Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What I Learned at Conflict Resolution Training

I'm catching up on my blog after a very busy month.  I write the following last month for the newsletter, The Dialogue, of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

            This past weekend First Christian Church of St. Joseph along with First Christian Church of Maryville hosted a 2-day training on Interpersonal Conflict Resolution Training.  The training was led by facilitators from the Community Mediation Center in Kansas City, and eighteen people attended from St. Joe and Maryville representing social service providers like the YWCA, InterServ, Youth Alliance and the abuse shelter in Maryville, along with MWSU faculty and staff, and other members of the community.  Together we learned about what is necessary if you want to be a peacemaker by helping others work through conflict.  Here are a few of the many things I took away from this important event.
            Start with yourself.  I came prepared to learn tools about helping others work through their conflict, but I discovered that we spent the bulk of our time learning how to manage conflicts within ourselves.  I guess I should have known this already, but it turns out if you actually want to help others communicate and work through conflict, then you have to do things like listen and communicate in a way that makes sense to others.  Huh?  I thought I was just going to focus on other people’s issues, but I found out that can’t happen until I work on my own first.
            Stress changes things.  Again, put this one in the column for things I probably should have known already but never really spent much time thinking about before.  When a person is under stress, that person doesn’t listen as well.  In fact, stress takes strengths possessed by a person and amps them up to an excessive level which can turn them into weaknesses.  For example, a person who likes helping others can become needy and dependent upon others' approval; or a person who is a decisive leader can become demanding and dictatorial.  Conflict is stressful, and even when you are trying to help someone else work through their problems, their stress can become your stress turning you into part of the problem rather than an ally in finding a solution.
            Having winners and losers doesn’t end conflict.  Many of the world’s so-called peace treaties don’t lead to real peace, instead they only continue the conflict.  Whether the stakes are an accord between warring factions or a divorce decree for warring spouses, when only one side wins, the conflict hasn’t really been resolved.  At the training, we talked about the idea of moving beyond winners and losers towards helping people in conflict to create something new.  For example, a divorced couple fighting a bitter custody battle could choose to continue the fight disregarding the needs of their children or they could create a new situation that puts their children first.  Finding that shared purpose is at times a difficult process, but the end result looks a lot more like real peace rather than a simmering continuation of the fight.
            People are people.  A highlight for me was working through some of the exercises with another participant who happened to be African American and Muslim.  He and I have had very different experiences in life, but as we shared our own experiences with conflict in our own lives and talked about healthy ways to deal with them it turned out we had quite a lot in common.  We both struggle with the frustration that comes when we feel misunderstood and effort it takes to communicate with others we disagree with in ways that build bridges rather than deeper divisions.  I was reminded how much alike people really are.  We all wish to be understood.  We all desire others to really listen to us.  We all seek positive ways forward in complicated relationships despite our limited skills.  
            Grace and Peace,

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