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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 12/10/10

The Most Important Thing to Know About Conflict

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There is something my parents and teachers never told me about conflict.

To increase safety, move towards it.

I'm guessing that this idea, for many of you, is not only counter-intuitive but down right aversive. Certainly, for most of my adult life that had been the case. Just the thought of needing to "deal" with a live conflict would knot my stomach into a ropy mass. After all, stepping into a situation in which people were too angry or hurt to be "calm" (even when the people happened to be me) was volatile, dangerous, unstable.

To help me feel safer, I found many effective ways to avoid conflict, or, if not avoidable, bring down the temperature of those involved through a number of effective "soothing" techniques.

However, the conflicts themselves did not actually get resolved. They just went under ground. And my subsequent interactions with the same people would continue to have that tinge of danger - the slight scent of gun powder in the air - ready to ignite with the right spark.

But that's the nature of conflict, isn't it? The best we can do is get everyone to agree to behave in a "civilized" manner for the duration of our time together and Hallelujah if we can get that far.

Or so I thought until I met Dominic Barter, a Brazilian Brit, and founder of Restorative Circles , who has turned my ideas about conflict, safety, and explosive content upside down.

Barter's theory is that painful conflict has to do with unmet - and unheard - needs (let's say for respect, security, love, safety). The further we move away from the communication of the unmet need, the louder that communication needs to become to get our attention. In other words, just as people tend to raise their volume in order to compensate for being further apart physically, they also tend to "raise their volume" to compensate for their perception that they are moving further apart in shared understanding.

At its extreme, this volume raising looks like violence.

It follows, then, that in order to lower the volume of a conflict, you move towards it, not with the intention to soothe but with the intention of increasing mutual understanding.

This theory underlies Barter's wildly successful and award winning restorative justice process of addressing conflict at all levels.

Indeed, when I first heard it, the idea of moving towards conflict felt both radical and resonant to me. Somewhere deep inside, I recognized the times I had escalated my volume, words, actions - in response to what I believed was a complete lack of being heard or understood.

Still, as Barter advises, I did not simply take his word for it. Instead, I spent most of this summer trying out the theory for myself.

What this looked like on the ground is that my spouse and I seemed to suddenly be having a striking increase in arguments - painful, frequent, unpleasant, tiring, dragged out arguments. At least that was how it seemed at first.

I believe this was a natural result of allowing myself - for the first time ever - to trust (just temporarily) that Barter may be right. And so, I was moving us towards the (explosive) exploration of long-avoided areas of "unmet needs," such as "Am I really loved and wanted?" and "Does what I say really matter?".

However, neither arguing nor avoiding arguments brings on the mutual understanding that, according to Barter, leads to increased restoration (righting of relationships) and safety.

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Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is a student and practitioner of Non Violent Communication (NVC) and Restorative Circles (RC).

She is currently exploring restorative and non-violent approaches to conflict and ways to meaningfully share power in (more...)
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