Conflict is Good

by Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, associate professor of peace, justice and conflict studies: interview with Ryan Miller

Ryan: What is conflict transformation, and why is it important to our everyday lives?

Carolyn: Basically it means change, transforming the conflict into something more positive – transforming the people involved, the situation, the problem, the process, the context. Everyone – no matter what we do, who we are or what our roles are – encounter conflict all the time. A lot of us work pretty hard to get away from it, but really, we’d be dead spiritually, emotionally – in every way – without it. So rather than trying to eliminate it, we must somehow make peace with its presence. How do we not let it become a painful, destructive experience as it so often does? How do we accept it, embrace it even, and use it for good? That’s what I want to learn in my own life and that’s what I want to help students learn.

Ryan: From a spiritual or religious standpoint, what role does God play in conflict or does conflict play with God?

Carolyn: Well, Creation is a story of diversity, and it ends with male and female; when you talk about a recipe for conflict, that’s it. If I would have built a world, I would have done it – in my finiteness – much differently. But God created this unbelievable diversity and, with it, this potential for conflict. I think God knew that conflict would be there and ends up saying, “This is good.”

We need differences of opinion, we need the passion behind them and we need those differences to bump into each other so we can find new truth, no matter what the situation is. Truth is so much bigger than any one of us can ever find or discover on our own. When I think about God, I think about growth and intimacy, and new learning and change. These are things that come from working through conflict. And that’s God in all of God’s glory.

As an Anabaptist Christian, I think that our call in the world is at two levels. The first is to build peace, or good relationships – with God, with people around us and with the environment. Where that has broken down, which it always seems to, the second call is to be reconcilers. In my mind, that is the essence of the gospel.

Ryan: Finding growth, though, is not as easy as just entering into conflict. You need to have a way of getting through it.

Carolyn: Yes – and there aren’t easy steps that can just be replicated each time. I think it’s critical to start by looking inside and trying to understand who I am and what I bring to the situation. What do I believe and need? What do I feel? What are my temptations to violence in this situation? I need to listen below the surface anger or bitterness, or whatever, to my own needs, concerns, beliefs and values. Then I need to try to use that same listening to understand those things in the other person as well. We rarely go deeper than that sort of surface stuff in ourselves, and even more rarely do we listen deeply to the other person, who brings a valuable perspective as well.

I read the other day that up to 90 percent of our day-to-day conflicts are not about substantial differences of perspectives but about not understanding where each other is coming from. Which is mostly because we don’t listen well.

Many of our differences can be negotiated to resolutions we all feel good about, but it takes time and a good process. Occasionally, especially in some differences of values, they can’t be reconciled and we need to figure out how to live with our disagreements – how to agree to disagree. That’s very hard for us. At some point, I think it is legitimate to separate. But we have not found a way, very often, to do that kind of separating and bless each other at the same time. We’ve separated a lot and it is often ugly, bitter and even violent. Can we work at the relationships as we go our separate ways? Can the kingdom still grow? I think we need to keep working at all these things – at healthy negotiating, at living with differences and, when separating is really needed to do so respectfully.

Ryan: There are those who go separate ways in seeking similar outcomes. How does conflict transformation mesh with all-costs activism in the fight for peace and justice?

Carolyn: We need each other. I came into conflict transformation work as an activist. One of the temptations of activists is to make an enemy out of whoever the opponent is. That’s inadequate. Making justice is all about righting relationships. The call for us is not to be less passionate about righting the wrongs, but it is to do so in the spirit of reconciliation. That includes believing, completely, that the other is also a person created in the image of God. We need the conflict folks to help us remember that. And we need them to help us implement respectful, inclusive processes, to help us build healthy organizations and communities, to manage conflict well and to use it for good.

There is a temptation for conflict transformation people to make everything nice on the surface; there are times when we help settle things superficially without addressing the deeper problems that are present. I believe passionately that we serve the cause of injustice when we do that. Sometimes things need to be messy and conflict actually needs to increase before we can work at the deeper issues. We have to get it out on the table. We need the justice people to constantly help us see and understand where there are deeper things that need to be addressed.

Ryan: What are some of those ways that people at Goshen College – whether they’re students or faculty members – are getting it? What are some of the ways you’ve seen transformation in action?

Carolyn: One of my students was home over spring break and got into a fairly major argument with her dad one evening – he said she could not go out, angering and embarrassing her in front of her friends. But then she remembered conversations in class about listening and trying to understand the perspective of the other – what we call, in jargon, positions and interests. Her position was that she wanted to go out. Her dad’s position was that she couldn’t. And that was the level of the argument.

So she began trying to understand her dad’s interests – what did he really care about? She discovered that he had seen very little of her in that week at home since he worked during the day and was home in the evening when she was out with her friends. They scheduled some time to spend together and she and her friends went out. That conversation opened up things in a pretty powerful way for her and her dad.

I also facilitated a dialogue between students during finals week and heard passionate but very respectful disagreeing. I heard people at one end of the spectrum who would have normally clustered themselves with a group of students, but on this particular issue said, “You know, I’m at a different place.” That’s very healthy. It’s much better than agreeing with the same group of people on every issue, no matter what.

Ryan: What keeps you passionate about teaching these concepts to others instead of just doing transformation field work?

Carolyn: If we’re really going to make substantial change, we’ve all got to be learning how to deal with our conflicts better. We need a doctor sometimes – experts to help us when we’re in a conflict beyond what we can handle constructively. But we also need a whole lot of work, all of us, on how to nurture and care for our relationships and our own conflicts in positive ways. We need that at all levels: interpersonally, in our families, in our organizations and institutions and hopefully at a larger scale, nationally and internationally as well. There’s so much to learn, and learning it is rewarding at so many levels.

From the Sept. 2001 issue of the Bulletin