Strategy aims to transform conflict

Rather than something to be avoided at all costs, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America views conflict as “holy ground.”

By Bob Allen

Conflict poses both danger and opportunity between individuals, congregations and nations, says Evelyn Hanneman, operations coordinator for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

“We like to say that conflict is holy ground, because conflict does offer you that place to deepen relationships, to move farther and deeper into that peace that Christ calls us to,” she said. “It is not calmness. It is a peace that comes from there being right relationships.”

conflict koalaHanneman, who has worked in various positions for nearly 15 years with the network devoted to peace and justice issues formed in 1984, shared conflict-transformation principles the group has used in faraway places like Sudan, the Philippines and Liberia in a daylong training session preceding the American Baptist Churches USA biennial meeting June 21-23 in Overland Park, Kan.

The method differs from conflict resolution, bypassing negotiation and compromise to get to the deeper root causes that drive the conflict in the first place.

The goal, she said, is, “that issue of Shalom, where there are right relationships between everyone.” That involves “not just the surface,” she said, but is “based on working through all these things so that we actually get into the depths of the conflict so that you can move out of that in a very positive way.”

The “holy ground” metaphor is from the story of Moses at the burning bush told in the book of Exodus. Having fled justice for killing an Egyptian, God appoints Moses to return and lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan.

While it is unlikely that murder was part of God’s will for Moses, Hanneman said, it didn’t disqualify him for God’s larger redemptive plan.

For Hanneman, the moral of the story is that God can bring good even out of the worst conflicted situation. “This may not be God’s will, but it’s where we as people with our free will have ended up,” she said. “Now what is God got going in this situation, and where can I be in that transformation process?”

The process includes understanding that people react to conflict in different ways, including those who come in to seek reconciliation.

“I think you need to understand how you respond to deal with the conflict,” she said. “If you are not self-aware, it is very difficult to be effective in a conflict situation.”

She assigned zoo animals to represent the various strategies common to conflict of all kinds:

The Turtle represents people whose gut reaction is to avoid conflict. They are unassertive and passive, want to be neutral and avoid tension or discomfort. The result, she said, is often: “You lose; I lose.”

The Koala wants to accommodate. These people want to embrace everyone and will sacrifice themselves and accept blame to bring about peace. Their intent is to preserve even a superficial peace, believing that getting along is more important than work or goals. The typical outcome to the approach is: “You win; I lose.”

The Rhino is those whose first impulse is to compete. They are assertive or even domineering. Whether using diplomacy or raw power, they believe their way is the only way. Rhinos believe their ideas, values and goals are supreme, and they cannot let people stand in the way. The usual outcome is: “You lose; I win.”

The Fox’s strategy is compromise. They subordinate personal desires for the common good of all parties and seek creative and effective compromise. Their rationale is that you can’t fully please everyone, so they desire to make everyone partially satisfied and to preserve relationships. Their outcome is: “You win some; I win some.”

The Dolphin wants to collaborate. They are assertive but also flexible. They promote mutual respect, open communication and full participation by everyone involved. Their intent is not to avoid conflict but to turn it into a positive, problem-solving process. The desired outcome is: “You win; I win.”

Hanneman said no single strategy is best for every conflict. If it is not your problem or relatively minor, the Turtle might be the best way to respond. The Rhino can be needed if a quick or unpopular decision must be made or if survival is at stake.

The Koala approach is appropriate when you are unsure of your own ideas or are in a weak position. The Fox’s compromise is appropriate if the goals of all parties are valid, differences are not worth fighting over or if time doesn’t allow for deeper solutions.

In most conflicts, however, the Dolphin works best when long-term goals and relationships are involved and maturity and patience are available to see it through.

Recognizing your own conflict-management strategy going in is important, Hanneman said, because: “In conflict we usually respond with our gut. We usually go into our alarm zone.”