Audio, Article

Toolbox: Understanding conflict

November 11, 2023

Original Source:

Season 2 episode 1 of the Resist + Renew podcast (we’re back!). In this one, we go over what we think conflict is, why we’re focusing on it, and some ways to understand it.

‘Conflict is both the spark, the fight, the loud things, the incidents which you notice above the water, but it’s also the things that have been going on under the water’

Show notes, links

Our sister facilitation collective Navigate have a conflict facilitation booklet (from back when they were called Seeds For Change Oxford).

As we only briefly touched on the idea of “cancel culture”, check out this longer ep from You’re Wrong About getting into more depth.

See our “What is facilitation?” podcast episode page for more general facilitation resources.

And finally, a visual representation of different types of conflict (designed for a therapy context, but still relevant)

Transcript

ALI
This is Resist + Renew,

KATHERINE
the UK based podcast about social movements,

SAMI
what we’re fighting for, why and how it all happens.

ALI
The hosts of the show are

KATHERINE
Me, Kat.

SAMI
Me, Sami,

ALI
and me, Ali.

SAMI
I’m recording this now, baby!

ALI
Shit, it’s a podcast!

ALI
It’s the toolbox again. And as we said, in our teaser, we are gonna do a theme for the whole of the toolbox. And that is conflict. So, in this episode, we are going to talk about framings to help understand conflict. We’re going to share our aims of this toolbox for the season, why we’re focusing on conflict, how we feel about it, and then we’re going to share some frameworks that we find helpful to understanding conflict, and that will shape a lot of the other episodes which are coming up. And we’ll, we’ll come back and reference those.

But Sami, do you want to start us off by giving us a bit of a framing as to like, What even is conflict?

SAMI
Yeah, we’re, I thought this would be a good thing to start with. I just, I have a memory of a session. Like a training for trainers thing that I attended once, where there was a session on, like, managing conflict, conflict resolution; and someone maybe got 10 minutes in looking really confused. She was like a woman from the Balkans and was like, ‘Why are you talking about just like arguing with each other in like a conflict resolution session?’ Because she thought of it in like a statecraft kind of way. So that, to be clear, that’s not what we mean, we’re not talking about like wars.

And there’s a, there’s a description of conflict. And that comes from a person called adrienne maree brown, she’slike a writer, amongst many other things, and facilitator. And, and I think it’s quite just like a helpful summary of what conflict is, which is disagreement, difference or argument between people. And, and so when we talk about conflict over the course of this toolbox, that’s broadly what we’re going to be referring to. So, like, more the like interpersonal, like kind of beef-within-a-group type stuff, less the like, society to war, nation state to nation state, kind of deal.

And so probably makes sense for us to start by talking about, like, why we thought this was a good idea for a podcast. Who would like to start?

KATHERINE
I can start. And so I am interested in conflict, mainly because I’m quite scared of it. And I find it difficult, I avoid it quite a lot. And I guess recently have been noticing that I also name things that are difficult in groups, which means maybe I’m more likely to invite conflict, even if once it arrives, I don’t want to deal with it. Um, so I’m kind of interested to understand a bit more about like, how do I deal with it once I’ve named it? But I guess also sensing into, like, my own conflict avoidance. It’s something I see quite a lot in groups that we work with as facilitators: people not wanting to talk about conflict, not wanting to go there. And/or when conflict arrives, like, finding that really, really hard. And so yeah, really just curious to explore, like, what actually is conflict? And people keep telling me it’s transformational, but I don’t know how! So this conflict toolbox series is that exploration for me and to learn from Ali and Sami, and also the people that were we’re in conversation with, about how how conflict can be different and how we can work through it in ways that can be transformational. And, yeah, that’s me.

ALI
Feels like a mini documentary, the way you’ve framed it.

KATHERINE
Oh, yeah? Well.

ALI
[laughs] Yeah.

KATHERINE
Do you wanna go, Ali? You’re second.

ALI

I can chat. So, I can also be a bit scared of conflict too. I’ve been in a lot of conflicts, just as a
virtue of being in different groups, and being in quite high pressure situations. But as well as, yeah, finding it difficult, I do tend to engage in it quite a lot. I take up certain roles in groups, of like mediating conflicts; I tend to be the one who’s like, ‘There’s something going on here people shall we maybe talk about it?’

Yeah, and I guess I have, I guess Katherine just said, like, she’s heard people say that it can be transformative. I’ve seen it, in some ways and it can be like quite small moments or shifts that I feel in my relationships or it can be in slightly bigger things in the groups. So I guess I do believe it can be transformative and, yeah, based on experience a little bit.

