Making Conflict Constructive

By Frances Moore
From The Quickening of America: Rebuilding Our Nation, Remaking Our Live, 1994, pp. 251-253

Create an Environment “Safe” for Difference. Making conflict constructive begins by creating environments in which people feel free to dissent, to offer opposing views. Conflict by which we grow is “open, public, and often very noisy,” writes educational philosopher Parker Palmer. What blocks such creative conflict is fear, he says. “It is fear of exposure, of appearing ignorant, of being ridiculed.” People feel safe to expose their ignorance only when we work to communicate that “every attempt at truth, no matter how off the mark,” contributes to the search.

Recently we heard about a marvelously successful high school history teacher, very popular with his students. “That’s a brilliant wrong answer!” he’s been known to say to a student who ventured beyond his or her own sure knowledge. This teacher was creating a public environment free from fear of embarrassment. He was preparing young people who will be able to deal with differences without fear that being wrong will bring humiliation.

Even about what appears to be a no-compromise issue — abortion — some advocates on both sides have tired of battling. They’ve worked hard to create an environment safe for differences. Beginning in 1991, abortion rights advocates and those opposed in Milwaukee came together in what turned into half- or even full-day meetings every four to six weeks. Initially, what made the meetings possible were commitments to keep the encounters safe. Everyone agreed: no media coverage, and “the only agenda would be to have a dialogue,” Maggi Cage, one of the conveners, told us.

Agree to Leave Labels at the Door. Participants in the abortion discussion arrived at certain rules to foster active listening. For one, they agreed to ban the use of dichés, labels, and rhetoric. Without the distraction of defending themselves against each other’s labels, they could see beneath differences to discover that they all, as Maggi explained, do have a shared interest. It’s a “common desire to prevent unwanted pregnancies.” Stereotypes broke down; trust grew. Out of this dialogue came ideas for “sexuality education” for youth, which the group later presented to legislators.

Agree to Disagree, Then Explore Common Ground. In St. Louis, representatives from the two abortion camps took a very different approach. While the Milwaukee participants believed it was important to really listen to each others~ views on abortion before finding common ground, in St. Louis they “decided to table the abortion issue and talk about everything else in between,” said Jean Cavender of Reproductive Health Services. Since most of the participants were providers of services to women and children, they found that “everything else in between” covered quite a lot of ground—induding common ground.

So even in the most divisive battles, participants can deliberately create conditions allowing all sides to discover their shared interests, The idea is catching on in the abortion debate; such groups are now forming in several other cities.5

Keep the Focus on the Present—and on Solutions. In Berkeley, California, a zoning plan had been stalled for years. Labor union members and other workers wanted zoning in order to keep high-paying manufacturing jobs. But environmentalists and some residents applauded the exit of polluting industries. How could such opposing interests ever converge?

Planning Commission member Babette Jee agreed to chair a subcommittee on the West Berkeley Plan, but only with the understanding that she would bring every interested party to the table. And she did, in a series of face-to-face meetings that continued over many months.

“At first the meetings were a little tense,” she told us, “because people were complaining about the past.... So we made people talk about the present and a little about the future. We would focus not just on the rhetorical or political point of view, but a real situation: ‘practically speaking, how do we deal with this problem?”’

Discipline Expressions of Anger. Meeting facilitators encouraged participants in the West Berkeley Plan to get their competing feelings out on the table but to resist reacting to inflammatory statements or “under-your-breath” jabs. They encouraged people not to interrupt each other and to reflect back on a speaker’s interests before stating competing interests. After a while, participants realized that they didn’t need to be abrasive to be heard.

Related Topics:
Permission is granted to download and reprint this material. Reprints must include all citations and the statement: "Found in the Energize online library at"