Using Conflict as a Natural Resource

Pixabay - Conflict as a Natural Resource
A ball in a tree – an opportunity for connection or a cause of war?

Conflict as a Natural Resource

When we train mediators at CAOS Conflict Management we do an exercise called 4-word-build where we look at the different perspectives attendees on the course have about the idea of ‘conflict’. Almost always the predominant view is that it is something that could be seen as negative such as ‘argument’, ‘stress’, ‘war’, ‘anger’, etc. Occasionally however the group does come up with words such as ‘challenge’, ‘change’, ‘opportunity’, words that have at least a neutral, perhaps even a positive feel to them.

We then present a ‘mediation definition’ of conflict for use within the context of the training course:

Mediation sees conflict as an inevitable part of life arising from difference and as such is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, what matters is how we respond to it. We often respond to conflict constructively, creatively and effectively without even noticing it, but when we respond to conflict destructively and ineffectively, we notice the consequences. Mediation is designed to support a conscious return to a more effective, creative response to conflict.

In the context of this article we could rephrase this to say:

Sometimes we are wasteful of the natural resource that is conflict and sometimes we exploit it very effectively in order to create learning, conscious and positive change, and growth. Mediation and Conflict Coaching are tools for helping with the latter, where help is felt to be needed.

Conflict is Natural because it is found everywhere and is inevitable.

Conflict is a Resource because it leads to learning, growth and change – in fact none of these can happen without conflict arising in some form.

Conflict is the beginning of consciousness” said Mary Esther Harding, an associate of Carl Jung. Without conflict we remain ‘asleep’ and passive, even stagnant. For change to occur there needs to have been some prior conflict to stimulate that change.

Most of us are aware of how difficult change can feel but that difficult feeling can be greatly increased in intensity and duration if we try to suppress the change or to pretend it hasn’t happened – what I’ve elsewhere described as the competitive and avoidance responses to conflict respectively. Both are a form of denial and are wasteful of the opportunity that conflict provides for learning, connection and insight – the ‘3-cheers for conflict’.

Byron Katie caused a few stirrings on facebook recently when she posted one of her ‘Katie-isms’:

There are no enemies, just friends who are telling us the truth.

Such was the strength of response to this statement, which clearly aligns with her approach to dealing with stressful thoughts, that she posted a video response to explain the statement.

Katie identifies how even in a statement about us by someone else such as ‘You are worthless’ (or equivalent) there are opportunities that arise from this:

–       We  come to understand that, for whatever reason, that person does not find it comfortable being around us so why would we try to continue to place them in that situation?

–       We can look at the extent to which we believe them that we are worthless and start to become defensive or aggressive in response and so it is an opportunity for us to question that, to look at why we may even be holding that view about ourselves – and just don’t like it being highlighted by someone else. In this way they have woken us up to our own thoughts – that we have treated as a problem to be avoided in the past. Now we are awake we can learn from this.

–       Through using the work, Katie’s approach to such situations, or by other means, we can start to look at where the opposite is just as true if not truer for us, that ‘I am worthy’, (or equivalent).

In this way, even those we might normally see as ‘enemies’ can become friends who help us understand ourselves far better and who give us direction – about who we might spend our time with.

How, instead, might we respond in a way that is wasteful of that opportunity? Two particular ways in which this could be responded to ineffectively are:

‘The Revenge cycle’ – if you do something to me, I do it back to you. So, if someone says to me ‘you’re worthless’, I will say something back to them with the intention of being hurtful and justify it to myself as ‘defending myself’. ‘You’re an idiot’ (or equivalent). In turn this could very easily elicit a further response from the other person and we are then locked in a competitive response to the original event of me being called ‘worthless’. I see it as an attack to defend myself against rather than an opportunity to learn something about myself. On a more intense level of course this is manifested in gang violence and international warfare where a violent act is responded to consciously with another violent act. (I emphasise the word consciously because an immediate violent reaction to being physically attacked may be to physically defend oneself, but if it is planned and consciously carried out at a later date that is not an unconscious reaction, this would be a form of revenge). Violence is responded to with violence – with the misguided, self-defeating  intention of stopping violence. It is like the gambling addict who tries to win back their losses through more gambling. And once started, the revenge-cycle can indeed become an addiction.

