Working With Conflict & Receiving Its Gifts

by Devin Bokaer

Many of us have experienced a desire to help make the world a better place. However, the crises that we are collectively facing are incredibly complex and interwoven with multiple forms of systemic oppression and trauma. It is important for change-makers to explore the problems in our responses to the problems and in our ways of being that create and sustain our problems. I have become deeply fascinated with the parallels between the individual human spiritual journey and the collective journey of humanity. Through engaging with the work of the Facing Human Wrongs 2.0 course, facilitated by the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures (GTDF) collective, I have begun to experience a process of ‘composting’. This involves witnessing and transforming the emotional and psychological baggage that has made it so challenging for me to sit with complicity and complexities when facing our world’s current crises. This has also contributed to my passion for un/learning more in connection to conflict transformation, which I have come to see as a form of collective composting.

In preparing to write this essay, I was struck by a number of questions. What if the way we habitually understand conflict is at the root of our ongoing collective failures to learn from our most harmful mistakes? What if changing our collective human approach to conflict could vastly expand the potential for transformations at every level of being on Earth, from the personal to the planetary? By deepening and broadening our understanding of conflict, perhaps we can begin to see how it arises and unfolds within and around us constantly. By opening ourselves to the vast possibilities in how we respond to conflict, perhaps we can help prepare the ground for us to graciously receive its gifts.

This essay is an offering to educators who are interested in learning more about frameworks and approaches to conflict transformation that are currently being experimented  with in the Ecoversities Alliance. All over the world today, individuals and groups have moved beyond the realm of “shoulds” in responding impactfully to our global meta-crisis. Many members of the Ecoversities Alliance are honing their skills as practitioners of conflict transformation in their work and their everyday lives. The question of how to hold conflict in a sacred way is becoming increasingly important in the Ecoversities Alliance as it grows in diversity across the world. The Ecoversities Alliance has resisted the mainstream solution of ‘cancel culture’ which labels one of the people in a conflict as ‘bad’ and ex-communicates them from the community as a sort of punishment.  I had the great privilege of interviewing four individuals who have explored projects and practices that focus on conflict transformation. It was inspiring to see the many similarities and distinctions in their perspectives as they spoke with depth and passion for their work. They shared generously about groundwork that must be laid to effectively anticipate and hold conflict, frameworks for understanding conflict, and tools for potential growth and transformation through working with conflict.

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Swaraj University & Anubhutee Learning Centre – India

Reva Dandage was a co-founder and lead program director of Swaraj University, and she is currently the director of the Anubhutee Learning Center for kids. Swaraj University offers programs to khoji-seekers of all ages, creatively engaging with self-designed learning pedagogy and collectively inquiring into how we bring swaraj (“self-mastery” or “harmony of the self”) into everyday life. Programs emphasize self-awareness and learning through active engagement and direct experiences, including action-research, experiments, community living, unlearning challenges, and social entrepreneurship projects. Learning from conflict is a core aspect of the self-designed learning philosophy at Swaraj. Conflict can give us deep insights into our Self. Learning from conflict is prioritized in terms of time and pedagogical approaches. 

In learning contexts, Reva shared about the importance of developing “co-held space” with participants as well as the team or facilitators. She explained that if she did not set up a system for feedback between participants then when conflict arose the power was going to come back to her to resolve things. Instead, it is important to discuss conflict and feedback beforehand with participants so that resolving conflicts is understood as a shared and collective responsibility. Having periodic feedback built into the culture of a workplace or a learning community plays an important role in this. In order to establish safe spaces for honest feedback to develop the collective capacity for empathy, it is essential for people to listen to each other’s story.

Listening circles were an important part of the work Reva facilitated at Swaraj. At the beginning of the year, as part of the process of creating a safe space for conflict resolution, listening circles begin with listening to one another’s stories. They use exercises such as the Tree of Life or the River of Life in order to help learners  “see each other beyond the surface”. In the Tree of Life exercise, the roots are people who have supported you or things which you go back to to connect with your core values, the trunk is what key experiences have formed you, and then the leaves are things like ideas which are sprouting or which are shaping (or which you want to let go of). Learners  participate in these exercises extensively in order to share and listen to one other’s stories.

