Cheryl Heller | Essays

Conflict as a Tool For Social Change

A Syrian refugee from Daraa works distributing water to other refugees within Zaatari Refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Jordan. © Ashley Gilbertson / VII for UNICEF

This article was written for the Unreasonable Institute in 2015 and was originally posted on Design Observer in 2017, just after Donald Trump's inauguration. But with all the unrest recently, it seemed worth taking a look at again.

Do you keep quiet when your convictions don’t align with events taking place around you?

Do you avoid confrontation? Do you side-step a subject when you have something difficult to say? Do you keep quiet when your convictions don’t align with events taking place around you? When you simply want something or want something to happen, do you ask?

Does it matter?

Paul Hawkin wrote a book called Blessed Unrest—naming what he calls “the largest movement on earth”—the people everywhere who act on their passion to change injustice and the unsustainable aspects of our human-made world.

To be passionate about change requires unconquerable optimism, fed by a vision of the better thing ahead.

But change, at any scale and in any context, has its corollary rough side. It requires us to face reality and confront it—to ask things of other people they may not want to give. It requires assuming power and leadership that others may think they own. It requires that we be masterful communicators and always, it requires that we face the differences of opinion and emotion and agendas among the equally passionate people who have visions different from our own. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be change and if it’s not change, then why are we wasting time on it?

If we see these conflicts as precious moments of new thinking and realignment on the way to real change, we can be grateful for them. And when we separate them from emotion, we can master the skills to work through them.

The first step in working through conflict is to recognize it, and the second is to practice every day. If you think you surely have the fortitude to confront it but are saving them for the big important issues that matter, don’t. We lose ground in the thousands of small moments and small daily decisions that prevent us from getting to the big transitional ones. Being “pecked to death by ducks” kills our ideals, our ideas and our chance to have a voice. So practice disarming the small conflicts without avoiding them so that you can be there and ready when the big ones come.

For example, you’ve probably worked with people who say yes to everyone because they want to be liked by all. They agree with the last or loudest person they speak to and create a culture where no one quite knows where they stand. Or when you’re counting on people to be real with you but they’d rather be superficial. Compare this to the satisfaction and productivity of “getting to the bottom of things” in a good conversation or “speaking truth to power” as they say. Or the confidence of knowing where you really stand with a team or a community without politics or unspoken agendas to drain energy and get in the way.

Confronting issues doesn’t mean being aggressive, or unkind or pushy. It doesn’t mean fighting for what we believe and it most definitely doesn’t mean winning—in fact the point of dealing with the truth as it emerges is so that we can disarm the tension around it.

Animals set an excellent example. They have signals, a protocol for establishing turf that allows for perfect understanding of agendas and leaves room for stepping down. We’ve all seen it, ranging from butt sniffing in dogs to direct eye contact and barred teeth in primates. I remember once encountering an elderly couple on the street, clearly having lived through many decades of marriage to each other. With no idea of context, all I heard in passing was “I’m getting mad at you.” I thought, what a great pressure-reducing statement: “Hey, cut it out” she was saying, I’m giving you warning of what’s to come if you don’t.” A warning growl, a signal to stand down.

In design, critiques are one of the most effective ways to make work better. Colleagues give generously of their time and attention and suggest how what you’ve done can be improved. They’re not personal—it’s not about the worth or talent of the person being critiqued, but a shared goal to improve the quality of what’s being created. It takes a little practice toughening up your skin (and not falling in love with your ideas), but it’s the true transition between amateur and master change agent.

Here are a few things to think about and try as you encounter the blessed conflicts in your life.

Pay attention, recognize them. Your emotions will be the first clue—discomfort with a situation or conversation can alert you that something needs to be named and spoken in a way that it can be addressed.

Avoid the urge to please other people. It’s usually short term rather than lasting. Speak directly, find the shared objectives in the group instead of the differences, and find a way to express your truth with kindness.

Communicate, don’t stew. Conflicts escalate when people let things brood and assume what others are thinking and feeling. Diffuse your emotions when they arise, it’s the best way to diffuse those of others.

Look for the big unsaid issues. Practice saying what’s going on….look, we would both like to be first, or lead this (or have that last piece of pie). What can we do?

Try to move past thinking of what you’re going to say next and on to trying to understand what others are thinking. Better yet, feel what others are feeling.

Come to love the truth, however challenging. There is no other way to change it.

Develop not only a nose for bullshit but also the skills to sweep it away with grace.

This article was published on Unreasonable.Is. It has been republished here to inspire further conversation.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Politics, Social Good

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