Conflict and Creativity Beyond Binaries

I passionately believe in breaking down narratives of problematisation and binary debate. One of the most troubling of these narratives today is the polemical polarisation of trans and female lived experience. Beyond the reality that trans women are, and should be respected as, women, and that trans and non-binary people have valuable insights into misogyny and inequality, it is also true that social justice is most achievable when people work well together across all sorts of difference. Genuine dialogue that recognises the interwoven nuances of diversity and prioritises both and, rather than either or, is the key to transforming our communities, our organisations, and our world.

So why does conflict emerge, and how can we move forward, together? Hint: Fighting with each-other on social media is not the answer, as cathartic and satisfying as it may be. (It’s a habit I frequently fall into!)

Conflict can often look, and feel, like an irresolvable battle. When different understandings and experiences of life and work clash, the arising disagreements are often intense and painful. Separation might seem like the only option, if it seems that the parties involved are unable or unwilling to resolve their conflict. Whilst this may ultimately be necessary, it is possible to ensure that conflict does not reach this point.

When analysed by someone who prioritises equity and social justice, it can seem clear that one party in a conflict has more power than the other. Analysis based on the principles of equity and social justice is clearly important. It is also important to realise, however, that power dynamics are complex, intersectional, and often not clearly visible. Care needs to be taken when analysing power dynamics, and professional analysis can be vital.

These are two versions of popular conflict resolution models:

Both of these examples have positive and problematic elements. They recognise that differences or disagreements will be a part of any group dynamic. However, they treat conflict resolution as a single, straightforward process, which is far from the messy lived reality!

The first (red and black) image shows a process of emerging conflict escalating to the point of pain, requiring negotiation and settlement. Whilst this may be an accurate description of much conflict resolution practice, it ignores the systemic, power-related elements of conflict and problematises the individuals involved, implying a binary debate in which an agreement or settlement must be reached.

The second (green and brown) image shows a process of noticing emerging debate which escalates into conflict necessitating a practice of transforming relationships, and building capacity to manage similar conflicts in the future. This process is slightly more realistic, recognising some of the nuances of conflict and highlighting the need for systemic change. It still, however, just looks a little too easy!

In reality, the only way to live together well in all of our diversity is to recognise each person’s humanity, understand and carefully negotiate power and oppression, listen to those whose voices are marginalised or unheard, and work together creatively to transform or disrupt unjust systems. I feel that Jane Leach’s work in pastoral theology is relevant here. Leach suggests that attending well to diverse voices is central to safe and equitable pastoral practice. I believe that the points Leach raises are also foundational to effective conflict resolution in society and in a range of organisations:

Building on Leach’s model of pastoral attention1, I have created a cycle of conflict transformation (above) to show the multi-sector relevance of active listening. This cycle begins with hearing diverse voices and perspectives. It then moves to the lifting up, or seeking out, of voices that are not yet heard. Thirdly, it continues towards active listening, listening with an intention to understand, rather than debate, with the aim of building policy and practice. Finally, it enables organisational change, before the cycle begins again! This constant cycle of transformation will not, of course, end all conflict, topple all unjust systems, and bring about perfect harmony. It will, however, keep lines of communication open.

When people are unheard, misunderstood, and separated from processes of change that they are an intrinsic part of, the result is apathy, at best, or violence, at worst. It is time to start listening. It is time for transformation.

1Leach, J. (2003). Pastoral Theology as Attention. Cambridge: Wesley College.

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