This is part two in a two-part series. For Part One please click here.
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. We need one another, and recent events have made amply clear how vital it is to hold on to each other so we can take risks together.
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 says something judging a younger girl’s clothes – 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 had done the hurtful thing.
Who didn’t seem to notice. She went on with what she’d been doing – we were staking beans – as though nothing had changed. Awkward silence.
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. The others put their arms around her. The bell rang.
In conflict resolution parlance, this is called stonewalling. The utter refusal to engage. It is the denial of relationship, and it has recognizeable and fairly predictable effects: social bonds are weakened as relationships stay superficial; understanding is avoided; structural power remains unquestioned; typically, if stonewalling continues over more than a day or two, the circle breaks down.
When the one doing the stonewalling is the person with more privilege or power, they can stonewall to protect this privilege. When you stonewall, existing power dynamics remain in place, which benefits those with more power, whose mere inaction is enough to keep the unearned privilege they experience, whether they notice this 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. 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 for their own drop off areas where they lack capacity – 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 certain things. But when her violence was verbal, and was done in that quiet way that is so often how power operates – that older child could, by and large, go on unaccountable.
Everyone has reasons for their actions; I had known that older girl for years, and I liked her. We can connect and care about one another without going along pretending nothing happened – I could like her, and also tell her that her actions had hurt another person. Her chance to see her mistake, to learn from it, and to rebuild trust before it formed a permanent rift was lost. More importantly, the girl who was harmed had no recourse to rebuild her safety, the freedom from shame that kids loved the most about this camp.
The older girl 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 constructive, skilled conflict resolution. That doesn’t mean her social power wasn’t operating. It meant she could use it to refuse to see the effects of her actions.
Unskilled conflict habits include:
-stonewalling, the refusal to engage the conflict at all
–steamrolling, refusing to disengage in the moment when one person needs a break
-threatening to end the relationship entirely if one does not get their way or if conflict continues
-characterizing, targeting the person’s essence rather than their behaviour
-gaslighting, denial of unearned privilege or oppressive realities, refusal to empathize, ‘punching down,’
-gossip, talking about people rather than with them, leading to broken telephone and chaos
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 beautifully says:
“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.”
Some have cultural or family approaches that taught that ‘conflict is best not discussed,’ or ‘It’s best to just let it clear up on its own.’ That’s like saying ‘yeah there’s this sink full of dishes, but if I just wait they’ll probably be clean eventually.’ It just doesn’t work, most of the time, and hoping it will just leaves conflicts swept under the rug where everyone has to step around them, acting like they’re not there. Eventually every bond breaks using this approach. It lets 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 excuse. 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 on the sunday, not today,” and sometimes it means, “I could deal with this now, but I really don’t want to because it makes me uncomfortable, or it makes me have to face myself, and I don’t know how to be uncomfortable, or I don’t want to look inwards or see my relative power and privilege, so I’m going to say it’s not a good time, when what I really mean is go away.’ For some folks, raised in a style that asserts that conflict is best left unspoken, ‘this isn’t a good time’ appears as a permanent state.
If you expect zero discomfort before you’re willing to go clean up an interpersonal conflict, or perfect comfort when being called to recognize structural violence you are participating in, you could wait a long, long time till ‘a good time’ arises. On the other hand, conflict, when handled directly and quickly, can in fact strengthen bonds, understanding, compassion and connection.
This is part two of a two-part piece. For part one, on why we need conflict skills to be able to hold together in the face of systemic violence, please click here.