While it depends greatly upon the situation, in general I’d offer that this points to our cultural fear around conflict. We are conflict avoidant, and trying to smooth over a conflict without expecting it to be uncomfortable is the wrong approach.
What people really want to know is, “How can I resolve a conflict without anyone feeling uncomfortable, without someone getting upset at me.”
We can’t reasonably expect to work through a conflict without people being able to express that they are upset and process things out. In other words–yes. It’s going to be uncomfortable. People are going to be mad at each other. Resolving conflicts is hard work, particularly for the conflict avoidant.
Powder Kegs: Argumentative KnowItAlls
It’s also difficult work because so many people seem to have no problems going off half-cocked and tearing someone else down in the interest of proving their point. I see so many rude interactions in Pagan workshops and on Pagan groups online. I see it not just in the Pagan community, but in other subcultures and grassroots communities. I see a lot of people who are convinced that they are right, and that not only they are right, but that it’s “okay” for them to blast someone else on an email list, be rude to them on Facebook.
Here’s the thing. Even if you are “right,” it’s not ok to be a jerk. You may technically know more about something, like a particular culture’s mythology. But being a jerk doesn’t make your point. It just stirs up conflict. And within the small world of any grassroots group or subculture, such as the Pagan community, these frustrating interactions become a powder keg.
Many of these people will just shrug and say, “I’m blunt, I don’t pull my punches.” I think there’s a difference from being an activist and feeling empowered to speak your mind, and being aggressive or a jerk about it. It takes discernment, and I find that sorely lacking. So then these arguments take place, they cause rifts, and those rifts widen. I’ve seen arguments like that cause decades-long conflicts in between specific local groups in a particular region.
Conflict Avoidance: What Causes Big Conflicts?
On the other hand, I’d say it’s the consistent attempt to keep from expressing how upset we are that often leads to a lot of other group conflicts. Biting our tongues and holding things in seems to lead to the conflict getting more dramatic in the end than it needs to be.
Western culture–at least, most people I meet–are passive aggressive. We are passive in that we don’t want to engage in the conflict. We might be angry about something, but we hold it in. Until it builds, and builds, and builds, and we only feel “safe” expressing our intense emotions when they are just that, intense. When we can’t hold them back any more. When we go into temporary-insanity-headspace and we blow up at someone because we don’t care any more. Or at least, the social consequences we are so afraid of matter less than expressing our emotion. There is a perception that conflict avoidant people have that speaking up about something is just too aggressive. So when they get to the point that they blow up–the aggressive part of passive/aggressive–their frustration has built to the point that they don’t care about the consequences.
Emotionally, it seems way easier to do that than to actually sit down with someone calmly and articulate that we have a problem with something they are doing.
I’m going to take a giant leap here and relate it to people who drink socially to ease their anxiety, particularly to get tipsy enough to flirt with someone or ask them out on a date. Culturally, I experience that most people don’t feel okay with expressing particular uncomfortable emotions or needs unless they feel a little out of control, whether that’s alcohol or anger or some other social/emotional lubricant.
When, not If
In groups I lead, there’s a basic understanding that if two group members have a conflict they can’t resolve and I hear about it–ie, it begins to impact the group–then I’m going to have to butt in and they must agree to sit down to mediation to address the conflict. If they don’t, one or both of them may be asked to leave the group.
I’ve offered or been asked to mediate numerous Pagan conflicts outside of my own group, and typically I find that there’s one party who is interested in mediation, and one party who is not. Typically (though not always) the party who is not interested in mediation is probably not going to budge and is going to keep escalating the conflict. In that instance, I usually flag that person as someone that I probably don’t want to work with anyways. If they aren’t willing to back down and work to resolve the conflict, then they are just going to keep ending up in future conflicts. These are the folks who get kicked out of group after group and then wonder why.
Keep in mind, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here. There are always exceptions.
Abuse Victims Refusing Mediation
In some (rare) instances, the person who refuses mediation is holding a specific boundary with someone who has verbally, emotionally, or even physically abused them. This is a scenario that you can suss out if you gather data and interview the parties involved. If you’re in a position of trying to mediate a conflict, you have to be really clear on the difference.
Some people will outright refuse mediation because they are the at-fault party and are unreasonable jerks, and they will continue to escalate and cause more conflicts. Some people will refuse mediation because the other party is using mediation as a way to get back into their victim’s life. It can be hard to know the difference.
In the past, I have made the critical mistake of pressuring someone into mediation who was actually the victimized party who was trying to hold a boundary and keep away from someone who had emotionally abused her. Again, it’s really hard to tell the difference at times, in part because there is a conflict, there’s huge heavy emotional issues and both sides are upset. Both sides are telling a story that makes them look better. Talking to the parties involved, and to others, is crucial to get as much information as you can. But all too often, it’s “he said she said.”
