Dealing with Conflict:

Reflection, Feedback, and Third Party Support

by Tree Bressen

Does your community have conflicts? Welcome to being humyn.

Every group has conflicts, and they aren’t even a bad thing. Conflicts show that people care enough to be invested, and to go for what they want. Without people who care and push forward, intentional communities wouldn’t get built and maintained. However, conflicts are often uncomfortable, both for the participants and for people watching. Culturally we don’t have a lot of experience with taking the energy that goes into conflict and channeling it constructively. The information that follows offers some basic tools for dealing with conflicts in your community.

Reflection

There are many different approaches to peaceful conflict resolution in group settings and one-on-one. In my experience, there is one essential element they all rely on: reflecting back what someone has said so that the speaker feels heard by the group or the other person. Paraphrasing, active listening, call it what you like, but for goodness sake DO IT!

The basic theme here is that after hearing one person speak, you say back to them what you just heard, without adding in your own interpretations or judgments.

I have been amazed time and time again by how powerful this simple technique is—just feeling heard seems to magically free up about 3/4 of the “charge” when people are at odds. However, like any technique, you need to use it from the heart to be successful, truly striving to understand with compassion rather than just parroting back the words.

We all desire that feeling of being truly heard, and when we’re upset it’s easy to fall into thinking the other person should take on the role of listener. So remember that in any conflict you have the power to step out of the polarized roles by offering empathetic listening to the other person. After they feel like you really “get it” the other person will usually be willing to hear your experience, so if you’re patient you’ll get a turn to speak too.

Feedback

You walk into the main kitchen and see a pile of dishes in the sink. Not again! You know Kathy is the only one who’s been in the building since a few hours ago when the room was clean. Last time this happened you just went and washed them yourself, but this time you’re really pissed off. You know you need to say something to her, otherwise the resentment will build up to an explosion, or you’ll withdraw from her altogether. What factors should you keep in mind as you approach her?

I want to emphasize the following item first because i think it’s often overlooked: examine your existing relationship with the person. If the only time you ever talk to Kathy is when you’re frustrated with her or at community meeting, the conversation is more likely to be awkward and uncomfortable, leaving either or both of you with a bad taste. I think the most important conflict resolution method is preventive: building positive connections with the people you live with so that when something hard does come up, you are well positioned to deal with it together. Look for ways to offer acknowledgement and appreciation to your community-mates on an ongoing basis, creating a positive climate and context.

There are other things you can do ahead of time too, before you are actually in the conversation with her. Be open to the possibility that there might have been some really good reason why the dishes were left in the sink—what if Kathy’s 5-year-old son was injured right as she was about to wash up, and she had to rush him off to the doctor? Or perhaps Kathy’s mother died last week and she’s been in a daze since then. Try to hold off on reacting too strongly until you find out the facts.

Next, consider the timing of your approach. I do a lot of my work from home, while some of my housemates hold 9-5 jobs. A few months after we started living together, one of my housemates complained that i always brought issues up with her right when she got home from work. It had never occurred to me that while i’d had something on my mind all day and was looking for the first opportunity to discuss it, she naturally wanted some down time after being on her feet all day, before hearing my brilliant ideas on how she could better do her house chores. I’m not saying to put off an important discussion for three months, but if you wait and watch patiently a good time will often present itself.

When you go to have the conversation, be sensitive as to how your feedback might affect the other person. Living organisms require feedback from our environments to survive, and by offering information to the other person on how their behavior affects you you are providing a valuable service. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to hear! So keep that in mind when you go talk to them. I recommend being authentic and direct, but also as loving as you can.

Take responsibility for your own feelings and experiences. One common way to do this is by using “I” statements; for example, “When i came in and saw the dishes in the sink, i felt angry,” rather than “You made me angry.” Don’t use the word “I” while actually laying blame, e.g. “I feel that you made me angry,” or “I think you are inconsiderate”—following the letter without the spirit is not helpful.

Being as specific as possible will help the other person get a grip on what you are saying. In contrast, sweeping generalizations lend themselves to disagreement. That is, when one hears an absolutist statement, one’s mind immediately goes to exceptions: “You always leave the kitchen a mess” makes someone think of the times when they cleaned up instead of the times that they didn’t. Presenting information that way undercuts your effectiveness. Saying something like, “When i walked in today, i noticed that there were at least a dozen dishes in the sink,” is more likely to be heard and acknowledged as an accurate observation.

The recommendation to be specific does not mean you should never talk about patterns. Often people genuinely don’t realize how their actions affect others, and reflecting back patterns to someone can be valuable for that person’s growth. But if the main things someone hears from you are judgments and interpretations about what kind of person they are, they will quickly tune out and shut down for self-protection. I recommend being thoughtful and gentle about how you present information on patterns. You’ll likely do better if you’re coming from a place of caring about the other person’s welfare more than from your own need for them to change.

If someone is able to acknowledge a negative pattern in their behavior, the next question you ask could be: How can i be your ally in shifting that pattern? For example, i recently approached someone who had a habit of speaking in a particular group setting where we’d all agreed to a guideline of audience silence. It turned out he was already aware of the problem and had been working on it for a while, but things would occasionally still slip out without him even quite realizing it. He said that simply having the behavior pointed out to him when it happened would help toward further extinction of it. Having that permission was a relief to me because it meant that the next time he spoke in circle i wouldn’t fear him getting upset with me if i brought it up later. Asking how i can be an ally lets people know i really do want to be supportive rather than attacking toward them.

 

So far the focus here has been on how to approach people with feedback. But there’s a whole other half to the equation: when you are the one being approached, how do you respond?

Here’s where the advice flips. Regardless of what form the information comes in (in other words, regardless of whether or not the person uses “I” statements, speaks in generalizations, or seems to be coming from a supportive place), listen for the truth in what the other person is saying and try to receive it with compassion.

