Monday, June 18, 2012

Conflict Workshop

Learning about conflict with Dr. Kathy Galleher, the psychologist and consultant who visited us at St. Michael Friary in April to discuss sexuality.

This morning we approached a definition of conflict; discussed the contributions of family and culture to styles of resolving conflict; and outlined the dimensions of conflict management styles. This afternoon we aggregated our individual conflict styles, and, in anticipation of a year's worth of stressful situations to come, mapped our novice group's general approach to conflict situations. We also began to catalog the emotions underlying feelings of anger that arise in conflict, so that we can meet our "antagonists" or "opponents" with compassion and understanding. From these foundations we hope to acquire emotional skills for healthy conflict resolution and verbal skills for addressing conflict.

Tomorrow we will move into role-playing activities in which we can rehearse how we respond in one-on-one conflict situations. The group will help us process our experiences. We will name skills for defusing hostility and practice them as a group. We will wrap up with discussions on group dynamics, prevention, and final reflections.

Our working definition: conflict exists when an action of another person or group threatens a goal you have or threatens someone or something you care about. Conflict is natural: it arises because we are different people who want different things or who go about getting similar things in different ways. Conflict is also unintentional: it arises when communication between persons is poor, through inadequacy or incompleteness. Conflict is inevitable and important: no relationship with any real depth goes without it. Engaging conflict is an act of vulnerability that can strengthen relationships. When handled skillfully, conflict helps us understand ourselves and others. When examined and negotiated carefully, especially in moments of crisis and decision, it can build group solidarity. Conflict is a fire: situations release powerful energies that can be used for good, but they can also be destructive if we choose to go to war with each other.

We pondered the effects on conflict resolution of upbringing in individualist and collectivist cultures. People from individualist cultures respond to disputes with concern for their personal wants versus their opponents' wants and assume the freedom to make decisions unconstrained by customs, roles, group norms, or the impact of one's decision on others. People from collectivist cultures perceive the conflict as a social phenomenon and evaluate every response in terms of the effects on family and friends; and the communitarian context conditions and constrains strategies for resolution.

We were invited to reflect on our families' influence on development of conflict strategies with the following sentences: "In my family, conflict and anger were expressed by ________ and this has left me with ________ feelings about conflict and a tendency to react by ________"; "One thing I'd like people to understand is that ________."

The challenge for women and men in religious life, people for whom truth is both a proposition and a relation, is this: in times of conflict, can women and men religious speak their truth and stay in relationship? How do we balance our agenda and our relationships when the going is good, and how does this balance shift when the going gets rough? Using a diagnostic from the Peace and Justice Support Network of the Mennonite Church USA called the Adult Personal Conflict Style Inventory, we identified which strategies we use when conflict first arises, and which strategies predominate when tensions escalate. (Self-disclosure: when things are calm, I tend to be a collaborator and compromiser, giving a little to get a little, preserving, if not maximizing, the agenda and the relationship. When things get stormy, I become both more directive and more avoidant: the relationship goes out the window, and the agenda becomes primary, which tends to result in an I-win-you-lose or we-both-lose scenario.) Note well that the conflict strategies (accommodating, collaborating, compromising, forcing, avoiding) are themselves value-neutral and can be used positively in appropriate contexts; the ideal is to know the pluses and minuses of your preferred strategies and gain flexibility by learning how to use the other strategies when useful. What is good for individuals goes for groups: religious communities, and Christian communities as a whole, could stand to gain by employing the various conflict strategies in complementary fashion. For an individual it may require a deeper understanding of her personality in its complexity; for a Christian community it may require an openness to multiple models of being Church.

Anger always attends conflict. To manage conflict well, we must manage anger well. Before adjourning this afternoon we explored the depths of anger. As in occasions of strong sexual feeling, something else lurks beneath the surface of anger. Our challenge is to determine what those other primary feelings are: fear, sadness, disgust, shame, and so on. Interrogate the anger to uncover the hurt and identify the triggers (physiological, psychological). To manage anger well, we must be self-aware. To manage anger without sin, we must speak without aggression. This will ensure health of body and soul.

All right, enough for now ... I hope to give a wrap-up after tomorrow's sessions.

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