But I’ve also felt like totally stuck and like nothing’s ever going to change. So I guess I want more of the former, and less of the latter! And I think it’s the latter, like, from a like a wider perspective as like a facilitator or someone who cares about social movements and social justice, I think conflict is one of the biggest reasons groups fail. And if we want to do the things we want to do, it’s a good reason for us to get good at conflict and like, engage in it, whatever that means, which we will look at later. But, Sami, do you want to say for you?

SAMI
Yeah, sure, I guess. Um, maybe of all of us, if this were a spectrum line (call back to last season!) then I would maybe be the person that would be the furthest ‘Not Scared By Conflict’ end?

ALI
Our Residential Beef Expert.

[All laugh]

SAMI
Well, I guess, but that’s, but that’s the distinction, right? Like, I think I feel less, like, I feel more able to be in conflict necessarily. Maybe like, I feel less scared by it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m better at it, right? I’m just in a maybe just like, more more happy to go into it, I guess.

Because I think like, as I think is probably true for a lot of people, like come from a family background and like tradition, where like, it’s not the like the ‘English, normative, conflict averse family style, – that is like the norm that people say is the ‘English norm’, right.

But the conflict wasn’t, like useful, helpful, transformative. Like, there was just loads of it. So I guess I can feel more okay, like being in that frying pan, or whatever. But I think what, what I always feel like is that I’d like more helpful, like models of like, how to move through conflict.
Um, and I guess there’s also a part of it, that’s just like, I like things that I find hard. And I find like, conflict stuff hard. Like, it’s difficult, like it’s emotionally activating. All this kind of stuff, like, and so I think part of me is, like, drawn to that. And I think a lot of people say that they’re, like, ‘not good at conflict’. And so like, often a lot of people shy away from it. And in situations like that, I’ll often be like, ‘Ooh! I can give it a go!’

And so yeah, I think the main talent I bring, like with a lot of my, like baking and approach to many other things in my life is like, the main thing they bring is a willingness to give it a go, rather than necessarily like an underlying strong talent.

ALI
And willing to get messy.

[Sami laughs]
Really willing to get messy, willing to, as Ali and Katherine will know, just sit in meetings and just go, ‘BEEF, BEEF, BEEF!’

So, what’s next? What’s on the list?

KATHERINE
I think it’s like getting a bit clearer about what conflict is. So I think that adrienne maree brown quote is really, really helpful. But I guess like, I think there’s something around what people maybe immediately think of as conflict. As like the spark or the heat, or a fight happening, or some, like, loud conflict, or, like, complete stony silence that tells you the room is like, not in a in a great place.

But we want to, like, introduce this idea of, like, the iceberg to help us with understanding a bit more about what conflict is; and that those those, like, moments where we might feel the most intense conflict could be like the tip of the iceberg. Could be the, um, yeah, the loud argument or that feeling of silence or whatever it might be. But actually, like, there’s often a load of stuff going on beneath the surface. And that might have been going on for a long time. Before or after those moments of spark… mixing my metaphors between spark and ice, but I think you probably can follow along.

And, and there’s something about like, I think what I’m learning is that in the transformative conflict, it’s not just about like, “resolving” (in air quotes) the the moment of the spark or the bit above the water. It’s like really tending to all of that other stuff that’s kind of going on beneath the surface. And thinking about, like, what is the cause of this conflict? What, what are the symptoms but but why are we in this conflict.

And that might mean, for example, like you’re in a meeting, and there’s just not enough time to like really talk through everybody’s needs, and so a conflict might emerge. People might get angry with each other. But potentially beneath the surface, there’s like a misalignment of values,
about, like, what’s important to spend time on in meetings, for example, and if we only resolve the like, the spark in the meeting of like, ‘Okay, well, we’ll have another meeting and talk about all your needs,’ but we don’t talk systemically as a group about how we value each other’s needs. And when we don’t actually make sort of sustained time for that, the conflict won’t go away, it will just keep coming back again, because we’re not addressing the kind of underlying root causes.
If we’re just tending to the moment. And it’s not that we shouldn’t tend to the moment but we want to be doing both.

SAMI
So there’s, there’s a question that comes up for me around that then, which is like so.
So there’s kind of like the spike, and there’s like, the bit above the water of the iceberg, there’s the bit below the water of the iceberg. Like, what are the things that can trigger that spike, do you think?

