Practicing New Social Relations, Even in Conflict

August 6, 2018

Original Source:

Why are people inside our movement organizations so mean to each other? We often lament how much energy is spent targeting other people within movements rather than “our real enemies”. But our conflict makes sense:

  • People fuck up a lot. Even though we are committed to new social relations, we frequently reproduce harmful cultural norms with each other.
  • It makes sense that we have the strongest feelings about people who are closest to us. We are more likely to be up at night stressing about a conflict with a friend or collaborator than thinking about the Secretary of State.
  • When we come into movement spaces with high expectations and desires for belonging and connection, disappointment is likely.
  • Sometimes we are so used to feeling excluded that we tune into that familiar feeling quickly and easily, unconsciously looking for evidence that we are different or are being slighted or left out.
  • Even good experiences like finding a space that breaks our isolation — like joining a group with some other people who share our values and/or identities — can bring up our distortions. We might feel like we don’t deserve it or like we are fraudulent. We might even unconsciously make up stories about what other people are thinking about us.

What can we do about all this conflict and the harm we cause each other and our organizations? How do we hold the strong feelings that come up in our groups, and how do we survive the conflict without being our worst selves to one another?

I will offer a few of the things that have helped me or people I am connected with as we have navigated these strong feelings, conflict, and mean behavior over the years.

What Am I Feeling?

A lot of times when we perceive some kind of threat, we go on autopilot. That autopilot looks different for different people. It could be a bunch of critical thinking about another person, a bunch of self-hating thinking, disappearing, picking a fight, getting lost in work, or obsessing all night and not sleeping. Whatever it is, it can help to inquire with ourselves about what kinds of feelings are coming up in our bodies and in our emotions. Paying this attention to ourselves can stop us from the autopilot reaction that might not be aligned with our intentions, purpose or values, and might not help cultivate our relationships.

It can be easy when we are hurt or disappointed to decide that the other person or people caused our feelings. Certainly, others’ actions and inactions stimulate feelings in us, but what feelings get stimulated, and how strong they are, has a lot to do with us and our histories. Often, when something really riles us up, it is because it is touching an old wound or raw spot.

Other people do not know our raw spots — we sometimes do not know them ourselves — so people are often surprised at the impact of their actions on one another’s feelings. We can become curious about our own raw spots, finding origins in childhood experiences, the cumulative impact of microaggressions and systemic harm, or other sources. We all have lots of sore spots that can lead to big, strong feelings when someone brushes them. The trick is to realize that they belong to us, and that we can experience the feelings and decide how to move forward in the relationship, rather than having the feelings drive a big reaction.
For example, imagine my feelings got hurt by a person in my organization not following through. If I then launched an informal campaign to get other people in the organization to perceive my flaky collaborator as a person lacking integrity to get them pushed out of the group, or if I refused to work with them anymore, I might lose a lot. And the group might lose a lot, without the chance for something else to happen.

What Else Is True?

It can often be helpful, when we find ourselves obsessing over an opinion, story or judgment, to ask what else is true. For me, the most helpful inquiries of this kind regarding movement work have been:

  • What else is true about this person/organization/space? Can I think of any of their positive qualities? Can I think of any way that I do benefit from their actions? In addition to what they did that I dislike, are there also other elements or experiences that show a more full picture, demonstrate good intentions, or balance any vengeful feelings or desire to get rid of this person?
  • Might there be things I do not know contributing to this situation or behavior?
  • What else is true about my life that counterbalances this situation? What else is in my life? What percentage of my time is spent in this space or with this person? What else do I do and have? If this situation is disproportionately loud in my consciousness, is there anything else in my life that evokes different feelings that I can turn up the volume on or give more of my attention to?
  • Is this situation or person my responsibility? Is this something I can control? If not, can I imagine letting go 5% or 10% to gain some peace of mind?
  • Are there ways that I am particularly activated by this that might have to do with my own history and experiences? Are there ways to give myself attention or love around these wounds?
  • Are there any ways that I am stepping into a familiar role with my strong feelings about this person? In my inner reality, did I cast us into roles that relate to my family of origin or other formative groups?

Direct Communication Before Gossip and Social Media

One of the most harmful forces in our movements is negative gossip. It hurts the person doing the gossiping, the target, and the group. It usually magnifies conflict. This doesn’t mean that we should not share difficult experiences we are having with friends. We often need to speak with a friend to help clarify what we are feeling, get affirmation of our experience, talk through possible responses and get sympathy. How can we tell if we are engaging in negative gossip that might harm someone?

  • Who am I telling? Am I talking to a friend who can offer me support, but who is separate enough from the situation that I won’t be impacting an opinion of someone who shares space or an organization with the person I am talking about? For example, if you are having strong feelings about someone in your organization, talking about them negatively behind their back with your coworkers is likely to harm dynamics in your organization. Talking to a therapist, or a friend who is not part of the organization, is less likely to be harmful. Telling the stories on social media is likely to have many harmful and possibly unintended impacts on everyone involved.
  • Am I campaigning? What are my motivations in telling this? Am I trying to get support and process my experience, or am I trying to get other people to think badly about this person?
  • Am I mocking them, laughing at them or otherwise being cruel? If the content of what you are sharing is something you would not consider compassionate or constructive feedback, something you would never say to anyone’s face, it might be malicious gossip rather than a good chat.

Any time we are feeling justified dehumanizing people in our movements and social circles, it is good to pause and ask “What else is true?” We might be reacting to a deep wound that needs our attention.

  • Am I building my obsession with someone’s faults? Is the choice to talk about this person’s behavior or qualities right now going to help me get clear about my choices and feelings, or is it building a habit of thinking to much about this person and cultivating hyper-criticism of them?

Giving direct feedback is hard. Rather than saying, “It was difficult for me when you did not follow through with the tasks you took on at the meeting,” we build a set of stories and projections about the other person and talk to other people about it. This is likely to feel bad and damage relationships. When a lot of people in organizations or scenes are doing this, it can make for broad conditions of distrust, anxiety and betrayal and can augment hierarchies of valuation and devaluation, making groups more vulnerable to disruption by law enforcement.

We live in a society based on disposability. If we want to build a different way of being together, we have to look closely at the feelings and behaviors that generate the desire to throw people away. Humility, compassion for ourselves, and compassion for others are antidotes to disposability culture. We all make mistakes and have a great deal to learn from each other. Examining where we project on others and where we react strongly to others can give us more options, besides expulsion, when we are in conflict. Every one of us is more complex and beautiful than our worst actions and harshest judgments. Building social relations of compassion and accountability requires us to take account of our own actions and reactions in conflict, and seek ways to treat each other with care even in the midst of strong feelings.

December 17, 2020


February 11, 2017