Why Lefties Need Conflict Resolution

Mar 8, 2014

Why Lefties Need Conflict Resolution

From 1996 to 2005 I worked at a summer camp in Western Massachusetts founded on principles of social justice. We brought kids together from different walks of life and in a beautiful mountain setting, taught them how to get along between and across their differences in race, class, ability, gender, and on. 

I am thinking back to a summer I was running the farm and nature program, a small hobby farm where these city kids got to get into dirt and take responsibility for feeding, watering, and caring for animals. From the garden you could see out a long ways down the rolling pasture, nothing but green rolling land down to the treeline. The sun was often hot on those slow summer days, the four or five horses off in the lower riding ring stamping, flicking their tails, and making the slow lippy sounds horses make on a hot summer day when nothing needs a rush.

Our little patch of garden smelled like fresh earth baked in the sun, and on this particular day I am thinking of, I am standing in the garden patch with a group of kids, bent over weeding the tomatoes by hand. The camp was based on free choice, which meant the kids in the garden that day had chosen to be there, and also meant any activity usually had a mix of ages. On this day our voluntary weeding crew consisted of one or two 8 year olds, a few more 11 and 12 year olds, and maybe one older camper who seemed terribly mature at 14. I distinctly remember this day because, as we weeded, a conflict arose in our discussion.

One girl was from a working class background in New York, being raised by a single mother. She was white, and ‘looked’ or ‘passed’ for a more comfortable class, but was painfully aware of the educational opportunities passing her by because acceptance at good high schools in New York’s competitive education system was dependent on grades and money, and her mother couldn’t afford things like extra tutoring or high tuition.

She said it felt unfair to her that kids in her financial situation who were not white were more likely to get scholarships and other kinds of support than she was, and she felt they were passing her by.

A black girl in the group responded that people always assume if you get a scholarship it is because you are black and not because you worked hard or are smart.

The circle of kids all stopped weeding for a moment. Everyone looked at me. And then I moved to an open patch and sat down, and they all sat down, too. In a circle. This is what we did at this camp when a conflict arose. We sat together, in a circle, and calmed ourselves so we could listen. Those not directly involved in the conflict listened supportively, and the two used skills to hear each other and try to understand.

So now we were sitting in a circle weeding the basil. And the soil was coming clear under our hands as the weeds went into buckets, and the basil was showing up against the soil. The girls took turns speaking, and they said back things like, ‘am I hearing you right? Is this what you mean?’ before they expressed what their realities were like. I intervened gently with questions occasionally and kept a sense of the emotional tone of the conversation, to hold space. Was the black camper feeling safe to speak? Had the white camper understood the insidious daily effects of systemic racism?

The other kids in the circle listened sympathetically, and sometimes said ‘wait, I think you missed what she meant there’ or helped the two girls clarify and understand each other, and sometimes added experiences or reflections or critique of their own, as their hands pulled up weeds big and small from the crumbly black soil. Voices stayed kind though tears were shed in emotion, and the afternoon sun warmed our backs and faces.

By the time the rope bell atop the camp’s central A-frame was pulled to set the bell ringing for dinner, and the bell called across the old wood and stone buildings and out across the pasture to the garden, the girls had lapsed into a comfortable, pensive quiet.  

I don’t know that they magically understood each other then and there, but they had heard each other’s words with open hearts and seemed willing to think on them. I made a mental note to check in individually with each girl at the centre of the discussion later that day to see what they needed and if they were ok. We rounded up the buckets, dumped the weeds behind the barn, and headed in to a meal, the two girls both looking pensive. The kids who had formed the rest of the circle left with content, proud looks on their faces – they had helped.

That conversation didn’t resolve the immense structural and cognitive violence that the black camper faces every day. It didn’t resolve the class barriers the white camper was experiencing, or the stacked school system within which they were both being forced to compete. They were kids and we weren’t organizing, at that moment, for change in those systems.  

What they did do was give each kid a template: a template for building trust with someone they may otherwise, at home in the city, have viewed as a threat.