KATHERINE
I guess for me, it’s like, if it’s been going on a really long time, and no one is like noticing my more subtle signals to suggest that there’s a problem. And I just get fed up, like there’s a sort of, ‘I’ve lost it, I’ve, like, had enough’ moment. And I guess the other thing as well is like, there’s a sense of going too far, like some someone does something or says something or there’s something that happens, that is like, ‘I’m just not going to put up with this anymore,’ that then makes me say something. And so I’m wondering if there’s something around like the extent of what is being done, and the duration of what is being done. I’m not sure if there are, there might be other things.

ALI
We were also going to talk about, like structural things. So you already mentioned in your explanation just now but like the way that we meet, like, the way that we work together, if they’re not structured in a way that allow people to talk to each other and allow people to air things that they are concerned about that can be like a trigger. Or that can be one of the things that’s underneath the surface that can get triggered high. Probably the wrong word. But you know what I mean, in this in this setting.

But we also talked about, like the way we speak to each other, like tones we use for each other, like, tones we use for each other. Yeah, can, can be a minor thing can be like, er,not actually the problem, but it’s the thing that annoys you and tips you over the edge of being like, Okay, this is bringing, this is bringing this stuff up.

SAMI
Okay to go to go with the spark analogy a little bit more. Like it literally is the spark, in the sense of the spark is what sets the forest fire, right. But like, the reason that there are forest fires is because of like, a fundamental centuries long repression of indigenous fire management practices. So and that’s the structure – the centuries long repression of indigenous fire practices – versus the spark, which is just the thing which kicks it off. There you go. There’s a there’s a there’s a spark analogy for you right there.

KATHERINE
Mm very good. I guess this like tucks into the like, I think that example works really well to like, explain, like, what these underlying causes are often related to, and like how we think about, like, where these, where these deeper causes might come from?

And I guess, like, yeah, that sort of speaks to differences in power, in terms of that suppression that you’re talking about, Sami, but that often plays out within groups around like, what is the mainstream way of doing things? And what gets suppressed by that mainstream?

And then yeah, potentially also differences in values, which can be harder to like, figure out I think, especially in like grassroots groups, which come together around a common cause, like “We all believe in justice”. And it’s like, well, what do you mean by justice? And what does that look like in practice? And can we actually spend some time like sharing what these words that we all use and assume all mean the same thing actually mean? Because likely as not we have different understandings. And eventually, at some point, those really deep different enderstandings could emerge up into into quite an intense conflict within a group because they’re not, we’re not clear about where we align and when we don’t.

ALI
Yeah. And sometimes those differences in values can show up. Like we can all say “justice”, “anticapitalist”, all the all the good words, but when it comes down to the practical practicalities, or the priorities like we have a certain amount of time we have to do something and we have to choose something. That’s when it: “Oh, when you say that, I don’t mean that. I mean, something totally different. So you’re wrong. I’m right.” You have a firefight?

SAMI
Yeah, so so it feels so like, I guess what we’re trying to communicate then is like conflict is a thing on both levels. Like you were saying before, Katherine. Like it’s it is both in some ways, the spark and it is this the structure that lets the spark run away, and the, um, so like, it’s kind of there’s two levels in it, I guess. And that can sometimes be why when we talk about conflict, the conversations become quite difficult because sometimes people are talking really practically on the like, ‘There was an argument in the meeting, and I was facilitating it and I didn’t know what to do about it.’ And sometimes people mean, like, fundamental power imbalances structured into a group and how you negotiate that. And obviously, like, the tactics you use for one are very different from the tactics used at the other, but people would maybe call them all conflict.

KATHERINE
Yeah, absolutely.

SAMI
So I guess that leads us on to a conversation about like, what, when we talk about conflict, like, what are the different frames that we bring to conflict? Because that’s kind of like what informs our way of thinking about conflict? So like, some, for example, could be that, like, an example of a frame could be like, conflict is a signal that there is a unmet need in a space. Like that’s kind of what you were saying in the example before Katherine. And like.

So maybe if we think a little bit about those frames, and like, name some of those things, and ways of thinking about stuff that can highlight some of the paths forward in terms of how we respond to stuff, because those different frames will like highlight different aspects of conflicts that may then require different tools.

KATHERINE
Yeah, absolutely, I think just to go with the signal one for a minute. So I think that’s the one I found most useful as a way into seeing conflict, like not just as something to be avoided, is like, if it’s a signal, that’s like information, it’s letting me know that there’s something that’s not okay in the group right now. Or that for some people, that group is maybe a harmful experience for them to be in, or whatever it might be. And that it’s an indication that I need to do some work, or the group needs to do some work to find out what is not okay.

