When Conflict Begins and Ends
People mostly engage with conflict as beginning at its spark point, the point in a conflict when intensity skyrockets, deep hurt or impact occurs, and there is a specific event or incident that we can point to and say “It all started when…”. Conflict Transformation as a praxis has always critically examined how we typically view conflict’s beginnings and endings.
Focusing on a spark point as the beginning of a conflict paints a very different picture of conflict, compared to panning out and seeing a longer timeline of events and conditions. The spark point is often a dramatic, intense, blunt event (an outburst, an argument, an assault, an eviction, a protest, a riot, a death). These events are often viewed in high contrast (black and white, dark and light)—there are these groups and these “other” groups, there are the harm-doers and the harmed, there are the powerful and the powerless, there are the folks who stoked the fire and those who let it burn. High contrast can be a helpful way to look at things: we can easily identify and define who is who and what is what, in terms that are simple to communicate quickly. But, with that there come a lot of costs—we categorize (and come to understand) people in the moment of their worst behavior or most vulnerable position. Trying to understand change from this spark point, then, tends to trap us in addressing the individual or group behaviors that occurred during this uncharacteristic point in time—the point at which we said “enough is enough” or where our built up resentments and frustrations exploded/imploded.
To really uncover where a transformative change can occur so that folks’ underlying needs, interests, and values are met, we have to try to zoom out from that spark point and reflect on the near-past and near-future.
To holistically engage in a transformative approach to conflict, we have to think about where, when, and how the first signals of a need for change occurred (whether we perceived them at the time or not). We might ask:
When did we each first begin to experience tension, discomfort, or unease within this relationship or context?
For example, you might remember feeling a desire to distance yourself from someone/something without being able to explain why.
When did we each start to experience or sense neglect, lack of fulfillment, or an ethical dilemma?
For example, you might remember experiencing constraint, absence, or indecision that wasn’t fully describable yet.
When did conditions around us or within us change, that might have triggered this shift in our experience?
For example, a new policy might have been implemented or you might have just learned/internalized a different understanding of power, wealth, fairness, etc. that caused a change in perspective
Once we can recognize where a need for change began, we can then look at the conditions of the environment, system, and/or relationship to understand where transformation might be possible that could have prevented any harm that came with the “spark.” Said another way, what could have been done when these new conditions arose, that would have addressed our needs without us having to take risks or make ourselves more vulnerable in order to be heard?
To that end, another important place to look is when the first explicit mentions of the conflict occurred (even if passive).
When did people start to make passive, passive-aggressive, or direct mentions that a need for change might need to happen?
If those mentions were passive, what were the conditions (internally within those individuals or externally within the culture) that caused those mentions/signals to be passive rather than direct?
How were those mentions received and why didn’t they result in a change that would have prevented the need for a spark point to take place?
If there were passive / indirect mentions of the conflict before the spark point, then the spark point necessarily cannot be the beginning of the conflict.
In my Conflict Skills courses I always say that if we’re using a conflict transformation lens, then “most conflicts never really end.” There are always a few people who are surprised and upset about this—which is understandable. Most of us were raised to believe that conflict occurs on a linear path: something bad happens, we fight about it, we solve the problem, we move on and it’s over. That linear approach can be true about conflicts that are primarily about issues: issues are the surface-level concerns that can be fixed/adjusted with only our individual change efforts. For example: who is responsible for making coffee in the morning, how we divide up the utility costs in the household, who receives a promotion. These are issues that one or two people can address by making decisions that are within their control to enact.
But a lot of conflicts aren’t about issues—even if they seem to be on the surface. Conflicts are often about pervasive cultural practices that require many people to make internal and external transformations in concert with each other. Or about systemic barriers that are tied up in bureaucracies and hierarchies requiring the majority of people to understand and want to change. Or about conflicting values that are at the root of our identities, where our choices have meaningful but often intangible impacts on people we care about. In these conflicts, we can manage the impacts by making individuated willful changes (I decide to act, I do act) that will bring about short-term “ends,” but the underlying needs and causes will persist.
When we use a transformative approach, we often identify a need for change and immediately experience a dramatic increase in discomfort. People dig in their heels, resist change, point fingers, avoid, and actively try to stop change from happening—this can feel like the end. We can give up here, we can let our interactions end but allow the conflict conditions persist—letting a state of atrophy take over. OR
When we gain support and begin to initiate change we can experience a decrease in intensity (folks are less resistant) but also experience sense of back sliding or worsening of the conflict conditions—people are confused about what to do, people make even more mistakes. A system which has always moved in one direction is now trying to turn, even slightly, and there is some chaos that comes with that. This can also feel like an end—like a new era but one we aren’t sure we should have brought about. This era can last a long, long, almost intolerable amount of time. We could stop here and let conditions return back to the way they were—a less satisfying but more predictable version of things. OR
When noticeable change begins to occur—our needs are more and more fulfilled, we’re in alignment with our values, we’re in (more) desirable conditions—this can feel like an end: we’ve finally arrived. BUT,
—just when this happens, a new problem or need typically arises. Maybe conditions outside of our control change, maybe someone is less satisfied than others—but transitional tensions always arise and we experience growing pains. Things are overall better but they are hard again, we have change fatigue, we’re burnt out, we lash out. This can feel like an inevitable failure. OR
We can see an opportunity to make adjustments, address old wounds, make the amends we forgot to get back to.