Maybe you think they are way too uptight about cleanliness—don’t they realize you have better things to do with your time than make sure every speck is cleared off the counter? Maybe you feel resentful because they’re not taking into consideration that you have pressures on your time from young children and full-time work, while they are retired. Whatever defensive responses may arise in you, don’t start responding to the other person from that place. Take a deep breath if you need to, tell them you need a minute to think it over before responding.

When you do speak, the first priority should be to use the reflecting skill outlined above. Once the other person agrees that they feel basically heard by you, the second step is to think about what useful information for you is contained in their communication, and respond to it. Such responses might look like: “Oh, i didn’t realize that was so important to you”; “You already feel like you are compromising your cleanliness standards a lot just to be here at all, so when you see even that minimum not being met you get upset”; or “Yeah, sometimes i get so stressed out with schoolwork that i forget to take care of other things.” Acknowledging whatever part of the other person’s reality makes sense to you will go a long way toward sustaining your connection. The goal is to keep the community fabric intact and repair any tears that have happened.

As best you can, try to welcome the other person’s feelings instead of getting upset by them. They took a risk in being open with you—remember, feedback is essential to life so they are offering you a valuable service by telling how you are perceived. If you want them to keep being open, you need to offer them positive reinforcement for taking that risk. “Hey, thanks for telling me about this, i’d much rather hear about it from you directly than through the rumor mill. I’m sorry that what i did was hard for you.” You can make such offerings even if you don’t fully agree with what the person said.

Honor the feelings and desires underneath the person’s statements. “I hear that you want to live in a place where people respect each other, and for you part of what that looks like is showing up to committee meetings on time.” If you take the person at their best, where do their desires and your desires intersect? “It sounds like we both want to find a balance between meeting commitments and cutting people some slack, although we sometimes have different ideas about where that balance point is.” Establish what common ground you can, then look to expand it.

Finally, remember that almost every quality has both gifts and limitations. I lived for a year with someone who often didn’t clean up after herself—yet the same sense of spontaneity that led her to get distracted and forget personal items around the house also meant she was a likely housemate to throw a party or suggest a fun activity for the group. As a mirror image to that, i tend to be pretty “attached” (meaning i often want things to be a particular way in the communities i live in)—yet while that quality can be a pain in the butt it also means i care a lot and almost always come through on my commitments to the group. Often the “positive” and “negative” aspects of these qualities are difficult if not impossible to separate, so if you can keep focusing on the positive aspects of those you live with, you’ll be happier.

Conflict

As stated previously, there are a variety of techniques people use to address interpersonal conflicts. Here is one possible simple set of steps:

  1. What do you see happening? (Observations)
  2. How do you feel about it? (Feelings)
  3. What do you want to have happen? (Requests)
  4. What can we agree to do about it? (Agreements)

In order to apply these steps, have each person in a conflict answer each of these questions in order, with each answer being reflected back until all parties feel sufficiently heard.

Another set of steps is used in Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” process, as outlined in his book Nonviolent Communication … A Language of Compassion. Use whatever system works well for you.

Third Party Support

People are often reluctant to seek outside support for handling a conflict. There seems to be a stigma associated with asking for help, similar to that formerly associated with seeing a therapist. Many communities have some form of conflict resolution team available, but individual members may rarely call on it.

I propose not waiting until a situation becomes a big deal before asking for help. Timely assistance can help keep energy flowing so that things don’t build to a breaking point. Some communities have professional mediators in residence and that’s great if it’s available, but don’t assume the only person qualified to step in is someone with a piece of paper and letters after their name. My experience has been that almost anyone can help, as long as all the parties involved feel comfortable with the person. The main requirement, in my opinion, is to remember that you are there to help everyone feel heard, hold the space, and trust the process.

Help everyone feel heard. Let’s say Morgan and Dan are in a conflict, sitting together with Raindrop as a support person. If Morgan starts explaining her view, ideally Dan would be able to reflect it back piece by piece. However, if Dan is too triggered to do that, Raindrop as support person should be able to reflect back what Morgan has said at any time. If the support person notices common ground between the two people, it can be useful to state that.

If Morgan is upset, she’ll likely want to explain her whole upset in one big, long speech. However, doing that will actually prevent her needs getting met, because there’s no way Dan is going to be able to remember all of what she said and reflect it back so that Morgan feels heard. What’s needed is for Raindrop as support person to gently interrupt Morgan after each piece, making the opening for Dan to reflect back. Believe it or not, even two to three minutes is typically too long a piece for someone to remember—look for one chunk of information presented in a minute or two and then pause for reflecting.

Hold the space and trust the process. Raindrop is not there to solve Dan and Morgan’s problems for them. The support person needs to believe that the people involved are fully capable of moving through the process to find their own solutions. Raindrop is there as a witness; to remind Morgan and Dan of any communication guidelines they may have (such as the specificity recommendation mentioned above); and to keep good goals and intentions in mind and within reach.

Liza Gabriel Ravenheart, an experienced ritual leader, introduced me to the technique of asking participants in a mediation to invoke the qualities they want present before the mediation starts. At the beginning of what we knew would be a particularly intense session, four of us present called aloud attributes we wanted in the space during our interaction: “honesty . . . love . . . compassion . . . fairness . . . caring . . . listening. . . .” The list went on for several minutes and set the tone for what turned out to be a very successful resolution.

If two people in a conflict are reluctant to enter into mediation, remind them that unresolved “stuff” between any two people affects the rest of the group too. The most common reason why people are reluctant to attempt conflict resolution is because they are holding despair about the outcome—they think the effort will be futile. With the help of the tools presented here, hopefully you as a group member will be in a position to offer support and constructive suggestions toward resolution.