A similar, but also wasteful response to conflict is to engage in a polarised discussion. This is not to seek to ‘hurt’ the other person  but is more to do with destroying their viewpoint and undermining their reasoning, and, by implication their character or reputation or their intelligence. This would be where we may ask questions about their statement ‘you are worthless’ but not with a view to understanding why they may see it that way or to learn something for/about ourselves, but to seek to ‘catch them out’ to make them look foolish in some way. This is another manifestation of a competitive approach to conflict in that we are seeking to ‘win’ an argument such that the other ‘loses’ rather than for both of us to seek to gain a greater understanding of ourselves or the other, or the situation about which we are interacting and in conflict.

In the media, so often, conflict is responded to destructively and ineffectively in that it maintains an unresolved status between two or more differing views or experiences rather than seek to support the resolution of the differing views towards a more effective way forward. If you listen to Today on Radio 4, watch Newsnight on BBC2 and Question Time on BBC 1, there is usually an approach by the hosts or interviewers which is more likely to establish and entrench polarised views rather than support their resolution and thus the potential benefit of conflict as a resource is wasted. Leading questions are used to ‘catch out’ those who are speaking. Fault and blame are allocated such that the main tone is one of defensiveness. Attempts are made to shame and humiliate many guests who are placed in the ‘hot seat’.

Sometimes, as with all natural resources, it is difficult to exploit conflict effectively and so we may use processes such as mediation and conflict coaching to draw out the potential of the conflict towards the creation of new ideas, new understandings, new means and channels of communication and new responses to a situation that are more beneficial for all affected.

Having seen how much can come from a resolved conflict that at some earlier time has been a difficult, unresolved situation, it can feel wasteful to me to be in a room where so much potential conflict exists in terms of differences of perspective and beliefs and ways of expressing these, but so often those conflicts are not exploited for beneficial gain for all. They are often either not addressed and avoided, or they are dealt with in a way that becomes confused with personalised comments and criticism. The practices of mediation and conflict coaching are designed to enable that potential within conflict as a natural resource for learning, connection and insight to be exploited as effectively as possible.

We saw recently the strong drive to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, an act of violence….with more violence. While death and injury by chemical weapons is a horrendous way of responding to unresolved conflict in the country, it is difficult to see how an intervention of bombs and missiles by the USA and possibly other countries  would have been an improvement. Fortunately, instead it seems that the shock of the event led to a greater emphasis on seeking a peaceful way forward through the declaration and decommissioning of chemical weapons in the country.

The world was on the brink of an even greater escalation of violence in that situation but a range of more constructive actions occurred that prevented that from happening and an apparent movement towards peace. The USA was ready to make some form of military intervention but was stalled by the UK parliament’s decision not to support that action. Almost accidentally it seems a comment was made to suggest Syria give up its chemical weapons and the opportunity was grasped to do so, rather than a refusal on the grounds of ‘sovereign rights’ to have them. So many effective, positive responses to conflict, even though many still hold suspicion and even seek to denounce the offer as a form of manipulation in order to gain longer term ends that are not peaceful.

Conflict is the material from which we create learning, connection, insight. It is a message that something is wrong or not working or no longer appropriate.

It can be hard to let go of an association with conflict as something that is ‘bad’ because of the consequences we notice when it is not responded to effectively….verbal abuse, violence, fear, resentment, blame, humiliation and other difficult feelings and actions. But in a view of conflict as a natural resource these are analogous to ‘wasteful’ uses of conflict, examples where we have not benefited from the conflict in a way that we would have done if we had been able to exploit it more effectively.

Where could YOU respond to conflict as a natural resource to exploit for your own benefit and, through that, the benefit of others?

Where have you not congratulated yourself for responding effectively to conflict while perhaps criticised yourself or others strongly when you/they have responded ineffectively?

If we can recognise conflict as a natural resource and see where we have used it constructively and creatively towards positive change and growth, then we can build on that capacity to do so in other areas of our lives, either by ourselves, or through using processes such as mediation and conflict coaching to assist when for some reason we find it difficult to do so.


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