Monday, August 22, 2011

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Conflict


Let’s face it. People do not visit the Coliseum in Rome just because of the architecture, the antiquity, or the echoes of an ancient empire. Most, if not all people who walk through the ruins want to know, “What about the gladiators?” Did they really fight to the death? Is it true that 10,000 animals were killed on one day?

As a species we are fascinated with conflict and we love competition. You don’t need to look farther than UK BB to observe this. But, as individuals, we understand it and deal with it in myriad ways. At least thirteen, but probably hundreds more

Have you ever tried to read – or write – a story without conflict? (1)Good writers know the conflict can be very subtle, hidden deep within the psyche, but it’s there, somewhere. Otherwise all you have is stream of consciousness or the ramblings of a bore. What is human life without story? Hence… conflict is needed.

There are those who thrive on conflict. Some of them are self-titled anarchists (2) Look at the riots in London. After a few days, people didn’t even know what sparked the initial uprisings. But they were fully engaged in the violence against person and property. When asked, some replied: we are doing it to show that we can. My guess, however, would be that conflict makes them feel alive, vital and engaged. There is all too little in their marginal existence to feed the spirit. So, like the audience for Jerry Springer and WWF, they watch or engage in meaningless conflict for its own sake. That gives them what they sadly lack: a sense of purpose, meaning, joy and engagement with the world. To that extent its not anarchy but pathology (3).

I come from the Philadelphia area. Evidently, people there have gotten in on the British trend by taking part in what are being called “violent flash mobs.” I’m not surprised this took hold in Philadelphia, that erstwhile city of brotherly love. I grew up in a culture where a certain amount of conflict was endemic. Not violence, per se, but disagreement, argument, and expressions of strong emotion. It may have cultural roots in the passionate peoples who settled there or the clashes of immigrant communities. But no one loves a good argument like a New Jersey native. Many of us had to modify our tendencies when we moved South, and discovered that conflict is to be avoided at all costs, including dishonesty and a veneer of politeness. (4)What many Southerners don’t understand is that most Yankees don’t hold grudges for long. We argue and then we go on as friends. It’s these parts where the Hatfields and McCoys kept feuds going for generations!

Some would say there is an evolutionary basis (5)to conflict. Survival of the fittest. I have demonstrated before that there is also a bias in evolution for cooperation. It is probably fair to say that both have their purpose. Some would say, however, that technologically advanced humans have little if any need for conflict; indeed pacifists (6)would counsel that it is only through cooperation and understanding, both individual and collective that we shall save the planet. More and more people are coming to see the truth of that.

But even Gandhi said that principles can sometime trump pacifism.

Rodney King said, in our own West Coast version of the British riots, Why can’t we all just get along? (7)Such a simple question. Yet, so hard to comprehend. And, regardless of whether the reasons are cultural, theological, or biological, it has another part… how can we live so that “getting along” is most likely to occur? What do we need to understand, to do, and how can we do it, before it’s too late?

Scott Peck, in his sequel to The Road Less Traveled, called The Different Drum, asserts that true community (8)is not possible without conflict. All communities evolve through what he calls pseudo-community, then a time of chaos, which is likely to include a degree of conflict, through what he calls emptiness to community. Indeed the number of times we ever experience the miraculous result of this process are precious few. In fact, I am fairly sure that no religious congregation can ever reach and sustain community by his definition. But we can use our experiences of true community to guide us safely through times of chaos and anxiety, knowing that equilibrium will return, that in fact community will be deepened unless people flee back into pseudo-community.

In genuine community there are no sides. … the members have learned to give up cliques and factions. Hey have learned how to listen to each other. Sometimes consensus in community is reached with miraculous rapidity. At other times it is arrived at after lengthy struggle. Just because it is a safe place does not mean community is a place without conflict. It is, however, a place where conflict can be resolved without physical or emotional bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace. Community is a place where people can fight gracefully. (MSP, 71)

Starhawk would disagree with Peck in at least one particular. For the author of Truth or Dare, community (9) can not be reached in groups that are entirely open. Groups, she says, must have boundaries (not barriers) in order to be truly safe spaces. If no process exists for asking someone to leave a group, what generally happens is that the productive, amiable members all drop out, one by one, the group dissolves, and its tasks remain undone. (150)

Starhawk is an advocate for what she calls creative conflict. Needed for such, besides clear boundaries and a sense of purpose, access to information, trust, and leadership. I’ll talk more about these next week. For now, the goal of creative conflict is to emerge more united, more whole, and more balanced, not to win or destroy the “other.”