Listening circles can also be used when there is tension in the cohort or if there is a conflict that has already arisen. In a listening circle, group members pass around a talking stick, sharing one at a time, and listening attentively without responding. Reva emphasized the importance of doing this work consistently with the “khojis” or seeker-explorers, at Swaraj: “There is feedback very regularly so initially it is very hard for the Khojis, because India is not a culture where feedback is easily given and taken. So, we had to set this culture.” She also shared that, in order to support khojis in the process of giving and receiving feedback, they have two rounds of sharing when someone is in the “hot seat.” This begins with sharing a full round of nice things, with each person showering the Khoji in the hot seat with all the good things that they see, followed by a round of feedback on what can be improved.

Reva also used Non-Violent Communication (NVC) practice with the khoji cohorts, and there was a small intro to NVC each year. However, the practice was loosely held for the people who felt like using it, and it was not applied in a very formal or very restrictive way. If there was a huge conflict, extra time would be set apart for everyone to listen and share their perspective and see if they could come together to resolve things, whether through the consensus method, or through mediation. Sometimes cohorts have had a facilitating team to help guide this process, while others developed a court system.

However, even with systems in place for feedback and conflict resolution, this does not necessarily resolve every conflict and sometimes it is challenging for people to change their behaviors or ways of being. Reva shared one example about how she and a group of khojis responded when one of the other khojis did not complete the task of cleaning and refilling water vessels for the group when it was his turn. Together they formed a “Love Army,” arriving early when it was this Khoji’s turn and doing the job for him if he did not arrive and do it himself, without pointing out that he was neglecting his task. Sometimes even after doing this practice many times, the other person still did not change their behavior. However, sitting together and staying with the feelings that arose and reflecting on them when this person did not change was still a valuable group learning process.

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YES! – United States

Shilpa Jain is another expert in the area of working with conflict and the former executive director of YES! in the United States. YES! “Jams” cultivate transformative shared inquiry spaces in which changemakers can learn, network, share skills and build community. Jams focus on a range of different topics, including those directly related to conflict transformation. In 2023, the Re-Storying Justice Jam opened up explorations around restorative justice, transformative justice, and some of the ways in which both of these approaches to conflict transformation have been misrepresented in the US.  Like Reva, Shilpa emphasized the importance of proactively laying solid groundwork, openness, and deep listening in conflict transformation. The most neutral definition that Shilpa uses to describe the notion of conflict is simply “the meeting point of differences.” She explained that we can either meet those differences from a place of curiosity in order to build connections or some new common ground, or we can meet those differences in a way that involves judgment and breaking down. In the latter, both our listening and our capacity to share from the heart get lost, and we get caught up in either our own personal trauma or the trauma of others. 

Much of Shilpa’s work has involved cultivating the mindsets, skill sets, and structures that can support people to transform conflicts and find growth, learning, and connection through conflicts. This includes inquiring into the questions of what unlearning is important to do in order to make this work possible and how we can do it together, as opposed to working off on our own. Shilpa observes that, although there is a lot of conflict that is internal, a huge portion of conflict is interpersonal and some of it is systemically nurtured and created, which for her leads to the question: “How do we unravel some of those systems or regenerate the systems that can really support us to do conflict differently?” These guiding questions and ideas collectively frame some of the work around conflict at YES!

In order to work with conflict, Shilpa explained the necessity of having an inner body of work, an interpersonal body of work, and a systemic sensibility. Through the YES! Jams, she developed a sense of how these are all intertwined, beginning with a focus on “inner awareness.” This includes becoming more cognizant of when we’re present and when we’re not, when we’re listening and when we’re not, and when we may have gone into a fight or flight mode. Self-awareness practices and somatic practices are part of the structures necessary for this work, which includes slowing down, finding a grounding, being able to breathe, and inquiring into whether we are really present, being here and now, seeing the person in front of us. Skill sets and tools that focus on paying attention to our body and breathing, listening without judgment, interpreting, or fixing, and questioning for ourselves how we can cultivate practices of listening differently. It is important to notice when we are trying to take on what another person is saying and making it about us, or making it about them, instead of really hearing it.

