Conflict – Understanding and Responding

Wendy Burnett & David Sargeant reflect on a workshop on conflict, led by Jackie Zammit from Peacemakers.

Elders and Overseers Support Group recently organised a workshop on ‘Conflict – Understanding & Responding’ held via video conferencing..

Conflict within meetings is often difficult to know how to deal with. This workshop was organised so that Friends could have some understanding of the issues involved and receive ways and tools for resolution which can be managed through the lens of peace.

Quakers are not very good at resolving their own conflicts and often don’t like to upset people.   Faith communities have high expectations and conflict within them can cause much concern.  We need to know how these conflicts can be worked through and resolved.

To begin with, we were asked what we thought of as Peace. We thought: absence of war, living happily with respect for neighbours, harmony with any dissonance resolved, absence of noise. 

Jackie (the facilitator) shared a previous list from a women’s group for comparison: peace is absence of isolation, hatred, disorder, shouting, fear, guns, war, racism, aggression.  Peace is present in justice, safety, tea, compassion, listening, respect, patience, belonging.

We looked at and discussed the various ways in which we manage conflict to achieve positive peace, which includes the presence of other positive values, rather than negative peace which provides only short term resolutions and likened to building a wall.

Conflict styles, using animal metaphors. As described in body text.
Conflict Styles

When it comes to conflicts, are we:

  • Sharks – competitive, standing our ground
  • Teddy Bears – accommodating, giving in
  • Turtles – withdrawing, avoiding
  • Fox – compromising

All these approaches have drawbacks. The better way is that of the Owl which involves collaboration but both sides have to agree to take the process forward. It needs courage and consideration to work though to win-win rather than win-lose

Jackie also introduced the idea of the conflict escalator taking an  issue up from the beginning, described as the Conflict Zone, through Different Goals, then Take a Stand, Blame Game, Loss of face, then finally Outburst.  Like an escalator, once the conflict starts it can be very difficult to stop/get off.  The best time to defuse the situation is at the “Different Goals” stage. The stress hormones which come into play with escalated conflict take a long time to leave the body, which is not helpful to one’s wellbeing.  Then, just because things calm down, it does not mean that the conflict has gone.  It has only dissipated and is carried with us. We need to address our own feelings and the “elephant in the room”

The triangle concept for conflict prevention – the large base is building relationships within the community, the middle is maintaining those relationships and at the top (a bit like the tip of an iceberg) is conflict. If the underlying relationships are good, conflicts should be less frequent and easier to deal with. We need to continually build and maintain relationships in order to prevent and deal with conflict.

  • Issues and difficulties should be addressed early on before it becomes too much of a problem.
  • Listening is an important skill. Both sides need to be heard in any situation.
  • Listen carefully and acknowledge what is going on. Be curious and ask questions, don’t let it go. Try to get in early if conflict arises. People need to want help in resolving conflict for it to be successful.
  • Working with both parties in a restorative response to the situation is important. They should be invited to participate to repair the hurt.
  • Our approach should be one of transforming conflict with humanity, repairing harm and nurturing healthy relationships.
  • It is not a panacea and may not work.  Cultural context and language are important.
  • The use of a third party facilitator might well be useful.
  • Remember – we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.

Further information is available on the Peacemakers’ website.

The day provided valuable insights and ways of dealing with conflict which will prove very useful in our meetings.