And I think that kind of leads to a bit of a sense of like, finding out what is going on for everybody: checking in. That might not need to happen in a full group, it might not feel safe necessarily to do that. So, like, having one to ones, or having an exploration of like, what you might do to find out what the needs are. And also that not everyone will automatically know what their needs are straightaway, to having that space to, like explore and, and talk through, might then give an indication of what’s not working, and then what might need to be done as a result of that.

ALI
Okay, so that’s, that’s one frame. And other frames, there can be other ideas that we bring to conflict, there’s lots of ideas floating around in like society and the media and like, we’re shaped by those, like norms and expectations.

So some of those like, frames and false or unhelpful ideas around conflict is that when there is conflict in a relationship between individuals, that automatically means it’s over. Like, that flashpoint, that like fight the argument stuff, that means that it’s gonna, it’s gonna break. You can’t and can’t hold can’t hold the conflict. That means there’s fundamental differences, for whatever reason: it means that it’s done. And that is a very binary way of thinking about things and not very helpful to see, like, the spectrum. Like sometimes it can, conflict can can be an end, it can be like a signal that actually this relationship isn’t going to work and like what is needed is a boundary. And that might be space, temporarily, or, or permanently, but it doesn’t have to be that way at all. And like, there’s so much like, grey area in the middle, and it can, can be worked through, and it might not, you know, end up roses and unicorns and rainbows or whatever, but things things can. Yeah, it doesn’t have to be that binary way of thinking about it. And I think the fact that that, that the problem of that thought is that it means it’s very like defeatist. Even like when it’s if they if the conflict’s happening, then why do I there’s no point engaging, because it’s just gonna be over. But if there’s options, if there are pathways to something on the other side, then there are, there can be a point, if you want to engage in that.

KATHERINE
I guess I’ll say like link to that just to jump in is like that can be a real source of avoidance as well. Like not just of like not engaging once the conflict starts, but like trying to avoid conflict at all, because if it’s going to end, the minute you go towards conflict, it’s like, oh, we should stay away from it. And it can often fuel that sense of like, the group will break down if, if we go near conflict, so we shouldn’t.

ALI
Great, that’s really helpful.

Another idea that we were talking about before is that conflict is an individual failure. So that’s the idea that like, it’s nothing to do with groups. It’s nothing to do with the ways things are structured. It’s just about, you know, personality differences or like someone being a bad person or someone not having, quote unquote, “conflict skills” or person, “people skills” or whatever. And yet again, that a negative consequence of that kind of framing is it just, if you’re in a group and there is conflict going on, maybe you’ll just like, ignore it. Or ignore the dynamic between a couple of people and assume it has nothing to do with you, when, if we go back to that iceberg metaphor, or lots of those things beneath the surface, the the fuel for the fire, are to do with everybody in the group. And it’s about how the whole group is structured. So it takes away like, a lot of the responsibility and a lot of options for handling conflict that isn’t the, like, heat, or the or the fire.

And then we just had one final one, which was that conflict is all about structures and systems and has nothing to do with individual responsibility. So this is like, the complete other end of that spectrum of like: Well, it’s got nothing to do with the way people choose to behave and the choices that they make in the way that they react. Which, you know, is people do have choices. And yeah, that takes away the agency of an individual in, in that conflict. So, yeah, we just wanted to give some like, frames which can be less helpful that we can bring with us to the idea of conflict. Just to, yeah, elaborate on some, some of those.

But Sami, did you want to talk about some different frameworks?

SAMI
Yeah, I definitely can do. So I think we’re gonna, we’re gonna devote some time in another episode, or maybe multiple episodes to get into these things a little bit more in depth. So this is more, we’re seeing this, this, this kick off episode is like, kind of the overview of the framings and stuff.

And so I guess one thing that in my experience often comes up as a frame when thinking about conflict is the idea of conflict being like ‘transformative’. And often what you’re talking about in that is around like, transformative responses to conflict. And like using tactics to use, like, have conflict as a thing that can like transform processes, practices, interactions and stuff within a group. And often, when we talk about like, that can often be seen as, like an like, there’s another way of dealing with conflict, which is like a punitive way of dealing with conflict, which would be like: punish people, punish the people that lit the spark type thing.

And so like, those are different ways of thinking about conflicts that will often inform different responses and approaches to conflict but we’ll definitely talk more about that in another session, so don’t want to don’t want to steal our future chat from from there.

