On Conflict

On Conflict June 24, 2016

photo by Maggie Beaumont
photo by Maggie Beaumont

Lots of conflict in our world at the moment. Global, national, regional; oppression of some people by other people in dozens of kinds; people who understand vs. people who don’t – on all sides of nearly any question. Red states, Blue states, questions of what behavior should be allowed, questions of what anger is justified – and if justified, what kind of reaction is appropriate. Or not.

Often, at least in buddy movies and coming of age stories, conflict can become the beginning of a lifelong friendship as two opponents come to see themselves as not so different after all.

Often, at least in adventure novels and divorce movies, conflict can become the end of a relationship as two companions become opponents over some issue, and finally come to see themselves unable to ever again be friends, or lovers, or business partners, or spouses. Sometimes conflict causes one ex-spouse to leave a whole community, or to be thrown out. Most of us have seen this before; some of us have lived it.

How do we understand conflict? How do we manage it? What do we say and how do we say it, when someone’s words sting us? How do we manage the energy in the room when someone indulges in name-calling, or won’t stop labeling another’s actions? How do we manage what happens if it gets physical? How do we contain the raw emotion and limit the damage at a time when both sides are upset?

These are big questions, to which I personally have few answers. In the UUA and its associated congregations, covenanted communities such as CUUPS, and likeminded groups, we’ve made some important attempts to work with conflict.

Mission statements and Covenants tell us how we ‘ought to’ behave, or how we ‘agree to’ behave. Safe Congregations policies tell us what to do after the fact. But little tells us how to deal with what happens ‘during’ conflict, especially when we see (from our side) what looks like the other side ‘acting out of bounds.’

Sometimes in community, people take sides. A conflict that began as two individuals disagreeing gets blown up into two factions disagreeing. Often that can lead to louder, harsher, more frightening conflict. Equally often, it can mercifully lead to a few cooler heads finding a way to take center stage, to seek and find the common ground.

Usually, there is more common ground than the combatants can see.

Recently I was privileged to witness an exercise in conflict management. Two sides were asked to notice their differences. A list developed immediately: political opposites, one likes sports and the other likes to workout alone, one prefers consensus process and the other prefers authoritarian leadership, one believes ‘natural’ hierarchies are always a good thing and the other prefers egalitarian culture, and so on.

Then the leader asked the same people to call out the similarities within those differences. Both are passionate about politics, both appreciate athletic prowess, both agree that a group should know how decisions get made. You get the idea.

When I take that exercise into some current conflicts, I can make my own lists. Both sides want our country to be great (albeit they may hold different definitions of ‘great’). Both sides feel oppressed by the dominant culture (though in different ways). Both sides felt bad about what happened (even though they offered different solutions). Both sides feel wronged, each blaming the other equally.

The Witch looks over my shoulder.

You’re being so brave,” she says.

I burst into tears. I don’t feel brave at all.

It’s hard to write about conflict,” she says, “you’ve never done it well. But this is a pretty good attempt.”

She offers me a hug, which I gratefully lean into.

Did you tell them how you feel?” she asks.

I tell her I’ll try.

So. How I feel is ‘frightened.’ I don’t feel qualified to talk about conflict, I’m so bad at dealing with it in my own life. Usually I either walk away feeling stepped on, or else I speak up too loudly and forcefully, insisting that I’m right and the other person has to listen. At times like that, I can’t tell until later that the anger I feel is trying to cover up my hurt. After I’ve spoken too forcefully I feel guilty, sometimes for weeks. Feeling triggered is no excuse, even when it’s true.

So I find it scary to try to talk about conflict. And yet, somehow we must. Even when we’re in fear.

The Witch is stroking my hair, helping me release my feelings. I notice my shoulders falling back to where they belong. I take a breath.

Can you tell them about the magic you do?”

Sure, I say. Maybe that’s easier anyway.

The magic I’m doing lately, about conflict, is forgiveness work. I do it in private, without the other side present, because the only consciousness I can change at will is my own. I cast a circle, I light a candle, I sit in silence awhile, and then begin.

Some of it is self-forgiveness: “I forgive myself for judging myself as bad and wrong because I did X.” Usually this is a series of sentences, each one with a different X. Often they’re interspersed with a slightly different sentence: “I forgive myself for judging myself as Y because Z,” again with lots of possibilities.

Some of it is explicitly stating my forgiveness of the other side. “I forgive A for what they said” or “I forgive B for what they did.” Here I try not to characterize what was said or done. I might quote the words exactly, if I’m sure of them, but I don’t say “for calling me names” or “for yelling at me” because maybe my impression of what they said isn’t accurate. I might name their action exactly (“throwing the rock,” for example), if I’m sure of it, but I don’t say “for attacking me” even if that’s what it felt like.

I speak each one out loud.

Sometimes I spend only a few minutes here. Once, not too long ago, I sat speaking, and weeping, for nearly an hour. In a tightly overscheduled life, I still try to stay with the work until it feels ‘done’ – at least for now, for tonight, for the particular conflict.

Most conflicts are thoroughly eased, at least inside me, in a single session. One conflict continues to come forward for healing, more than a handful of times so far. Even that one, the strife is easing. At least on my side of the conflict; I’m not at present in communication with the other side.

Often when the magic has completed I can speak an apology to the person on the other side. Usually that apology has been accepted, or sometimes brushed away as unnecessary. Sometimes I can see that each of us has grown and changed from our experience of being in conflict. Sometimes I can see that the other person has worked as hard at this as I.

One conflict from decades ago – My Goddess, nearly fifty years ago in fact – finally healed when one of us was able to say to the other “I’m sorry,” and received a sincere apology in return… after each of us had done the work, each in our own way, to acknowledge our part in the disaster.

For the ways in which I fall short, I am heartily sorry. For the ways in which I have hurt you, I am sincerely sorry. For the ways in which I have let you hurt me, I accept my part in the responsibility and am sorry there, too.

The Witch rubs my shoulders, helping the tension release again.

She speaks. “I do not tell you that you have done well here,” she says, “because I know you will not believe it. I ask you to accept that this is enough, for today.”

Blessed Be.

–Maggie Beaumont

–Litha 2016

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