Tips from a facilitator and community builder to improve your conflict literacy

As a facilitator and community builder, I believe we need to increase our individual and collective conflict literacy. I believe it’s time to invite each other into the possibility of a different story when it comes to interpersonal conflict.

We all know what it feels like to be in conflict. We also know what it feels like to avoid it. Some of us even know what it feels like to seek it out (although we may not always be able to recognize this in ourselves.)

What too few of us know how to do is to be intentional about preventing and working through interpersonal conflict. 

Conflict literacy

After several years of deepening my own conflict literacy in my work as a facilitator, and in my experiences related to coliving and cohousing, here are two things that I wish more of us practiced to help us get ahead of, and through, conflict. 

#1 Get vulnerable in naming, and explaining your expectations.

#2 Get curious about the possibility of a different story. 

And yes, I include myself in the “us.” My ability to help others navigate conflict as a facilitator in no way precludes me from also needing to strengthen my own practices. For this reason (as well as respecting the confidentiality of clients I’ve helped through conflict) I draw on examples close to me in unpacking these two tips.

#1 Get vulnerable in naming, and explaining your expectations

“When you have a group of Black women, or a group of racialized individuals, who come into a space, we typically get a lot of stares, right. So, it’s like, you need to understand how that makes us feel [. . .] and, how can you create safety for us around that?” 

This is the opening quote of an episode of a podcast I used to host in which I interviewed Indi Madar from the organization Brown Girl Outdoor World (BGOW). Our conversation is about the intersection of race, gender, the outdoors, and community building. It also contains a powerful example of boundary setting.

During the episode, Indi and I speak at length about the role of partnership in the growth of BGOW an organization “committed to changing the narratives assigned to the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) community and our place in outdoor adventure and recreation.”

What she shares is that BGOW is careful about with which organizations it enters into partnerships. When I ask for more details, this is what Indi shares: “There are many corporate entities and different organizations who are knocking at our door to really help us scale and also tap into the community. But at the same time we really want to make sure that those partnerships are intentional. And what that means for us is putting more of a focus and an emphasis on those long-term, sustainable partnerships.” 

She adds: “We look for partners who will really take the time to understand the barriers that are faced by our community. And understanding the barriers is one thing but that will also work towards providing solutions to those barriers.” 

Her example is a partner who approached BGOW about building a stand up paddle board offering, and who were willing to work with the feedback from their members that while there was interest in trying the sport, they needed support to build water safety and comfort first. The solution (to also offer swimming lessons) seems so simple when you hear it. Yet the path to identifying it took a lot of vulnerability and careful communication to name, explain, and collaboratively address a need. 

The difference between boundaries and walls

Here are three things I love about this boundary example:

  • It is a specific expectation grounded in a well understood challenge. It is not an arbitrary rule without context. (E.g. “Short-term partners need not apply.”) Nor is it a broad value that could have many applications (e.g. “Inclusion.”)
  • It draws as high a bar as is needed to create space for BGOW to care for its community members, and no higher. Yes, this bar leads BGOW to turn away some partners. However, it does not seek to turn away everyone, or to hold power over those it lets in. As Prentice Hemphill so beautifully writes: “Boundaries are the distance at which I could love you and me simultaneously.” 
  • It is flexible enough to give BGOW room for discernment. To again quote Prentis Hemphill: “Boundaries . . . are responsive, movable, and highly dependent on real-time assessments. Boundaries are how you guide and protect your life energy. The skillful use of boundaries allows us to create proximity, intimacy, distance.”

Sometimes we need walls. An inflexible “no” to protect from untenable harm. It is important to recognize the difference between a boundary and a wall, though. Walls block connection, and they stifle intimacy. Boundaries clarify relationships. They are not seemingly arbitrary rules or hard to define blanket statements. They create space for love (perhaps, most importantly, self love.) They are flexible. 

This is why my first tip centres on the vulnerability needed to name and explain our expectations, and not simply on the act of limit setting. 

