Conflict Transformation

November 3, 2010

This past Saturday five of us from Cincinnati Mennonite went to an all day Conflict Transformation workshop.  The workshop was hosted by Bethel Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio and was run by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.  There were about 75 people in attendance from churches around Ohio and Indiana.

The presenter opened with some anecdotes about the beginnings of the Peace Center.  While they set out to deal with issues of international conflict, they soon discovered that one of the biggest areas of need for conflict transformation skills was inside congregations.  The skills they teach are applicable in interpersonal, family, congregational, and other settings.

Among the many helpful models and teachings from the day, one that I found insightful was the importance of distinguishing between positions and interests.  The leader emphasized the importance of ignoring positions and seeking to understand interests.  A position is someone’s, or a group’s, stance they are taking on an issue, a desired outcome, and interests are the underlying reasons and needs behind the stated position. 

He gave a basic example of a husband and wife trying to decide what to do together on a Friday night.  The husband says he wants to go bowling and the wife says she would like to go to a movie.  Rather than focusing on those positions, they talk about interests behind them and the husband notes that he has been in the office all week and he wants to get out and do something active.  The wife notes that she has been with people all week and would like to be able to just focus on the two of them.  They decide to go for a hike together, meeting both of their interests.  (If only it were always that easy!)

He gave another example of a congregation that the Peace Center worked with that was having a major conflict over the purchase of new hymnals.  A transformative moment came in the process when the mediator asked a person who had been a staunch opponent of the new hymnal what he would miss if the old hymnals were gone.  The man broke down and said that there was a hymn that his deceased uncle used to sing with him and that every time that song was sung in church his uncle would be there with him again.  The new hymnal did not have that hymn.  A deeper interest emerged that helped open up and transform the process.  

The term “Conflict Transformation” is preferable to “Conflict Resolution” because the latter connotes that conflict is more a problem to be solved while the former enables one to view conflict as a normal process by which all parties can be transformed.

(For the sake of accuracy, I confess that I am a little fuzzy on some of the details of those stories.  Did the wife want to go to a movie, or something else?  Was it the man’s uncle or another family member?  The others who attended the workshop can check me on the details, but the spirit of the stories is there!)

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