29 March 2007

The Nature of Conflict

Serendipity: finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

Recently, at a writers' workshop, I was given a tremendous gift, serendipitously; one that I want to share.

We were discussing plot, tension, conflict. And the instructor stopped and looked at us, and smiled, and asked us if we knew the most important thing about conflict...

Nobody said a word. It wasn't the usual shy student silence, because there was nobody under 40 in the room, and we'd all been outspoken at different times that day. This was the silence of sudden realization. Not one of us felt able to answer that question, and we were stunned as we recognized the fact.

"It's very simple," she explained. "The most important thing to remember about conflict is this: real conflict cannot be resolved by a conversation. Talking about it cannot fix it. The only thing that can resolve real conflict is change or growth of one or both of the parties in the conflict."

We all sat for a moment, letting it sink in, and then began to come up with examples. From literature, from life.

I came home dazed. The whole day had been fantastically instructive and encouraging, but the most valuable gift of all was this insight. It rang absolutely true. It was something my gut had known for decades, but my mind had never been able to put into words.

Conflict, real conflict, isn't about two people arguing over a parking space. It's about the extent to which one of them will go to get that space away from the other one... and about how the other one reacts to that knowledge. It's about recognizing what lies beneath... seeing the Shadow in daily life. And making decisions based on that knowledge.

Change. Growth. Without them, no resolution. Without them, do we replay the same basic conflicts over and over, simply changing partners? And do others invite us into their endlessly revolving dance as well?

Is this one of the sources of the repetition compulsion? Is it, possibly, the fundamental source?


Searching online, I found several people thinking about conflict in this way. Here is a quote from some folks at the University of Colorado: I've added emphases.

"...left alone, conflict can have destructive consequences. However, the consequences can be modified or transformed so that self-images, relationships, and social structures improve as a result of conflict instead of being harmed by it. Usually this involves transforming perceptions of issues, actions, and other people or groups. Since conflict usually transforms perceptions by accentuating the differences between people and positions, effective conflict transformation can work to improve mutual understanding. Even when people's interests, values, and needs are different, even non-reconcilable, progress has been made if each group gains a relatively accurate understanding of the other.

... transformation, Lederach suggests, must take place at both the personal and the systemic level. At the personal level, conflict transformation involves the pursuit of awareness, growth, and commitment to change which may occur through the recognition of fear, anger, grief, and bitterness. These emotions must be outwardly acknowledged and dealt with in order for effective conflict transformation to occur."

More here: Transforming Conflict

And here are excerpts from an essay by Dr. Lederach, who is cited above:

"In common everyday settings we experience social conflict as a time when a disruption occurs in the "natural" discourse of our relationships. As conflict emerges, we stop and take notice that something is not right. The relationship in which the difficulty is arising becomes complicated, not easy and fluid as it once was. We no longer take things at face value, but rather spend greater time and energy to interpret what things mean. As our communication becomes more difficult, we find it harder and harder to express our perceptions and feelings. We also find it more difficult to understand what others are doing and saying, and may develop feelings of uneasiness and anxiety. This is often accompanied by a growing sense of urgency and frustration as the conflict progresses, especially if no end is in sight.

...what are useful lenses that bring varying aspects of conflict complexity into focus and at the same time create a picture of the whole? This essay will suggest three.

First, we need a lens to see the immediate situation.

Second, we need a lens to see past the immediate problems and view the deeper relationship patterns that form the context of the conflict. This goes beyond finding a quick solution to the problem at hand, and seeks to address what is happening in human relationships at a deeper level.

Third, we need a lens that helps us envision a framework that holds these together and creates a platform to address the content, the context, and the structure of the relationship. From this platform, parties can begin to find creative responses and solutions."

From Beyond Intractability

And this is the search.


Concluding thoughts...

Using this model, conflict is not something that people simply turn on and off, for an evening's entertainment; the TV-sitcom model is a totally false one. It isn't something that can be hashed out over a cup of coffee, either, and put safely and permanently to rest with ample time for all of the commercials to run before the half hour ends.

Instead, it is something deep, fundamental, something that comes from the core... something that has enormous power to harm, but if squarely faced, has even greater power to heal and transform.

Genuinely dealing with conflict requires a willingness to learn things about oneself - and, at times, about others - that may be discomfiting, perhaps painful, perhaps embarrassing.

And even more than this: willingness to change, to be changed, to be open to new ways of seeing, new ways of being - is the key to genuine resolution.

Small wonder the task seems so daunting.


Anonymous SystemsThinker said...

I have read and studied a lot about conflict and the repetition compulsion, but never from the standpoint of writing. In any case, it's a topic that I think is really important. I especially think we desperately need more awareness of conflict not as a horrible thing to avoid but as an engine that pushes us to grow and master new skills.

This concept of making conscious the roots of the conflict and then challenging growth in each other is at the heart of Imago Therapy. I talk about this a great deal in one of my posts, Choosing Intimate Partners: To Repeat or Not to Repeat?.

Very interesting topic. And I'm sure any writer who keeps it in mind will create much more tension and drama.

08 April, 2008 03:48  

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