And just when we get over what feels like the final mountain—after things have been smooth sailing for a long time, for the most part people are in a better state than they were before: a new conflict will occur, old habits and pains will resurface, new tension will arise. We will have new versions of the same conversations we’ve had before, we may feel betrayal and resentment. But the thing is, we will be stronger for having done this before. And the difficulties of engaging in conflict will be softer, smoother, and clearer because we have examined the bigger picture and have a deeper understanding of the why of it all.
Every conflict has not one, but dozens, hundreds, or thousands of endings.
Opportunities to Learn + Act
Amplify RJ is hosting an awesome series of events History of Black Abolitionist Politics & Action throughout February. Today (January 31) is the last day to register for $89, registration is $99 going forward. Events include:
Feb. 5: The Struggle for the Abolition of Slavery
Feb. 12: Black Liberation, State Repression, and the Anti-Prison Movement
Feb. 19: Police and Prison Abolition Today
Feb. 26: A Black Abolitionist Future
Read or listen to Complicating Narratives, an essay by journalist Amanda Ripley about intractable conflicts and the importance of complex, nuanced thinking. Full audio reading of the essay is available here.
Read Mia Mingus’ post You Are Not Entitled to Our Deaths: COVID, Abled Supremacy & Interdependence. “Pitting the need for state and systemic change against individual and community change sets up a false binary. Both are necessary to get out of the pandemic mess we are in, just as both are necessary for any kind of liberation we are fighting for.”
A participant from Conflict Skills course sent me this article: Who is the Bad Art Friend, which details a fascinating conflict between two artists: Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. The story shows how a conflict spirals, unfolds, and creates its own world full of layers of subconscious experience. Unfortunately this is behind a paywall, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org I can send you a PDF.
Making the Body a Home offers several financially accessible courses on unpacking internalized racism (for BIPOC) and racial superiority (for white folks), check them out here.
If you’re working in the DE&I space or those policies impact you, you may be interested in this podcast: Diversity & Inclusion: Revolution or Reform.
Image 1 (“A Timeline of Conflict”) full description: A large black swirl representing the passage of time, marked with labeled events, with the vertical marking high intensity (top) and low intensity (bottom). The first marked event (yellow dot) is labeled “Signals that something needs to change for everyone’s needs, interests, and values alignment to be met”. Behind this event is a large circle filled with pale yellow lines. The next labeled event (pink circle) is labeled “passive mentions or indirect signals of ongoing need for change”. Here the swirl rises and falls like a small hill. As the swirl begins to curve directly up, the third label (pink circle) is labeled “direct, impactful, or overt event that can’t be ignored (spark point).” The incline of the swirl is labeled as a period of “distress, uncertainty, fear.” About 3/4 of the way up the rise of the swirl an event is labeled “first attempts at change are initiated.” The swirl rises and curves backward on itself, then slightly begins to fall. An event is labeled “change begins to feel possible (shift point).” The swirl drops severely and then starts to progress forward, at the bend an event is labeled “change begins to occur.” Where the swirl begins a slight rise again, an event is labeled “transitional tensions arise.” This rise is labeled “growing pains, resurfaced resentments.” At the top of the inside swirl an event is labeled “relief, ease, recognition of positive improvements.” The swirl drops down and progresses forward in a downwardly sloping line. A smaller loop begins and an event is labeled “signal of issues resurfacing.” The line loops up and down and progresses forward in a much smaller cycle.
Image 2 (“Multiple experiences of the same timeline”) full description: The dark swirl from the first drawing is overlayed with one yellow and one teal line. The yellow line has sharper and longer turns, the teal line mimics the shape but stays at a very low intensity in smaller swirls and loops.
Image 3 (“Conflict across a relationship’s life course”) full description: A black line squiggles across the page, with one big swirl early on that loops in on itself then moves forward into one small loop, then moves forward into a small swirl, then moves forward into a bigger swirl, then forward into a small loop and then off the page.
When thinking about “when a need for change began” it can be difficult to discern a starting point when the conditions and causes are tied up in generations of oppression. Honoring and naming this long history is very important—it’s also important to consider what shifts in recent history have occurred that lead up to spark points. Why, in this moment, are people expressing themselves in new ways, fighting for these specific changes, or taking these specific approaches to a longstanding conflict? Are there cultural changes happening that can set precedents? Are there policy changes that have or have the potential to make things worse or set things back? These specific, present conditions are essential to addressing the things we can change now, rather than getting caught debating the past. Within this present frame, solutions like reparations, amends, and land returns can all be essential goals that address present conditions that were created from a long history.