The Joy of Conflict

How we handle conflict, including discrimination and harassment. updated 2021.03

It’s normal to feel a little awkward and uncomfortable around it, given a lot of toxic messages we’ve been taught about conflict. You might find yourself totally disinterested in engaging, or, in the other direction, very eager to take the moral high ground and engage in right vs wrong thinking. You might feel some shame that this is happening to you. You might even find that the minute you realize a conflict needs addressing, you’re too upset about the situation to approach it with the care you want. All of these tendencies are normal starting places, and if you prepare, relax, and take a collaborative, reciprocal approach to meeting the needs of everyone involved, conflict can be a great opportunity for bonding and growth.

Isn't it time we start relating to conflict differently? Conflict can be healthy and beautiful, not to mentioned playful and fun! It is natural, normal, and necessary; it’s needed to transform people, relationships, and society. In Pax Fauna, when we notice that there's a little tension in the air, we lean into it. If you are experiencing a difficult situation or conversation with someone in our community (or elsewhere!), the steps in this document can help you take a conflict positive approach. They are presented in order of least to most resource intensity, and in the order we recommend taking them.

When people in conflict have a conversation, often both feel a strong need to be heard by the other, making it very difficult for either party to listen. If one or both parties prepare, it’s more likely that one of them will be able to extend the emotional generosity to listen first. Once one person feels heard, they’re more likely to feel enough spaciousness to listen next.

Why doesn't Pax Fauna have a separate policy for discrimination and harassment?

As is hopefully clear from this document, we take conflict seriously, including discrimination and harassment. While we do not believe all conflicts are created equally or should be handled identically, in our experience there is rarely a clear line between conflict and harassment. Furthermore, we are committed to shifting away from the paradigm of retributive justice (characterized by dualistic thinking such as right/wrong, guilty/innocent, and victim/perpetrator) towards one of restorative justice which can hold the full complexity of conflict, including the role of social structures.

In most conflict situations, all parties see themselves as victims, and there is a thread of truth to their belief. All conflict has history. Even someone who commits a random act of violence is almost always acting out trauma from violence they've received and were unable to process.

Instead of labeling people as victims and perpetrators, we use these words to describe the more complex roles people actually play in conflict:

Initiator: the person who initiates a conflict process.

Respondent: the person with whom the conflict process is initiated.

Notice that these words do not rely on a harmful act occurring nor an intention to harm. We hold separate the intention behind an action and the impact it causes. This means we can celebrate the wholesome intention of any action while holding and, when appropriate, mourning the full range of impacts. In an intense conflict, it is common (though not ubiquitous) for every individual involved to be both an author and a receiver of harmful acts.

But aren't discrimination and sexual harassment different?

We respect the impulse to separate out conflicts which involve the abuse of power. Discrimination involves abusing social power in order to exclude marginalized groups, while sexual harassment usually involves abusing the physical and social power of male privilege or the institutional power of higher rank.

However, the truth is that all conflicts involve power. Power imbalances exist between any two people on the social, institutional, material, or spiritual levels, and those imbalances determine how the conflict plays out. Instead of separating these out, we approach every conflict in a way that takes these factors into account.

Sometimes, excluding someone from a group is the most compassionate option we have to prevent ongoing harm and protect individuals and the group. The final section of this policy addresses these situations.

Individual Preparation

Conflict is natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s not painful. Taking time to care for ourselves and clarify our thoughts and feelings can help prepare us to bring our best selves to resolving the conflict. This might mean removing yourself from the immediate situation, taking some time to let your feelings settle before acting, or journaling. It might help to journal privately on the following questions.

  1. What happened?

  2. What judgements am I having about the situation, the other person, or myself?

  3. How am I feeling? Am I needing acknowledgement of anger, fear, alienation, or disgust?

    1. How are my feelings showing up in my body? Is there a weight on my chest, pain in my stomach, hotness in my head?

    2. Can I extend a sense of gentleness or compassion to myself for how I’m feeling?

  4. What’s really important to me in this situation? What values are alive for me right now?

  5. How might the other person be feeling? What might be important to them?

    1. If you get stuck here, you might like to continue from #2, repeating as many times as necessary until there’s a softening towards the other person and a felt sense of what the situation might be like for them.