As a part of developing an interpersonal skill set, Shilpa explained that it is helpful to consider whether we are asking questions with curiosity and appreciative inquiry, or just asking with our answer already in mind, with a sense of what we already believe is right and what is true. Like Reva, Shilpa also emphasized the importance of building systems for feedback into organizational set-ups and cultures. In her blog post on this topic, Feedback to Feed-Forward, she reflects: “Feedback is given because we are co-invested in each other’s learning and in our relationships as friends and teammates.” Feedback can come from a place of care and respect, as opposed to judgment. Shilpa explained that without a culture of feedback, small misunderstandings or frustrations can become more and more complex very quickly, so that people begin to misinterpret actions and gestures, taking them personally and developing fixed views about others that can be difficult to unlearn. However, when we are able to be vulnerable and honest in our relationships with others it opens possibilities for growth, care, and finding our ways together through pain and hurt feelings. Shilpa offered a question that we could all use for self-reflective inquiry: “How do I have the patience, the grace, the curiosity, the space for my own mistakes, and space for other people’s humanity, to just let it evolve?” When we cultivate the courage to invite the possibilities of slowing down, staying present, and really holding space for ourselves and others to show up without judgment, all kinds of transformations become more possible.

Rehana Tejpar is a co-director and a facilitator of Bloom Consulting, and she previously co-facilitated jams and worked together with Shilpa at YES! At Bloom, Rehana now works to help groups move forward together through collaborative, inclusive, and participatory leadership. Rehana’s team uses the zones of regulation to help clients identify whether they are in a space of experiencing comfort, stretch or panic in communication or un/learning with others. One of the dynamics of YES! Jams that Rehana incorporates into her current work is the welcoming of open conflicts instead of private conflicts within a community. Another tool that she applies is non-violent communication, as Reva discussed, in order to help clients identify what they feel, observe, need, and request in a relationship. Sometimes, simply helping people to identify when they need a break is a powerful tool, and helping them reflect on whether they are feeling as though they are attacking or avoiding in their response to something or to someone.

Rehana also shared about times when people within a client organization have different visions about how to move forward, which can lead to strong conflicts. She explained that things can sometimes break down, with groups or individuals splitting apart, or they can exist in a dynamic of both sides being determined to win, which means someone will have to lose. So, the question becomes, how can a group navigate toward a third possible outcome, allowing things to emerge in a way that might not be foreseeable at the outset of the work together. Rehana spoke about how she has learned a lot about having compassion for herself and others, and reflected: “What’s generative is when we can connect down to the core of the pain or the experience and really speak from our direct experience with vulnerability unmasking. Then it’s so easy to feel the compassion and the humanity.” I felt through my conversations with Shilpa and Rehana that I was gaining a deeper sense of how cultivating vulnerability, trust, and compassion towards oneself goes hand-in-hand with cultivating vulnerability, trust, and compassion in relationships with others.

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Gaia University – International

Andrew Langford is a co-founder and co-president of Gaia University, an international university that helps students to clarify and fulfill personal visions, explore capacities for making personal and pathway transitions, and engage in strategic level projects. Andrew shared about some of his experiences in working to help support conflict transformation at different stages in his work over time. He explained that when a conflict arises and there is support necessary to help resolve or transform it, determining what type of conflict it is can be a helpful first step. He described conflict types identified by Ben Fuchs. One type is a conventional conflict, which Andrew described as a situation in which “conflict is so high that nobody is capable of thinking with any flexibility or intelligence.” In this situation, any attempt to help resolve things will be interpreted by one or both sides as an attack or an attempt at manipulation. In a post-conventional conflict, however, there is “a very good chance that if you if people can work at it, with a maybe with a bit of mentoring and some level of assistance, and with humour and good grace, it’s possible for it to become a growth moment in the community or in the organization.” 

In order for a conflict to become a growth moment, Andrew explained the importance of building trust and bridges that allow people to get back to a place of willingness, flexibility, and openness. When it is possible to get back to this state, people can start thinking in a collaborative and collective way, using the polarized energies in a constructive way, which can be extremely difficult. If there is no system of dealing with conflict in advance, things can escalate and become very difficult to resolve rather quickly. Andrew described being a part of two intentional communities that failed to adequately prepare for conflict, and people ended up feeling very upset and angry with one another because they did not have a method or system of containing the conflicts. 