They both got to be relatively safe while undermining a divide and conquer strategy of our current social order: the one that teaches poor white kids to blame kids of colour instead of seeing the pressures and inequalities in the system that affects them both.

The black girl got to speak, with difficulty and with support, about her knowledge of and daily experiences with structural and individual racism, that at school in the city often just go unchecked, and the white girl got to genuinely hear what she wasn’t seeing about the grinding continual assault that is racism in a major American city. The white girl got to have us understand that she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to go to a decent school, because the public schools in her area were falling apart, and to have her financial stresses understood.

In other words, both received empathy and recognition of their very real struggles with structural violence – racism, poverty – while helping them begin to see an alliance between them as better than competition in the system affecting them both. And the girl who in actual, practical fact, had the unearned privilege in that situation, got to hear that she needed to learn this about her situation, while also being valued as a person and supported in the very real struggles she was facing. 

Those conversations were a completely normal part of the daily fabric of life at this camp. When two kids got into a conflict, everyone nearby or involved with them would  stop what they were doing and sit in a circle, and look to the adults or, often, initiate conflict resolution on their own.

It was a generally recognized truism that a conflict between two people affects everyone around them, that conflict well handled is an opportunity to create trust, and that conflict avoided just simmers under the surface until it erupts in unforeseen ways: gossip, damaged relationships, and fear.  

With countless such conversations under their belt, the children and the adults were more likely to learn from their mistakes, expand their capacity for empathy and nuance their understanding of human nature, and at the best of times, see and work to support each other in the face of the naturalized forms and systems of power that privilege some and harm some, every day. I’m not saying it always worked. Some summers were certainly better than others. I can also think of times when I failed to hear or see what was right in front of me until later and perpetuated violence in the form of racism or hetero assumptions, and there are likely just as many times that I still don't understand, even later. The point isn’t that we created some magic idyll where we left power and violence at the road.

The point was that we practiced, and worked at, becoming better people, every day. Sometimes we made it, sometimes we didn’t, but the skills were available and put into practice every chance we got. While painting popsicle sticks or doing macramé, while feeding the ducks, while taking out the pig slop and cleaning the kitchen, while sharing a meal, while helping the kids tidy up their shoes, while running around chasing a soccer ball, there was a willingness to learn and work at it.

This place was by no means perfect. But it got some things right. And one of the things that community got right was that if we accept that difference in human communities is good and normal and expected, then we have got to learn how to be at ease with the range of human experience, bodies, cultures, subcultures, and values, and able to see the real power dynamics that shape our lives and that are usually swept under the rug. If we want to be at ease with the complex reality of human difference, then we have got to learn how to be good to each other when we bump up against it – which we will, regularly, unless we want a conformist monoculture in which everyone behaves, thinks, and feels the same way.

How did we create this culture?

The training during staff week varied every year but certain skills were rock solid values of the camp, grounded in years of conflict resolution knowledge.

This was what we were all trained in as staff. These are the practices we were taught to use as adults, and the skills we modeled for the children in our care.

When in conflict with a coworker follow these steps:

1. Talk to the person directly first. Don’t talk about the conflict with others because that escalates, reifies misunderstanding and difference, and is destructive to the two people involved and the strength of the entire community. If you don’t feel ready to talk to the person directly, ask one other person whose discretion you trust to give you advice about how to approach that person, and approach them as soon as you are able. Resolve conflicts quickly before they grow.

2. Name needs, values, and behavior. When you speak to the person you’re upset with, do not shame or attack or characterize the person. Practice ‘when you do this behavior, I feel this emotion. This is my need.’ Tell the truth, directly, openly, and honestly, while listening. Recognize that their entire world view may be different from yours, and you may be building a lexicon to even understand what words mean to each of you. Identify areas that were simply misunderstanding, identify core value differences or assumptions that may be the cause of the conflict, and recognize that people all have reasons for their actions. See if you can learn the other person’s logic and reasons.