Getting Over Conflict Avoidance
When I’m working with specific parties, I’m not always concerned with unruffling feathers, at least, not in the beginning. What I mean by that is, there are way too many people (ie, most of us) that are conflict avoidant, and we try too quickly to smooth things over and brush them over the carpet.
And then we are surprised when the conflict erupts again a few months later over the same issues. Sometimes, the bandage needs to be washed out and the wound cleansed out well, or it just keeps healing over with rot underneath.
My mentors at Diana’s Grove had an elemental model of the roles of a priest/ess, ministers, and clergy, and one was to act as a healer. Acting as a healer, however, sometimes means setting the bone. It’s going to hurt like heck, but we want the bone to heal straight. Sometimes healing has to hurt.
I typically use tools from Nonviolent communication (excellent book by Marshall Rosenberg, worth checking out) in order to find out the root cause of the conflict. I do a lot of investigating, I ask a lot of questions. I try to understand the conflict from 360 degrees. If I can find out what’s actually going on, then it’s more likely I can help the people involved in the conflict come to a successful resolution. But we all have hidden agendas. Sometimes, our agenda is hidden from ourselves.
I also use a tool from Diana’s Grove called the Four Levels of Reality, which was adapted from Jean Houston’s work.
Physical Reality, Mythic Reality, Emotional Reality, and Essential Reality
Physical Reality is what physically happened, Mythic is the story we write in our heads, Emotional is our instant emotional response, and Essential reality is our beliefs about the world and ourselves that fueled that particular Myth.
Truly, a lot of conflicts come from, “Bob was glaring at me in Circle,” when in reality, Bob was just squinting at the sun. We assign a motivation to people–instantly–and it’s our emotional recollection of that that is what sticks, not the physical reality of what happened. In fact, my understanding is that emotion is the glue of memory. We tend to have the strongest memories of the most intense emotional moments of our lives.
By talking someone down through the layers of physical reality to get at what they actually know about a situation, I can help take them out of the mythic reality of their story of what happened, and their emotional reality response to it.
Ultimately, most conflicts come out of people’s Essential Reality–their poor self image of themselves. If you have a poor self image, poor self esteem, then you might find yourself feeling threatened all the time. I have found that the roots of many conflicts come from people who are overly defensive. I’ll actually do an entirely separate post just about people who are constantly victims, who claim to be under psychic attack, or people who are just always concerned that others are out to get them. However, I have two posts before the current Pagan Leadership series about the Hypersensitive Personality type, and I think that that is one factor in how we get to conflicts that get blown out of proportion.
Some conflicts come out of almost nothing; someone who is oversensitive or who has poor self esteem finds themselves under attack all the time. It’s an ego defense. And it’s a bad spiral where someone who has genuinely been victimized in the past can continue their victimhood, and cause entirely new conflicts, because they imagine everyone is out to get them.
I’m not Speaking to You
The kiss of death for healing most conflicts is “I’m not speaking to you.” You can’t really do anything with that, other than see if that time allows them to heal and maybe they will come back to you months or years later. If you try to force the issue, that person will not only resent you for it, they will lash out. They aren’t ready to talk, and forcing the issue almost always makes the situation worse in various ways.
If someone throws down the refusal to communicate, there’s nothing I can do. I had this happen to me just over a year ago. I tried the various methods available; during the conflict, I tried to reason with him and use logic, but he was way, way past logic. Before he pulled away completely, I let him know that if he did ever want to talk, I’d be open to that. I tried to use the “friend of a friend” method to get a mutual friend/neutral party to speak to him on my behalf. However, in this particular case we didn’t really have a good middle/neutral party. My friends who were his friends were fairly conflict avoidant and didn’t want to get involved, plus they didn’t know him all that well. His friends who were my friends weren’t speaking to me either.
Most of the time, if someone does the “not speaking” thing, it’s over. There’s no closure, no resolution. They have decided they are right and that’s that. In this case, however, my friend contacted me almost a year after our argument to say that he was sorry, and that he realized how totally insane he must have sounded. He and I talked it out, and without getting into the particular nature of our conflict, it’s understandable why he was triggered. He has an incredible temper, and he was in an emotional pressure cooker both because of some things that had gone on between us, as well as his job and his home life.
I was intensely surprised when he contacted me. I now am in the position of trying to honor his and my friendship and connection, but with appropriate boundaries. I believe in transformation and healing and that people can change their behavior, and on the other hand, I’m aware that he’s blown his temper like that before. So I’m still friends with him, but there are more boundaries. And, should he blow his temper like that again, I’m not going to be interested in re-engaging with him as a friend, even though he is involved in the Pagan community and I work hard to not be in conflict with other Pagan leaders.