And another one is the idea of conflict you alluded to it earlier, Katherine about conflict being a thing that is, like, resolved as a thing. So like, that leads itself to a way of thinking about conflict as like, maybe a little bit more as conflict is the thing that’s the spark rather than conflict is the thing that’s the structure.

And so people sometimes rather than talking about resolving conflict, what can be a buzzword is people talking about like ‘moving through’ conflict, like so conflict is a thing that can like trigger some kind of process that you’ll, like, some kind of journey that you’ll go on rather than, like, conflict is the spark and then you put out the fire and then you’re all good, and you you move on, you go back to the previous thing.

And then another one, which we had a lot of chats about when planning this
was around, like kind of thinking about one thing that often comes up, especially nowadays, around when there are conflicts between groups, people, individuals, often there what is drawn on especially like in media is this frame of like ‘cancelling’ and ‘cancel culture’ and things like that. And we had a lot of chats which we’re gonna try and represent all of now. But I think basically what what we were thinking was like, as a frame it’s maybe not in the super helpful bracket partly or mainly for the reason because like, like all ‘something’ culture, like, ‘cancel’ culture or ‘anything’ culture terms, like it’s, it’s suggesting that there is like a set of attitudes or behaviours that coherently exist within a group that like centre cancelling as a thing. And but what that means can be very, very different to different people.

Going back to what you were saying before Katherine about like, clarity of language. And like us not always being super clear on what we mean by stuff. Because I guess like, it’s best, i.e. at its most useful, like cancel culture could refer to like, a collection of like problematic tendencies, I guess is a good word, like, in groups. People will use like some terms that you can maybe Google would be like, ‘rigid radicalism’ is a thing. Or like talking about like ‘disposability’, talking about like, the ‘impulse to punish’ and all those kinds of things. Like, those can be, at its best at its most useful, the kind of things that can all reinforce each other’s tendencies within groups that can like have quite harmful impacts.

But equally, people can use it to refer to like, some kind of, like ghost or ghoul or some kind of like often quite a historical idea that like conflict is the thing that’s only happening now. And because of “the internet”, or like whatever kind of nonsense people will ascribe to it, and, and often will mean mean, or can be used in ways that are like: when I say ‘cancel culture’, I mean things like groups that enforce boundaries. Or people that enforce boundaries. Or it can mean like, when I was rude to somebody, they were rude back and they were cancelling me. Or it can mean like, I’ve been given a multimillion pound book deal, or what, you know, whatever. Like, cancel culture can mean lots of different types of things.

And, and so probably, it’s not a frame, we’re going to be drawing on loads in the purpose of this chat because it does feel quite imprecise and aggregates a lot of quite different things together. And so what we’re what we’re going to aim for, feel free to call us up on it, if you think that we don’t do it, is a precision of language in our discussions about things. So: let’s see how that goes!

Um, anything else in this, in this rambling overview of conflict or not our feelings about it? What else we need to mention?

KATHERINE
I’m wondering if there are just some top takeaways from this overall session. This overall episode, we’d like helped us distil what we’ve been talking about for the last 30 minutes?

ALI
So a takeaway I will take is that conflict is both the spark, the fight, the loud things, the incidents where you notice them above the water, but it’s also the things that have been going on under the water. So like: the structure, the way things are set up, the power imbalances, the mismatch of values, which are less seen. And like, just focusing on the spark is only dealing half half of it.

KATHERINE
I think the thing that I’m going to take away is around the idea of transformative conflict. Ways of seeing conflict is transformative is actually not about like getting some magical outcome, but it’s about doing a transformative process. And so a process that might aim to transform the way people relate to each other the way things happen within a group at both the deepest structural level and in their everyday interactions.

SAMI
Nice. And I think for me, like it’s that kind of, it’s that broader meta point around like: people bring a lot of frames and assumptions to how they feel about, interact with, work with, run away from conflict as a thing. And those often come from lots of different places: media we consume, family experiences, whatever it is. And, and often it can take some unpicking, to, like, get through those into what feels like a good shared approach within a group for people.

KATHERINE
Nice.

SAMI
How’s that for some top takeaways?

KATHERINE
Top takeaways! Great.

SAMI
Okay, toolbox one. Out.

KATHERINE
Done

ALI
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Resist Renew podcast. If you want to find out more about Resist Renew as a facilitation collective, check out our website, ResistRenew.com. And you can also find transcripts of all our episodes there too.

And we’re on all the other socials.

And if you want to support the production of this podcast, check out patreon.com/ResistRenew.

As always, thanks to Klaus for letting us use his song Neff for our backing track. That’s all for us this week. Catch you next time.

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July 17, 2020

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