3. Get appropriate support. Instead of gossiping or talking destructively to others, if talking directly to the person involved doesn’t work, then ask a friend or supervisor to sit with the two of you, to keep you both on track and help you navigate. Once you have a clearer understanding of the causes of the conflict, make a concrete plan for what to do next to improve things, and find agreements for improving your skills the next time around. Anticipate that it will arise again, and see the next time as an opportunity to practice.

4. The whole circle is affected by each of the relationships within it. Recognize others who have been affected by the conflict, and once it is resolved, take time to sit with everyone involved all together to avoid broken telephone and gossip, and use talking circles and the same skills – identifying misunderstanding, recognizing needs and power dynamics, listening to and believing each other,  and being honest and direct. Other people who felt pressured to take sides or felt scared or confused will also need their emotions honoured, and safety rebuilt.

5. Know your own conflict style, strengths and weaknesses (more on that in 'conflict styles,' below).

Those skills and strategies were an expected part of our job performance. They were included in our evaluations and were a factor in rehiring decisions. The camp’s raison d’être was not to teach kids to make popsicle art or even to learn to horseback ride or swim, though hard skills development was certainly part of the program. The real reason we were there was to inculcate those community building skills that would foster the development of ethical, responsive, self-aware adults.

If we are committed to building a resilient left movement – or many movements that can work together without perpetually fragmenting  – it seems to me to be evident that we need skills for embracing our differences and learning from them. In other words, we need the mindset that views conflict as normal, as an opportunity for alliance building and learning, instead of as unusual or avoidable. That isn’t abstract. To me it is a daily choice, a daily practice, as essential as knowing how to make a leaflet or organize a panel.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself in radical left communities that had very little of this skill set, or took for granted that conflict could simply be avoided and that it would go away. That has, sadly, been my experience more often than I would wish, most notably in predominantly white organizing circles in Canada.

I'm thinking of another day, in that same garden. This was just a week or so after that first, wonderful moment of kids seeing it work, seeing learning happen instead of fear. A group of kids are back at the garden, including some regulars who had been there the week before. Our hands are once again in the soil, our backs in the sun.

An older girl said something judging a younger girl's appearance – I don’t remember what. Some comment that made everyone in the garden go still for a moment and brought a strained, unhappy look to the younger girl’s face.

And then the kids looked at me and all sat down in a circle.

Curious about what would happen, I joined them. And they all looked at the older girl. Who didn’t seem to notice. She went on with what she’d been doing – we were staking beans –  standing up, as though nothing had changed. One of the kids sitting in the circle looked at me with big eyes, looked at her, looked back at me, and said, ‘aren’t we going to talk?’

And I looked at the girl who had initiated the conflict. Who didn’t look at me or seem to notice everyone staring. With the rest of the campers looking at me expectantly, I asked the older girl, ‘do you want to talk about what just happened?’ and she said, ‘not really,’ and turned away, back to the beans, for all the world as if she was alone in the garden, chattering to herself.

After a few moments watching, I shrugged to the others. ‘We can’t force her.’ Everyone looked dejected. I felt dejected. The girl who had been the recipient of the harm looked like she was about to cry. Her friends put their arms around her. The bell rang.

In conflict resolution parlance, this is called stonewalling. The utter refusal to engage now or in the future. It is the denial of relationship, and it has recognizeable and fairly predictable effects: open conflict is temporarily averted; social bonds are weakened as relationships stay superficial; understanding is avoided; change is avoided. Existing power dynamics remain in place, which may benefit those with more power, whose mere inaction is enough to keep the benefits they experience, whether they want them or not. 

Among good people who aren’t intentionally trying to harm others, stonewalling usually arises because people feel overwhelmed. Either they fear they will not be able to maintain their own boundaries while choosing to engage with another, or they don’t know their own edges, don’t know how to say their own needs while hearing the needs of others.

For some, anger itself can feel overwhelming, and it can feel safer to say nothing. If most of what people know of conflict is the knee-jerk reactions, such as ‘avoid/attack’ or the barely better ‘negotiate and trade,’ then conflict appears a zero-sum game with winners and losers. It can appear that the only options are to lose, or to be invaded, or to literally put up a stone wall: nothing gets in or out. The safety of a barricade. 

