Getting into Conflict

One of the goals of the Peacemaker Fellowship is to help local congregations identify and address the conflicts that arise such that they can fully resolve them and strengthen the bonds of fellowship in the church.  For this reason some folks are surprised that the Introduction to Peacemaker Training focuses so much on individual development and personal conflicts.  

This is the first in a series of posts about the relationship between our own work on conflict in our personal lives and our ability to help others address conflict in theirs.  My goal here is to clarify some principles so that participants can better appreciate why working on themselves prepares them to help others. 


Peacemaker training starts with understanding our own conflicts.  We name, address, and move to resolve our own persistent patterns of conflict in our most significant relationships.  But folks ask, “What about conflicts in organizations?  How does this help solve conflicts in a local congregation?”

Two central principles apply.

  • We can’t solve a problem unless it is ours.
  • Even my Self as what I think of as an individual is a complex organization.

Owning the Problem

One of the questions we address early on in the Introduction to Peacemaker Training is the question “Do you want to be responsible?”  This, of course, is a trick question.  We do and we don’t.  It depends on what we mean by responsible.

This is a critical issue because I can’t solve a problem that is not in some sense my own.  If I don’t own it, I have no power to affect it.

Because we are all beloved children of God and because we are called to love and serve each other and because of the oneness of all Creation and the holographic nature of being: every problem is my problem.  But I have no leverage to address it, much less solve it, if I don’t have a clear sense of how it is mine.

But be clear.  This is not, “Step aside everyone, I am here to fix this mess,” but rather, “In what sense is this a problem for me?  What about this circumstance causes discord within me?”

When my children are squabbling: is this a chance for them to learn how to get along and I should allow them to work it out or is this a situation of danger where I as someone who cares for these beings is called to intervene?  I have to be able to know myself, to know what I need, to know whether to act and how.

Addressing the conflict requires that I get into it and see it from the inside.

Organizations as Complex Individuals

I had a professor in graduate school in the first course I took on conflict resolution who insisted that conflicts in groups were a different phenomenon than conflicts within persons or in intimate relationships.  He insisted that groups are so much more complex that they require a different paradigm to understand them.  Given his prestige I have tried for the last 30 years to observe what he was talking about and I have come to believe that he just underappreciated how complex people are.

The more we get to know ourselves the more we recognize that we are not just sometimes “of two minds.”  We are all very complex and often very conflicted.

Anxiety is not just a low-grade fear; it is the physiological artifact of being pulled and pushed in two directions at once.  An essential part of helping systems in conflict is to present what we call “a non-anxious presence.”  This capacity to be present to others without being overwhelmed by their anxiety is essential to being with them in ways that help them understand themselves and make choices that genuinely move them toward what they need.

As we get to know the parts of us that are in conflict and to see how normal that is we relax and feel less anxious.  For this reason it is essential that we address our own conflicts so we can help others with theirs.

The Central Question

In a phone conversation with a potential client I asked what I have found to be the pivotal question in determining whether I can be of help.

“Is there something happening in your life right now that is so bothersome that you are willing to change what you are doing?”

He is obviously a smart guy and he laughed in recognition that this is his issue.  He would really like to find a therapist that is so good that the therapist will teach him how to get others to change.

The problem is not that we want others to change.  Of course we would like them to be different.  The problem is that we put our energy into getting others to change.  We have a very low chance of success with that.  If they want to be different in just the ways we want them to be different we will see what looks like success.  But if they don’t want to be who we want them to be, or can’t be, or want to thwart us more than they want to please themselves… for any one of a dozen reasons they may not be who we want them to be.  This does not stop us from trying to changing and–for our trouble–what we get is frustration.  We feel helpless and hopeless.

As futile as this is there is a more dire consequence.  When we focus our attention on getting others to change we divert our attention from transforming our own behavior.  We take our attention off of what would create safety and satisfaction for ourselves and instead waste our energies on doing the impossible.  So ask yourself…

Close to Launch

I had told some friends that this site would be ready by the end of June 2014 and then I got really bogged down in creating the site.  It is now close to prime time and I am ready to return to writing.  I think I might just make it.