The difference between Starhawk’s community and Peck’s is that she is talking about a sustained community where his groups are almost always time-limited.

“Conflict evokes fear,” Starhawk writes. That brings me to a resource I have returned to for at least 20 years, A Course in Miracles. (10)Let me simply read you a few of its maxims which concern conflict:

• “I am never upset for the reason I think.” (WB )

• “I am upset because I see only the past.”

• “I want to see things differently.”

• “I could see peace instead of this.”

• The secret of salvation is this: You are doing this unto yourself. Whatever seems to be the cause of any suffering you feel, this is still true.

• The world but demonstrates an ancient truth: you will believe that others do to you exactly what you think you did to them.

The Course in Miracles is a course in Inner Peace. This points to the inner conflicts that feed group and international fights. It teaches 100% personal responsibility for one’s feelings and reactions. It is a course in overcoming fear. When conflict engenders fear, one needs to see things differently. This requires, for most people, a spiritual awakening and a huge change of heart. Sadly, few humans are willing to do the work that is necessary.

The CIM asks, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?”

My guess is that a majority of us would have to answer “right.”

Too often the response to conflict of any kind is what Buddhism calls aversion. (11) What the Buddha was really talking about was, again, biology. It is the amygdyla that evokes the Freeze-Flight-Fight responses that are most common in human conflicts. .

But it need not be so.

Two relatively new schools of thought provide exciting tools and contexts for understanding and managing conflict. First is family systems. (12)Employed regularly now in congregations, Murray Bowen’s family systems work has engendered a school of organizational development that goes beyond Peck’s “fighting gracefully.”

In Family Systems we learn that tension aka anxiety arises between two or more individuals as a result of being alive and in contact. Managing, rather than resolving, conflict is key to congregational life. To the extent that members can manage their anxiety (fear), stay in place (fight gracefully), and recognize differences, conflict can be productive and need not be distressing.

One might even say that feeling anxious is not only chronic but an inevitable condition of being alive. (scale of differentiation 1-100%)

Yes, there are methods and techniques to both prevent and minimize destructive conflict. They should be tried as a matter of

course. However, to the extent they fail to address the underlying anxiety within the

relationship, no real change will occur. Effective conflict management will note that

issues are issues to people who are in relationship. Both the content of our disputes

and how we feel toward one another must be considered. Otherwise, the chairs may

move efficiently around the emotional deck while the ship continues on its unhappy

course. It’s akin to saying that the problem of children playing with matches can be

resolved by not having matches around; sooner or later, the kids will discover butane

lighters and burn the house down.

Appreciative Inquiry (13) is both like and unlike Family Systems. “AI” which was originally conceived and formulated for organizational development in the business world, does away with the Newtonian view that still dominates Family Systems. It relies upon chaos theory and quantum science to assert that order lies naturally beyond what may appear to be conflict. But, much like Family Systems and many other schools of conflict management, AI would counsel thinking, taking a larger view (cim: above the battleground), or looking beyond the “things” to the processes that created them.

This view is closest to my own, although I incorporate many facets of those I shared today and others I did touch upon: But, process theology, as well as appreciative inquiry, counsel trust, faith, joy, and patience.

(MW, )

This shift in orientation requires learning to live in a process world. Life demands that I participate with things as they unfold, expect to be surprised, to honor the mystery of it, and to see what emerges. As we learn to live in this process world, we are rewarded with changes in our behavior. I believe we become gentler people. We become more curious about differences, more respectful of one another, more open to life’s surprises. It’s not that we become more hopeful OR pessimistic, but we do become more patient and accepting. I like to believe we change in this way because we are willing to move into the dance. Although it looked frantic from the outside, …. Life is a good partner. Its demands are not unreasonable. A great capacity for change lies in every one of us.” (155)