On the other hand, with practice in collaborative conflict resolution, conflict appears more like a rubix cube, a complex puzzle of interlocking parts, one you can solve together for everyone’s benefit.

The skill level of everyone involved - and how well supported they are by the circle around them - shapes how quickly and safely you can solve the puzzle.

Clearly, that older child had a responsibility. Had she hit another kid, had she stolen, I could have insisted she sit and talk. We have social lines about such things. But when her violence was merely verbal, and was done in that quiet way that is so often how power operates – a girl with better clothes and jewelry shaming a scruffier younger kid – that older child can, by and large, go on unaccountable.

Maybe she’ll feel bad later. Everyone has reasons for their actions; I had known that older girl for years, and I liked her. She was a good kid who was behaving in a shut down way, for reasons she didn't feel able to share. But her chance to see her mistake, to learn from it, and to rebuild trust before it formed a permanent rift, was lost.

She wasn’t willing to see her power in that situation, and no one else could make her see it, not even a circle of her peers sitting staring at her with an open place in the circle for her, or a culture of resolution. That doesn’t mean her social spower wasn’t real in that moment. It just meant that she could use it to refuse to see the effects of her actions.

Conflict Styles

Conflict styles – each of our personal, familial, and cultural signatures, or our ‘fingerprint’ of strengths and weaknesses – affect how smoothly conflict unfolds. These personal styles improve with dedication and space to learn. Without anyone being ‘bad’ or having ill intent, unskilled behaviors of one or more of the people involved can make engaging more difficult, and these are where seeing conflict resolution as a set of skills we improve through practice is paramount. In the context of the many systems of oppression that affect us, learning to build trust through conflict is as necessary a skill as any other in an organizer's repertoire. None of us start out ‘good’ at conflict, and we each can work on our own weak areas.

Unskilled conflict habits include:

-steamrolling, ignoring a no, refusing to disengage in the moment when one person needs a break
-being too attached to a particular outcome or solution, refusing to consider options
-stonewalling, the utter refusal to engage the conflict at all
-threatening to end the relationship entirely if one does not get their way or if conflict continues
-shame, blame, characterizing, pathologizing
, talking about people rather than with them

These habits polarize and make conflict harder for everyone. We all use some of them sometimes. All of these are unskilled styles, and they improve with practice.

Stonewalling is always available, but it harms relationships every bit as much as the other destructive conflict styles. Conflict skill improves with a shared commitment to distinguish the behavior from the person, and with room to learn from our mistakes - together.

As long time organizer Mandy Hiscocks said in a recent interview: "we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us, who enjoy the same things and have the same politics, who use similar tactics. It’s easier. It’s also more fun- I mean, if you’re going to organize in your spare time you’re giving up opportunities to hang out with friends. So if you organize with your friends, you’re feeding two birds with one hand so to speak. The downside of combining organizing with friends with the ability to move easily is that people’s personal shit, their arguments with and disappointments in each other, can often mean that they just walk away. They stay in town but leave the movement or stay in the movement and leave town. There’s no real impetus to do the hard work of staying where we are, sorting out our differences, and carrying on."

Like learning how to facilitate a meeting, how to bake a cake, how to drive a car, sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. If friends stopped speaking to each other every time one of them baked a cake wrong, no one would ever get very good cake. As long as no one burns the bridge, no mistake or unskilled action is the end of the game, and we can learn over time. The available skills include identifying your own conflict style’s strengths and weaknesses, seeing the larger implications of those weaknesses, and being dedicated to continually improve your practices, in connection with others.

I want to be clear: I am not saying everyone can or should work through conflict, on the spot, at all times. There are mitigating factors.

