What can you learn from thumb-wrestling or a tug of war over an orange? What we learned at the recent conflict transformation workshop was that a conflict may present more options than we might think. They include the option of regarding conflict as positive, rather than negative.
Conflict transformation is a way of approaching conflict that starts with the idea that conflict is natural. And in it is the potential for creativity, the opportunity to build positive change. And since the state of conflict is given to us by God, it can be considered holy ground, rather than a battle ground.
The December 7 session at the First Baptist Church of Birmingham was meant as an overview, a taste of the concepts of conflict transformation. We started by learning to put ourselves in another’s shoes, to examine the underpinnings of each side of a conflict, to brainstorm options without judgment, and to focus on the relationships between the people in a conflict, not just the stated goals of each party.
We started by choosing partners, interviewing them, and then introducing ourselves as them, hearing ourselves claim their stories as our own. It is a tool that was developed in the context of the Palestinian – Israeli conflict, where Palestinians and Israelis heard each other’s stories and stood up and introduced themselves as the other.
Part of the goal of conflict transformation is to dispel the notion of “other” by finding common ground and creating understanding of the underlying needs of the other party. For example, in our orange tug of war, one party needed the orange peel to make a traditional holiday cake, a tradition that was very important to that party, and the other was hungry and needed food.
The desire to possess the orange might seem like an insurmountable conflict, but addressing the underlying needs, once they are understood, might be easier.
An orange, it turns out, can be split many ways. Only when we embraced the creative challenge of brainstorming options without judgment to address the underlying need did we think to give the peel to one party to fulfill an important cultural food tradition, and the meat of the orange to the hungry party to eat. In this creative space, we also thought to harvest the seeds and plant them so that there would be plenty of oranges for future generations.
Conflict transformation experts Rev. Dan Buttry and Monica Boomer led the session. Buttry serves as an International Ministries global consultant for peace and justice with the American Baptist International Ministries, and is a global trainer in conflict transformation, including in interfaith contexts. Boomer was trained by one of the great contemporary peacemaker teachers, John Paul Lederach at Notre Dame, and is currently working with Zaman International in conflict transformation.
The difference between conflict resolution and conflict transformation, they explained, is a crucial distinction between conflict as a bad thing and conflict as an opportunity. Resolving a conflict may lead to hasty short-term solutions that are win/lose or lose/lose scenarios, in which one or both party compromises a crucial need or value. The goal of conflict transformation is to work towards the win/win scenario, to get, as Buttry and Boomer say, to higher ground.
We could have cut the orange in half, a reasonable solution, certainly the most obvious and the fastest, but one that fell short of truly satisfying the underlying needs. The conflict transformation process helped us get to more creative and, ultimately, better solutions.
These principles can apply to conflicts ranging from intimate family issues to international peacemaking. One key, said Boomer, summing up the evening, is to get comfortable with the anxiety of conflict, rather than going for the quick solution. Look for opportunities for multiple solutions. Make complexity a friend, not a foe – multiple options can create new ways to look at old patterns. Learn to see conflict as holy ground.
Conflict, explained Boomer, is a window, not a wall.
For more information, we suggest Little Book of Conflict Transformation: Clear Articulation Of The Guiding Principles By A Pioneer In The Field by John Lederach.