Engaging Conflict

 

David Anderson Hooker having a side conversation during a JustPeace 101 training in 2013
David Anderson Hooker (left) having a side conversation during a JustPeace 101 training in 2013
  1. Engaging Conflict.
  2. Welcoming Conversation.
  3. Honoring Relationships.
  4. Transforming Community.

These are four principles that define the approach that JustPeace takes when entering into congregational, community, and denominational conflicts. Over the next four months we will individually explore each principle. We recognize even as we try to discuss each principle independently that all of the principles are very much interrelated with the others, especially in their implementation. That being said, this month we consider Engaging Conflict.

Why engage conflict? Understanding what conflict is helps to make clear why we encourage its engagement. Conflict, simply stated, is two ideas trying to share space. The conflict may be one of values, or interests, access to information or interpretation of data, or as often believed, conflict could even be about personalities. People usually only acknowledge the presence of conflict when the behaviors that happen in response to the conflict become unacceptable. It is worth emphasizing that shouting, fighting, passive aggressive resistance to plans, and similarly disruptive behaviors are NOT conflict. These are most often a response to conflict and the behaviors themselves become secondarily conflict producing. When the behavior becomes unacceptable, conflict management efforts often focus on the behavior not the conflict. We encourage parties to engage the conflict itself and not simply the responses to conflict.

In order to engage conflict we must first acknowledge that:

People are not the problem; the problem is the problem.

When we engage conflict we engage people’s ideas even though the ideas are very different from our own. In distinguishing between the acceptance of people and the rejection of their ideas, we engage them as parts of God’s creation fully worthy of consideration and relationship. When a person’s ideas are dismissed out of hand, especially when we fail to distinguish between people and ideas as the source of conflict, then their experiences, hopes, values, and ways of being are also dismissed. When we choose not to engage conflict we often devalue the person. On the other hand, when we can acknowledge that people have different ideas and different experiences, differences that cause them to view circumstances differently, and notice that there is more than one way of knowing, we honor the holder of the ideas even when we challenge the ideas.

When people have ideas that are drastically different from our own, this presents a great learning opportunity. It is very likely that their world viewing, their experience, their information, and their interests are also demonstrably different from ours. Taking time to learn about the constellation of information, ideas and experiences that produce distinct differences might allow us to learn and grow.

In dangerous situations, there are three common reactions: fight, flight, or freeze. A natural tendency is to either fight for your own way, separate from those who don’t share your beliefs or ways of being, or stand paralyzed in the face of stark contrasts. Fighting, separation, and paralysis are common occurrences in many congregations, communities, and relationships. Scientists are discovering another common reaction that is often overlooked: nurturing or befriending. In many dangerous situations, people will reach out to care for the young, old, and vulnerable, even those who are not of their family or even their own ‘kind’. This is a befriending/nurturing reaction. Nurturing/befriending/engaging in the midst of conflict is an important aspect of the JustPeace Way.

God created us for relationship and community. People and relationships are valuable even when they have ideas that are quite challenging to our way of thinking. One way to honor people is to lean in to relationships when we have different ideas, values, and interests that might produce conflict. There are many methods that help once we have made the commitment to engage conflict. Some of those will be discussed in future posts.

The first principle is to engage conflict: notice that unacceptable behaviors are often in response to differing ideas and develop an attitude of engagement. In conflict situations, do not stop at the point of managing the behavior. Acknowledge the humanity of those who hold different beliefs. Engage the ideas. Engage the conflict.

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