The truth is, whenever anyone develops a friendship, an intense relationship within a magical group, a romantic relationship…any of these provide the opportunity for conflict to develop. When dating, it’s sometimes called the “3-month rule,” and I think that’s apt. After you get through the Springtime Rush of excitement, then reality hits and you discover all the things about the other person (or group) you don’t like. Things either work out, or they don’t. But, we don’t have great ways to work these things out in the Pagan community, or in other grassroots groups.
The one thing that would prevent so many conflicts is if we all engaged in direct communication. Ie, we actually talked to people we had a difficulty with, and tried to work it out. Not in an aggressive, attacking way, but in a forthright way, a healing way, a compassionate way. Once again I recommend I-referencing and the book Nonviolent Communication to learn how to do this with skill. Even better, if you can afford it, is attending an evening or weekend class teaching Nonviolent Communication.
An example: I was working with a woman who challenged every marketing/writing idea I ever had. We were working together in a small team of people offering Pagan events to a broader community. Whenever I talked about the text for an ad we were going to take out in the local new age magazine, or our flyer, she would launch into me. She started launching on me for other things.
After this happened at three or four meetings, I knew it wasn’t going to stop. So when other team members had left the room, I finally asked her, “I notice that you really act out towards me in meetings during XYZ circumstances. What’s up?” We started talking, but we set aside time to talk when we had more privacy.
We spent six hours talking. It turned out that she’d always been “The Writer” in previous groups, and she wanted to be respected as “The Writer.” However, in this particular group, I held that role and she was jealous.
The conflict arose because she wasn’t even thinking about why she was angry at me. She was defending what she thought of as “hers.” She wanted to be seen and valued as a writer by the group and was angry that someone else (me) had claimed that turf. Ultimately, she felt bad about herself if she wasn’t seen as being “good” and doing a good job at writing. Under it all, she didn’t really value herself very well. She only valued her relationship with the group if they perceived her as “good” by offering a service she was good at. This is very common with people with poor self esteem–they don’t value themselves, they value the things that people will like them for, like a skillset they possess.
What exacerbated the situation is that I had to be fairly controlling about our marketing materials and how our group presented ourselves because of some obligations we had to our parent group. I was able to explain to her why I had to be a control freak about some of the language we used. I was under a tremendous amount of pressure from the leader and mentor who had a stake in what our group was doing. That leader/mentor wasn’t directly involved in our group, but our actions reflected on that leader/mentor and the parent group.
I had actually been yelled at by that leader/mentor for letting untrained people facilitate workshops, and admonished that everything we did reflected on the parent group. Given the nature of our respective groups, and some of the unhealthy personal dynamics that had arisen in the parent group, I wasn’t in a position where I could really talk about the unhealthy behavior of that leader and mentor. In other words, it was a powder keg.
Further, I had no idea that the group member who was attacking me in meetings had done professional writing work and wanted to do more of that in the group. All I could see was her acting like a raptor testing the fences with every idea I brought up. I knew that she had previously led another Pagan group, and initially I just just assumed she wasn’t dealing well with someone else in a position of authority. Sometimes two alphas will snap at each other like that.
It turned out to be far more complicated than that. Once we got to the bottom of that, we were able to work a lot of things out. Once our cards were on the table, we collaborated together pretty well, and I now count her as a friend.
Smoothing It Under the Rug
When my efforts at conflict resolution focused on smoothing things over, all I did was let it further build. I kept on trying to smile and pretend like she wasn’t attacking me every meeting. When I confronted her from a place of genuine intent to heal, we were able to actually resolve things.
It wasn’t easy, and it started out with a lot of anger and frustration. We had to let the anger out, and express the frustration, before we could move along to any kind of healing.
What helped was direct communication. Yes, it was fueled by my frustration, but I spoke with this woman before I was angry to the point of just screaming at her and kicking her out of the group. I could have brought it up earlier still and we’d have had less frustration between us. I pointed out her behavior, and her impact on me and the group, and asked her if that was the impact she wanted to have, and if not, that she and I needed to work things out, and we did.
In other situations, the person might cross their arms and get more defensive, more aggressive, and dig into “I’m right,” and in those scenarios, there isn’t always much you can do. If someone isn’t willing to acknowledge they have been engaging in behavior that has negatively impacted the group–and be willing to apologize and do something different–that person probably doesn’t belong in your group. Sometimes the resolution to a conflict is asking someone to leave.
Other times, it’s digging down into the needs beneath the conflict to figure out a resolution.
Coming soon: Conflict Resolution part 2.