Community and Conflict
At last count the population of Earth is over 7,000,000,000 human beings and growing. All those people, in one way or another, live in community. Community can be a wonderfully exuberant and satisfying experience. It can take the form of family, friendship, or other relationships such as business, school, and church association. Living in community can result in partnerships, life-long friendships, shared benefit, support, comfort, and security. Experts now tell us the physiology of human beings indicates we are made for community. Perhaps that’s why community can be a joyful state of being.
Along with the joys of humanity come the challenges. Often those challenges are the product of our diversity of perspective or our imperfection. Diversity can lead to unforeseen insight and innovation. Imperfection can result in mistakes, being wrong, and causing harm. It’s not unusual for divergent perspectives and harm resulting from mistakes to lead to conflict. So, if we live in community, it’s not a matter of IF we will experience conflict, it’s only a matter of WHEN.
No one is exempt from the challenges associated with participating in community. All of us have experienced conflict. Many of us (maybe all) have been taught that conflict is abnormal/bad/negative/to be avoided. We’ve been punished for being involved in conflict. Some of us have responded to that negative connotation and treatment by avoiding the source of conflict - community. Avoiding community doesn’t require us to live like a hermit in the desert; often we limit the opportunity for conflict by steering clear of meaningful relationships.
Meaningful relationships don’t just happen. They require conscious, purposeful thought and action; all we have to do to avoid them is not pursue them. Meaningful relationships also require vulnerability and transparency that exposes us to the possibility of harm and resulting conflict. On the other-hand, that same vulnerability and transparency is necessary to experience the fullness of our humanity and the personage of those with whom we live in community. It’s a DILEMMA! What do we do?
One thing we can do is normalize conflict. When we normalize conflict we cease to perceive it as a negative state or event; we view it as an integral part of community, evidence of diverse perspectives, and an opportunity to learn, grow1, and build more cohesive, supportive relationships. The challenge is, how do we do that?
Most of us have not been taught how to listen. We engage in discussion (persuasive communication), not dialogue (communication designed to facilitate understanding). We use the time the other person is speaking to craft our response, not to try to see the world through their eyes. We may not know how to listen in a way that involves momentarily setting aside our realities and empathetically adopting another person’s perspective. It’s unlikely we’ve been instructed in collaborative, co-creative processes developed to address conflict in a manner that enhances community. Sure, we’ve read books, watched TED Talks, heard presentations about empathy, compassion, and nonviolent communication2, but we’ve probably not been taught what the actual process of building community and addressing conflict looks like in the lives of human beings who have unique, and sometimes very different, points of view. How can people embroiled in the emotional discomfort and cognitive confusion often related to the feeling of being criticized, judged, or attacked come together and agree on how to address the issue(s) that led to conflict? Thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because our ancestors did the work for us.
Long ago in communities far, far away (and some not so far away) our predecessors were faced with a perplexing issue. Members of the community, having diverse perspectives and being beautifully imperfect, would, from time to time, experience conflict with one another. The elders of the community realized that if the means used to address conflict was the expulsion or execution of one or more of the community members, before long the community would be so diminished in strength that it could be easily overtaken, or its members enslaved, by neighboring communities. The community elders had to devise a process through which conflict could be addressed that actually empowered individuals and provided the opportunity for peaceful community. Today, that process has been further developed and adapted for use within organizations and between persons to support culture, build community, make decisions, and reach and maintain agreement.3
In order to approach community related issues in a non-adversarial manner people must interact, be vulnerable, tell stories, listen actively and empathetically, be willing to recognize responsibility, and make themselves accountable to others. Community building requires more than the occasional organized social activity or shared service event. Earnest and meaningful community is the product of people living life together, sharing thoughts and feelings, and supporting, encouraging, and helping one another. For organizations, community may look like members or employees having dinners together, playing together, laughing together, crying together, and experiencing conflict with one another then working together to address the conflict and strengthen relationships.
Community can enhance our individual and relational experiences. It can be a source of joy, creativity, and security. It can also be an environment in which we encounter discomfort and conflict. Community is a vehicle for, and reflective of, the human experience in all its glory and shame. How we engage community, and the relationships it spawns, may substantially affect the benefit we offer others and our own quality of life.
Community and conflict are inseparable. Rather than deny that connection and attempt to create one while avoiding the other, let’s embrace a paradigm that encourages us to recognize the fullness of our humanity and learn, as our elders did, to approach both in a manner that enhances our relationships, facilitates creativity and agreement, and benefits us individually and socially.
1 "We find comfort among those who agree with us – growth among those who don't." ~ Frank A. Clark
2A communication process that focuses on self-empathy (defined as a deep and compassionate awareness of one's own inner experience), empathy (defined as an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person), and honest self-expression (defined as expressing oneself authentically in a way that is likely to inspire compassion in others).
3Dynamic Agreement™ is a relational approach to agreement that puts the power of creating agreement and addressing change in the hands of the people affected by it. www.DynamicAgreement.com