have begun to make a judgment (right/wrong) about the other and choose to suspend this judgment.  This is the only way to create space for curiosity and is fundamentally an act of compassion.   It is an opening of the heart such that we can be with the divergent experience(s) of the other. 

Opening our hearts is fundamental to the quest to shift our relationship to conflict.  I have been reading Parker Palmers’ book, Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, in which he states:

“ ‘Heart’ comes from the Latin cor and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all our ways of knowing converge – intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily, among others.  The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human.  Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage.  When all that we understand of self and world come together in the center called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know.”

The shift we are in pursuit of is both an act of compassion and courage.  This is true of any fundamental change in service of community.  It will require both work of the head and the heart.

To be continued . . .