Recently, I was facilitating a conversation with some twenty people from a loosely-knit community. A little bit into the programme, when we touched upon a value the group said they shared, I noticed one participant in the far end of the room looked away. While the other participants eagerly wanted to move on. I took a few minutes to test whether the value was really shared. After a few attempts, the group split in two over different perspectives. What everyone assumed was shared, actually divided the group. The temperature in the room went down. Some people looked away, uncomfortable. We had a conflict on our hands…
Anyone who has worked professionally with communities knows that there is always a chance of conflict. People may interpret the same value or purpose differently. They may fight over old insults or oppose individuals because of their behaviour. Some communities are rife with conflict, while others hide it under a layer of politeness. Few cultural professionals are trained to deal with conflict—in any form. And we hardly talk about it.
I’ve worked with communities for almost two decades and encountered my fair share of conflict. At workshops and conferences, I notice, the interest in the topic is increasing. While (or: when) we are getting better at working with communities, we also face more conflict.
Conflict is inevitible
In communities, conflict is inevitable. No matter how strong the bonds in a community and the degree to which they share the same values, ideas, or purpose, communities are never homogeneous and thus home to different perspectives. This diversity is the strength of communities, and the reason why working with them is so enriching. The potential for and presence of conflict is what makes a community such a valuable concept.
That is not to say that conflict is fun. Typically, it is not. It hurts. It may hurt the individuals in the community, and if you’re facilitating a group in conflict, it may reflect on you. You need to be thick-skinned when dealing with a community in conflict.
Not all conflict is expressed in a shouting match. Conflict may be communicated through a joke or subtle body language. Lingering conflict may show itself through a participant arriving late at a meeting, or fumbling with a phone. Deep Democracy, a useful methodology for facilitation, uses the beautifully named ‘Terrorist Line’ to clarify how people express discontent and conflict. It ranges from jokes to violence. The most conflict I encounter in my work is at the polite end of the scale. Conflict may seem like a big word in such cases. It is easier to see it as a diversity of perspectives.
One of my favourite places to look for these different perspectives—conflict—is in big statements. “We all believe in this value or that purpose…” In my experience, people will often have different perspectives on the statement or only buy into it because it is the decent thing to do. When a colleague jokes about the mission statement of your organisation, this could be a red flag.
The conflict cycle
Conflict is a cycle. It runs from prevention to conflict, to resolution, to peacebuilding, and back again to prevention. Every community is somewhere in this cycle, and everything you do with a community plays a role in one of these phases. Even apparently innocent activities—co-creating and exhibition—contributes to the conflict cycle, positively or negatively.
Because conflict is inevitable, it is safe to assume there is at least some conflict in the community you work with. Therefore, conflict resolution is part of the first things you need to do when working with a community. Before it can be resolved, it needs to be brought to the surface. There are countless methods to do this. I typically do this by challenging big and comfortable statements, observing group dynamics, by exploring the different perspectives that come up around a contentious issue, and they finding a way to make the diversity work.
Conflict resolution asks for a room for people to explain their perspectives. A place where questions are asked, and where people can discover what is valuable about different views. (Doesn’t this sound like something a museum would be great at?) Conflict resolution does not mean to look for consensus, but rather an improved understanding about different perspectives. It implies turning conflict into dialogue. Then, peacebuilding is a combination of bridging and bonding activities, to ensure diversity is seen as an asset, not a threat.
One of my earliest experiences in working with communities in conflict, happened when I volunteered for the Dutch Youth Council. As part of the Dutch edition of All Different, All Equal, a European project against discrimination, we had invited migrant and far-right youth to a community centre for an evening of cabaret, hip hop battles, and debate. When the evening began, I was part of the line of security separating both groups.
Throughout the evening, a popular beatboxer and comedian Nabil facilitated a programme that all attendants to express their prejudices, laugh about misconceptions, and carefully warm up to each other and find common ground amidst all that was different. Participants from both groups were invited onstage, where they could say what they liked. Regularly, tensions ran high, only to be defused by Nabil. We didn’t look for consensus in the group or some lofty shared statement of unity. Instead, the evening simply invited everyone to listen and explore different perspectives.
At the end of the evening, each group still each occupied another physical part of the community centre. However, in the middle where both groups met, and where I had been most of the evening, they carefully started mingling. Some of the participants had discovered that amidst all their differences, there was enough they also shared to allow for a civil conversation. A small achievement, maybe, but with considerable potential.
(The book Heritage and Peacebuilding explores heritage-based approaches to conflict resolution and peacebuilding.)
Learning to deal with conflict
Not only we—cultural professionals—are typically hardly trained in conflict. Community members do not tend to have any training either (although they may have lots of experience). Most of my life, I’ve been taught to avoid conflict. There are cultural differences about how comfortable people are with conflict, but generally, disagreement is only okay when it can be ironed over. Consequently, people typically have little experience with using conflict to help their community develop, or to tap into the wisdom hidden in conflict.
A great way to get started with dealing with conflict is to look for it in a safe setting. Regularly, I host creative sessions around conflict within the relative safety of teams. We look for potentially dangerous topics, such as how loud is being too loud on the telephone, and then explore the setting with theatre and other approaches that examine different perspectives. These sessions tend to be a lot of fun and quickly build some essential skills.
Resolving conflict in communities is a role; it is a profession. When an organisation commits to community involvement, it should create room for this role within its ranks. Maybe, given the number of professionals I meet with questions about facilitating conflict, it should even be part of the standard cultural professional curriculum. (I learned the first steps of dealing with conflict through role-playing in university.)
What we definitely should not do, is continue to ignore conflict in the communities we work with. Instead, we should talk about it with each other, learn from each other, and keep each other sharp.
I’m sure that by now, you can guess how the situation in the introduction played out. With the group on the edge of conflict, I didn’t steer them away from it. Instead, I expressed the disagreement and actively invited people to share their perspective and listen to the views of others. The group was curious and willing to explore the differences and look for some common ground underneath it. The conflict, once out in the open and acknowledged, relieved people and allowed them to talk about things that had been happening under the surface. The group gained more knowledge, and the community was raised to a new level of understanding. About an hour after the first participant looked away, the community collectively looked forward again.
Header image: Beach tug of war, via Flickr Commons.