  6. What requests might I like to make of myself now, or the other person in the future?

Finding a Supportive Listener

You may find it helpful to try to find someone not directly involved in the situation who can really listen to and understand you. This might be able to help you understand and describe how you’re feeling. This may help you prepare for having a direct conversation with the person/people you are feeling in conflict with. This may also be a necessary step for you to draw on external resources to shore you up and make it safe for you to engage in the conflict, especially when you believe you are in a power-down position compared to others involved in the conflict (whether due to social factors like race and gender or due to your relative positions in the organization).

It’s important to draw a distinction between supportive listening and gossip. The difference lives in the intention behind the conversation. The purpose of gossip might be to connect with the person you’re talking to or to punish the person you’re talking about. Supportive listening is meant to help you resolve your feelings and prepare you to talk directly to the person you’re in conflict with. In these conversations, the listener focuses on your feelings rather than the actions of the other person or on “taking sides” with either of you. Clarify your intention with the listener before you start- that you aren’t asking for them to take your side or judge the other person. You might request that they keep the content of your conversation private.

Tips for Supportive Listeners

The most important outcome of this conversation is for the speaker to have a sense of being fully heard and understood. This does not mean you need to agree with their evaluation of the situation, and in fact, agreeing is likely counterproductive as it guides the speaker towards the “story” of what happened rather than towards a sense that their inner experience is understood, which is where relief often comes.

Seek to understand, not the facts and timeline, but the feelings and values of the person who’s speaking. You might say, “that sounds really frustrating, was it?” or “I’m wondering if that whole experience left you feeling humiliated” to make a guess at a feeling present for the person. Some people might be fairly verbal about naming their feelings, leaving you sensing that you aren’t helping much by naming them, too, while others might not have a lot of resonance to the same words for feelings that you do. You also might say something like, “Are you wanting a sense of fairness?” or “I bet you’d really love to have a sense of appreciation from X, does that feel important?” to make a guess at the values present. You also might try summarizing what the person said and asking if you’re getting it. It’s much less important that you guess or summarize correctly than that you communicate a nonjudgemental sense that you’re listening and seeking to understand.

It may be tempting to evaluate the situation in agreement with the person who’s speaking (“That’s so unfair!”), in disagreement (“I really don’t think she meant it that way”), to give advice (“Have you gone to this person directly?”), to relate (“I had an experience just like that…”), or to try to see the other person’s point of view (“He was put in a pretty tough position, don’t you think?”) It can be fairly vulnerable to open up to someone about a conflict, and this may make the person speaking unlikely to tell you how well your support is working for them. We advise trying to limit yourself to making guesses about the feelings and values in order to support them towards gaining the capacity to address the conflict with the person directly.

Having a Conversation

You could arrange to talk directly with the person/people you are feeling in conflict with. If you do this, we suggest taking turns in speaking and trying to really listen and understand what is important to the other person and how they feel. It may be helpful to reflect what you heard in your own words and allow a chance at clarification before responding, such as by saying “I heard you say ___, did I get it?” Tips for supportive listeners above are also useful for conflict conversations. It is important to create an agreement about when, where and how long you will talk together before you begin your conversation.

One method is called the “long walk”: walk together in one direction while one person shares. When they are done sharing, turn around and walk back while the second person shares. This ensures both people have equal time to share and listen.

Having a Conversation with Support

You might also ask someone who everyone involved would trust to be present. That person’s role would be to be a silent support for everyone there. It can be very supportive to people who are having a difficult conversation to have someone with them who is just listening and helping them to feel safe and not alone - we would strongly recommend that this supporter remain silent because even when our intentions are to help, it can be very difficult to figure out something that actually helps.