For one thing, and importantly, power is always a factor. The black girl in my first story was not obligated to teach the white girl – or me, her white counselor – about racism. If she didn't feel safe talking, it wouldn't be her responsibility to step up – it would be mine. Structural violence is not abstract. It is a daily, continual assault, and it puts people in a position of having to decide when and how to engage, and that has got to be accepted. But when the harm is between relative equals, or when the person with more privilege decides to disengage, that choice has effects. Stonewalling can mean the person with more power gets to control when and how that power gets discussed. 

Even then, people do need to have some say over when and how they engage, need to know their boundaries and limits will be respected, and concurrently need to take responsibility for actively engaging at a time that does work. They need to be able to say ‘I know this is important but I just can’t talk about it right now’ and then find a time when they can. Realistically, energies wax and wane. When someone is in the middle of a significant mental health breakdown, is isolated, or is working 60 hour work weeks, they may just not be in a place to do what even they, on a better day, would want to do, or what would be good. I’m not suggesting that anyone is a bad person if they simply can’t think collaboratively about a conflict because they have bigger fish to fry at that moment. I’m not saying people can always do what is ideal. And sometimes the best real resolution in the short term is for both people to agree they need a little air, space and time, so they can feel good about each other in the long run. Sometimes that's all the resolution you need.

That's different from a logic, or a value system, based on the tenet that ‘conflict is best not discussed,' or ‘It’s best to just let it clear up on its own over time.’ That’s like saying ‘yeah there’s this sink full of dishes, but if I just wait they’ll probably be clean eventually.’

Take this story of two kids in a garden, and scale it up. Imagine it in your own life.

Mainstream culture, in Canada at least, is still largely living in an inheritance from colonial predecessors. The cultures that fundamentally shaped what values get taken for granted in Canada were British, Scottish, and Irish, and while I have limited exposure to these cultures, what everyone from them has ever taught me about them indicates that they are all deeply embedded in Just Don’t Talk About It traditions.

That value system is not universal, it is particular and specific. And in this context where I live, it happens to be very white.

It is a style, and it does let the conflict appear smoothed over as long as the same situation doesn’t arise again, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Whatever caused the conflict in the first place will still be there later, waiting for the same situation – hardened by the memory each person has of how badly it went the last time. 

So while sometimes ‘it’s just not a good time,’ is real and true, it’s important to recognize that sometimes – in the words of my smart friend Graham –  saying ‘this isn’t a good time,’ is just an avoidance strategy. Sometimes it truly and legitimately does mean ‘I can hardly get out of bed today, and I’m holding on to my job by the skin of my teeth, so I have to tackle this later,” and sometimes it means, “I could deal with this now, but I really don’t want to because it makes me very uncomfortable, and I don't know how to be this uncomfortable, so I’m going to say it’s not a good time.’ For some folks, raised in a style that asserts that conflict is best left unspoken, 'this isn't a good time' is a permanent state. 

If you expect zero discomfort to be possible before you feel 'ready to talk,' you may wait a long, long time. Maybe forever. In the meantime, you lose trust, you lose relationships, and the social bonds that make us strong as a left movement are weakened when they could be made stronger. What we are doing when we engage in working things out is "learning how we can have each other's backs, learning how we can lean on one another without making each other take our whole weight," as my wise brother says. We are building the beautiful community, the community that can stay together and hold one another through all the vagaries and violence capitalism, racism, and systems of violence can throw at us. 

Stonewalling leaves us vulnerable to the divide and conquer strategies of the systems that pit us against one another in competition for seemingly limited resources. There are too many bigger struggles we face, too many reasons we need each other. Too many individualist narratives that isolate, too many messages teaching us we are alone, that we are in competition, that no one can be trusted. Too many forces pulling us apart while larger powers dance over our fractured capacity to work together and trust each other.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. As Ursula K. Leguin writes, "Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone. It has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new." 

For those who have dedicated themselves to social change, building up comfort with conflict, starting with viewing conflict as an opportunity rather than a problem, is a necessary skill set.

In the words of the great Stuart Hall:

"Feminism taught me the difference between a conviction in the head and a change in the way you live."
-Stuart Hall, speaking of things he learned from partner Catherine Barrett





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