After my last post, I had a request to write about conflict. So here is a post unpacking conflict in consent-based, self-directed education spaces.
Firstly, conflict as a phenomenon is key to consent-based self-directed culture. Conflict as a situation must be expected and even wanted, as it is a sign that people are able to hold their own shape, stay connected to their true wants and needs, and sense of them-self. Conflict can be time consuming and hold up peoples ability to ‘get on’, so you ideally want a situation in which it isn’t constantly occurring (this would show some incompatibility between folks in the space and the guiding principles/culture, for example, or structural issues in the community that need addressing so that it is easier for people to navigate the space and meet their needs – more people in the community, for example). But you do want to see some conflict.
You certainly need people in the community to be working on healing any kind of conflict resistance or avoidance reactions that they may have. It’s normal that folk would experience conflict avoidance, given the punitive, non-consensual and shame-based history and character of the dominant culture in which most people have grown in (intergenerationally also), and that we are trying to step away from. But this must be addressed and healed in order to release into self-direction and consent-based life. You can not self-direct and experience consensuality of you are not open and willing to the possibility and experience of conflict.
To understand how to hold and navigate conflict in this new way, first we need to understand the root of the word. The root meaning of conflict is ‘together’ (con) and ‘strike’ (flict). In contrast, the root meaning of consent is ‘together’ (con) and ‘feeling’ (sent). Consent is when an experience feels ‘together’ or as one, one with our self and one with the other. A shared yes of something feeling right. As an individual, it’s that feeling of one and yes with an experience or environment. A feeing of sharedness and compatibility.
Conflict is where there is a strike, think of flints striking each other and creating a spark that lights up a difference. This is the energy of a conflict, a difference, a resistance, and discord of wants, needs, of energy. Conflict is when something together is not matched, it’s experienced as difference.
Now, conflict and consent occur for the same but opposite reasons. Consent occurs where their is a matched and shared understanding, and a match and shared need. Conflict occurs where there is an unmatched or misunderstanding, and a mismatch and not shared need. Neither of these things are inherently good or bad, they are just a reality of a particular situation at a particular time, an expression of what is true for someone or something in a given instance, a reality of two people coming into contact with each other and reacting due to having different needs and experiences.
Where consent occurs – things that are matched and compatible, it is easy to see what can happen next – they just get on with whatever it is they are coming into contact about.
Where conflict occurs, there is a different need around what happens next. And we have a massive cultural black hole in our experience and understanding of what to do in these situations, as the dominant culture mentioned above teaches us nothing about how to navigate this type of scenario, so we must learn.
It is easiest to work with conflict when it is caught early. When it is left untended, it can begin to morph into other experiences that then cloud and obstruct dealing with the actual conflict that is occurring, due to people feeling increasingly triggered, unseen and unheard, frustrated and upset. I’m first going to share about conflict when it’s addressed in it’s early stages of emergence.
The way to address conflict when caught early is by using the root origin of the word, and exploring the root causes of that particular situation. So, firstly, you can notice the conflict because something is happening that is striking up against each other, there is a halt in the flow of energy and a discord. Then, you want to find out the two things: What is the misunderstanding here? What is the unmet need here?
How this looks as a facilitator in a consent-based self-directed space would look like the following, lets say if the conflict is occurring between two people, either of whom have requested help to navigate it:
To each person:
- What happened for you? – listen and learn from what that person tells you about their experience, what led into the conflict, what happened during, and up to now. This stage also usually deescalates agitation and the feeling of conflict, as the person will begin to feel seen and heard, a common stressor in a conflict situation.
- What do you need now? – once you have heard from them what happened for them, you may have a sense yourself of the underlying unmet need that contributed to the conflict occurring, but they may also have new needs as a result of experiencing the conflict itself (for example they may feel wronged/harmed by the other and in need of an apology or some kind of restoration). So you are looking to establish the original unmet need, and any new needs caused by the experience of the conflict itself.
- Can you meet the need of the other? – once you have heard this from both people, you can then see if those people are able to meet the needs of the other. If they are not (this maybe the reason why the conflict has happened, the work is to then find alternative options to enable the person to meet their needs and move through and on from the conflict situation).
- What other ways can that need be met? – if the need can not be met by the other, what other ideas and ways are there that could meet the need instead. Crucially, this is a question to the person with the unmet need, as they are usually best at imagining alternatives that might work for them, but it can also be helpful to make suggestions or remind them of what is available.
Can you see how in this process is a curious and open approach, where the locus of power remains with those involved but with facilitation to help it be managed? Two key things are happening in the process: 1) by asking these questions, misunderstandings are hopefully being cleared up, and as information is shared personal and relational blind spots are decreasing and our understanding and knowledge of the other is increasing. 2) Unmet needs are becoming revealed, increasing the chances of meeting them in the process or of finding ways for them to be met.
In the situation of a conflict, if only one party is wanting and willing to go through this process, then it can happen 1:1 with a facilitator, who can support that person in making sense of what happened and understanding their options for what they are going to do next. Equally, this process can be held in a group, but using a meeting (see my previous post).
Sometimes, the misunderstanding that has occurred can be due to a gap in a persons cultural understanding of the community and it’s guiding principles. This can cause someone to hold unreasonable expectations or false notions about what is needed from them in the community, and/or to behave in ways that are in conflict with with the community culture. For example, a conflict may arise where one person in the community makes a sexist comment to or about another member of the community, not realising that the community holds the principles of children’s rights and social justice, and therefore, can not accept that kind of comment as normal. In that case, the conflict navigation process will need to include that person increasing their understanding of the guiding principles and the reasons why the community can not accept oppressive and discriminatory behaviour.
In this kind of scenario, the person on the other side may also need support in understanding how it is possible for someone to think sexism is normal, and something of the problematic historical and dominant culture reasons for this, in order for them to hold some space and compassion for the learning of the other who may be new to this being challenged. Sexism is routinely normalised and directed at children and prevalent in our society, this has an impact on people and family cultures and sometimes these biases need addressing in community. Conflicts that occur of this nature help us to see these usually hidden influences, and give us an opportunity to learn, grow and heal.