I love that we live in a time where conversations and content about having and holding boundaries has normalized them. I think this is especially helpful for people who otherwise might fall into unhealthy people pleasing. At the same time, this normalization of boundaries often skips over the difference between a boundary and a wall, and also the role that vulnerability might sometimes play in naming and explaining your boundaries, and in collaboratively getting the underlying need or expectation met.  

#2 Get curious about the possibility of a different story

No matter how good we get at identifying and discussing boundaries, there will still be conflict. ( Just, hopefully, less of it.) One of your boundaries will be crossed. Or, someone will behave in a manner that is inconsistent with your values. You will feel hurt. You may even feel angry.

I spent the first almost decade of my career as a federal public servant in Ottawa. I recall vividly the day I made the life altering decision to leave the public service and move back to Toronto to be near my parents and two brothers. I called my younger brother first, in tears, to tell him that I was coming home. He was thrilled. Every member of my family was. Except for my dad. 

When I told my dad the exciting news, I was devastated at what I heard as his disappointment with my decision. All he could focus on was the mistake I might be making in giving up a permanent, well paying government job.

Wasn’t he pleased that I was returning to live near our family again? Didn’t he want me home? These are the hurt thoughts I ruminated on in the days after our phone call.

It was about a year later that we talked about it. While on a trip to New York City together in 2012, I opened a dialogue by telling him how his reaction had hurt me. 

A photo of me in Times Square during my 2012 trip to New York with my dad.

I said that I understood why his history of childhood poverty followed by employment insecurity as an immigrant meant he had a big focus on me having stable employment. But, I still really wanted him to be excited about my return. 

He shared that he felt one of his greatest responsibilities as a father, especially one with his history, was to make sure I didn’t live the same struggles he had experienced related to employment. And he was scared that this return would come at the cost of my financial security. Of course he wanted me home. He just had alarm bells go off at hearing my decision that were louder than his excitement for my return.

Not everyone is you 

The fact that me and my other family members were all able to focus more on the excitement than the fear did not make my dad’s reaction wrong. The thing is, we are not all the same. If we expect everyone to be the same as us we will set ourselves up for a lot of confusion and frustration. (Or, I guess, decide to wall ourselves into a really small world.)

Instead, we have to open ourselves up to the possibility of a different story.   

In our case, I didn’t consider that my dad’s alarm bells drowned out any celebration kazoos. 

And my dad didn’t take into account that his alarm bells wouldn’t make sense to me. That several differences in our circumstances (many of them problematic) lowered the chances of my living the same struggles that he had. I was born in Canada. English was my first language. My education and work experience came from familiar institutions.

My second conflict literacy tip focuses on curiosity because I could not have found the courage to start or stay in my dialogue with my father if I wasn’t able to be at least a little bit curious about the possibility of a different explanation for why he showed up the way he did in the conversation during which I got my feelings hurt. 

Of course, you don’t owe everyone your curiosity; and, no one owes you theirs either. 

(Also, safety is paramount and I am in no way suggesting someone who has been abused has to embrace curiosity.)

What I am saying is that without curiosity the options out of conflict become more limited. You can forgive (or pretend to,) seek revenge (consciously or unconsciously,) or work alone on your side of the relationship. This could mean introducing new boundaries, walls, or ending it all together. 

These might be the right options for your situation.

If, however, you think there may be room for curiosity, then I urge you to consider the possibility of a different story. For the other person, and for yourself. I invite you to ask yourself: “What else might have been at play in the way each of us showed up to the initial conflict, and since then?”  

This question won’t always lead you somewhere positive; but, without curiosity it’s quite rare that conflict can lead to transformation. With it, however, conflict can sometimes lead to a bridge to be traversed together to an even stronger relationship. 

I have experienced it myself, and I’ve seen it happen between people I’ve helped to facilitate through conflict. A different story is possible. 

Resources and consultations

Are you interested in more resources on conflict literacy? Here are two podcast episodes I often recommend:

If ever you are in need of a facilitator to help you explore a different story, I’d love to talk to you about whether my services might be the right fit.

For a free consultation about my facilitation or another of my services, please click the button below: 

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