By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Errol Amerasekera
Very few people feel comfortable in the face conflict! There is something about the intensity of conflict and its unpredictable nature that makes us want to run and hide, and hope that by the time we come out, all will be well in the world again.
Ironically, this is possibly the least favourable strategy when it comes to effectively resolving and managing conflict, but more about this later.
For me personally, my baptism of fire in terms of conflict resolution training was spending time in Sri-Lanka (the land of my heritage) in 2007 working with the ongoing civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri-Lankan government. Conflict work in a war zone is very challenging, especially when the conflict has been so protracted. In a long term conflict there is a high degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and this trauma can lead to people being dissociated or detached from their emotions. When individuals are not connected to their fear, anger, grief, sense of revenge etc, a simple disagreement can turn into a shooting very quickly.
So from a facilitation standpoint there are 2 things you need to do to keep yourself safe as well as get a good outcome. Firstly, you need to notice and then
bring people’s awareness to any signals or signs of escalation. A raised voice, a rolling of the eyes, an accusation that’s just followed by a counter accusation can all be signs that things are about to get out of control. By noticing, framing and bringing the awareness of the conflicted parties to these signals, they don’t go undetected. Hence, people start to build their capacity and skills in noticing the impact and effect their behaviours have on “the other”
Secondly, as we frame these signals, we need to support and encourage the parties to talk about the feelings, beliefs and stories which underlie these
escalation signals. Talking about these signals deepens the understanding of what they mean and why they are there. This is important for both the signal sender as well as the signal receiver.
If conflict has a purpose or a reason for existence, then that reason is perhaps simple. More often than not, conflict is a symptom of the need for a greater and deeper dialogue between the conflicting parties. By supporting this process we are actually addressing the conflict at it causal level.
So back to why hiding in the corner and hoping it will go away is not a preferred strategy when it comes to conflict resolution. This just avoids or prolongs the dialogue. Like any symptom, when the underlying cause is not being addressed it gets exacerbated. But facing conflict in a more direct and proactive manner is way beyond the comfort zone of most people. For me personally, having spent time in a war zone, where if I mess up someone (including me) could get shot, gives me some perspective. This perspective allows me to perceive some yelling, screaming and perhaps even “storming off” as not so frightening. It allows me to stay centred and clear thinking in the midst of heated situations. And this is exactly what is needed in most conflicted situations- someone with a clear and centred head to facilitate and deepen the dialogue between the parties by noticing and bringing to their awareness the subtle feelings, desires, hurts and escalation events, that for the most part, they themselves ignore.