Restorative Circles

Sometimes conflicts are discrete between two people, but just as often they involve many more than this. In these cases, we recommend restorative circles. Restorative circles include one or more facilitators and everyone involved in the conflict who wants to participate. They consist of the following steps.

  1. Pre-circle dialogues: The facilitator speaks 1:1 with each person in the process, explaining how the process works and drawing out what’s important to each person. The facilitator checks for willingness to go ahead with the circle.

  2. The facilitator works in collaboration with the parties to determine who else needs to be invited to the circle.

  3. Circle dialogue: All parties meet to discuss the conflict, with an emphasis on allowing each party to be fully heard. The facilitator may ask questions such as,

    1. What do you want the person to know about how you are now in relation to the event and its consequences?

    2. What do you want the person to know about what you were looking for when you acted?

    3. What would you like to happen next? What would you like to offer, and to whom?

The facilitator encourages each participant to reflect what they heard and check for understanding before responding. This slows the pace of conversation and minimizes reactivity and further harm.

  1. Post circle dialogue: Immediately after the circle dialogue or at a later date, the parties meet to harvest learning and review solutions that came from the restorative circle. Agreements that aren’t working are revised.

Advice for Making Agreements

After spending some time listening and trying to understand each other, it is a good idea to create some agreements to improve how you work together and prevent the conflict from reoccurring again in the future. We suggest that these agreements be S.M.A.R.T. meaning Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Specific. For example, instead of agreeing to be nicer to each other, you might agree to creating a specific section of a meeting where you will express gratitude for things you appreciate about each other’s work.

When Separation is Appropriate

Rarely, through attempting to process a conflict, it becomes clear that the best way to care for individuals and the group is for one or more people to separate, i.e. leave the group. Often, when this is the case, the parties will reach this understanding mutually. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to ask an individual to leave before they reach that conclusion on their own. Situations where it is appropriate to separate someone from the organization include:

  • When someone presents an imminent danger, physically, psychologically, or materially to themselves, others, or the organization.

  • When someone repeatedly fails to follow through on important agreements made during a conflict process.

  • When someone refuses to engage in a conflict process in good faith and their behavior is reasonably causing others undue distress.

  • When someone's intention is determined to be discriminatory on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information, or when someone refuses to hear and consider why their words or actions are received as discriminatory.

  • When sexual misconduct by one party leaves another party unable to be in their presence safely.

  • Individuals whose past trauma exceeds the ability of the organization to create a healing environment without impairing its mission, such as those with high conflict personality disorders.

  • When someone actively undermines the mission and values of the organization or carries out an unjustified leadership attack.

Every circle lead has the authority to interpret these criteria and remove someone from their circle, including the Mission Circle. MC has the authority to remove someone from the organization by a bare majority vote. Any such action by MC shall be effective immediately and shall immediately strip the person of all privileges of membership, without exception unless otherwise stated.

Some examples of harassing behavior:

  • Humiliation in front of coworkers

  • Repeated unwelcome remarks or jokes, including bullying

  • Exercising, attempting to exercise, or threatening to exercise physical force against a partner in the workplace that causes or could cause physical injury

  • Work interference or sabotage that prevents work from getting done

  • Comments that promote stereotyping

  • Comments related to a partner’s ethnic, racial, or religious affiliation, or their sexual orientation, gender, or age, that are publicly humiliating, offensive, threatening, or that undermine their role in a professional environment

  • Unwelcome physical contact including touching, patting, pinching, stroking, kissing, hugging

  • Sexual comments, stories, and jokes, including bragging about sexual prowess

  • Repeated and unwanted social invitations for dates or physical intimacy

  • The use of job-related threats or rewards to solicit sexual favors

  • Comments on an employee or staff member’s appearance or private life

  • Display of sexually explicit or suggestive material

  • Insults based on the sex or gender identity of the worker

  • Physical violence, including sexual assault

  • Sending sexually explicit messages

  • Sexually-suggestive gestures

  • Whistling

  • Leering

Last updated