Based on past experiences, Andrew offered his perspective that we need to improve how we work with different types of conflict, including conflict at serious levels. When we are faced with conflict, it is important to work with it immediately, if possible; we need to learn how to deal with conflict in a constructive way when it arises. To do this, we need to understand the different types of conflict and how we might call others in to resolve things, which varies depending on the context. Andrew also shared that sometimes, as a mediator or facilitator, it can help people on each side of a conflict individually reflect on the potential outcomes of holding onto resentment versus the opportunities that may be afforded by finding common ground and restoring a relationship. Depending on the type and size of a project or movement, failing to constructively respond to a conflict can threaten the organizational development that has taken place and lead to significant setbacks or even destruction of what has been created. At the same time, it is important to not be afraid of taking risks or making mistakes, especially when one is doing work that is going against a mainstream system.

Andrew also emphasized the importance of doing individual work in order to respond generatively and effectively to conflicts. This is important to do proactively, whether in an individual or group setting, and also at times while in the middle of a conflict to help ‘discharge’ the emotions that are coming up. This might involve working with one’s shadow material, hidden materia, or distress. At times, it may be important for a facilitator to ask one or both sides in a conflict to scale up the individual work they are doing in order to move forward in conflict transformation. Andrew shared his perspective that: “Every person on the planet needs people who are not involved with their social lives, not involved with their love lives, not involved with their working lives, but who are their allies. So whenever a person gets into a distressed place, they’ve got someone that they can go and vent with.” The connection between internal conflicts and interpersonal conflicts was a powerful recurrent thread in all four interviews.

Courage, Vulnerability, and Relationality

My personal ongoing journey with decoloniality and transforming conflict began in my graduate studies of social work and early childhood education. However, among the powerful discussions and explorations I have engaged in within both fields of practice, I have often felt the dimensions of cultivating vulnerability, personal transformation, spirituality, and connection to the more-than-human world were missing. It was not until I attended the Ecoversities Re-Imagining Education Conference 3.0 and began engaging with the work of GTDF that I began to get a clearer sense of the intricately woven fabrics and possibilities between personal, communal, and systemic changes. It also helped me begin to see the strong parallels between my own experiences of internal conflicts, interpersonal conflicts, and systemic conflicts,

Interviewing Reva, Shilpa, Rehana, and Andrew, and writing this article was an incredible series of opportunities for me. It has helped me understand the power, depth, and extreme importance of developing the courage and vulnerability to be in authentic, honest, compassionate, and generous relationships with ourselves and others. I felt through this conversation, and really throughout the whole interview process, that I was gaining a deeper sense of how cultivating vulnerability, trust, and compassion towards oneself goes hand-in-hand with cultivating vulnerability, trust, and compassion in relationships with others. I also began to better understand how both forms of cultivation are essential for conflict transformation.

One of our biggest, most consistent stumbling blocks is that we see any kind of suffering as a problem to be eliminated. In No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that suffering is as a raw material for happiness: “If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow beautiful lotuses. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can produce happiness.” The more deeply I have begun to unravel how I was socialized to respond to conflict, pain, and suffering by avoiding, numbing, or struggling, the more clearly I am able to understand conflict as both an ever-present fact of life and an ever-present gift. I have begun to see conflicts not as the stormy waters through which we must skillfully navigate to get back to smooth sailing, but rather as the wind in our sails as we work to cultivate the possibility of healthier, wiser, and decolonial futures. We can learn from the ongoing work of those currently engaged in conflict transformation work how to put insights, tools, and frameworks for conflict transformation into practice.

About the author

Devin Bokaer is a dreamer, weaver, and first grade teacher at Cayuga Heights Elementary School, located on the living entity that is the ancestral Land of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ sovereign nation of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, which is now also known as Ithaca, NY. He previously taught preschool and pre-K in Singapore and worked as a social worker in New York City. He is deeply moved and inspired by the work of the Ecoversities Alliance, the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective and the Teia das 5 Curas network.

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