The power of learning to deal with conflict constructively

One thing I have learned in my work is that in many countries, the outbreak of conflict comes as a shock for many people. I have spoken with people in eastern DRC, for example, who told me about how conflict began in their area – with small conflicts that were not addressed effectively. Ultimately, it led to shocking destruction and many deaths.

People around the world struggle with the question of how conflict originates, and how people respond to it. My work is to learn from their learning, and what I have learned is that one contributing factor is that people don’t know how to deal with conflict effectively, even though conflict is a fact of everyone’s life, everywhere. Conflicts between individuals that aren’t resolved often pull in many more people, given the family- and tribal-based nature of many societies. Teaching people how to resolve conflict in constructive ways is thus a major contributor to building peace.

This is a lesson we can learn from them, even though our experience as countries may seem so different (I don’t think it is, at its heart). I remember coming back from Bosnia in 1996, struggling with the question of how that war could have happened and even more with the question of what I would have done, had I been in the same situation. It was a question that haunted me for a long time, and was ultimately not resolvable, as the only way to know for sure is to have been in that situation. The time in Bosnia also made me acutely sensitive to violence in whatever form it might take. (I have discovered that this is not an uncommon experience for those who work as observers of situations of violence, in whatever capacity.)

Applying lessons at home

A year later, when I had gone to work for a women’s organization in Yellowknife, where I lived, I was leaving a meeting held at a local NGO when I saw several young girls at the bottom of the stairs. One was weeping and several were comforting her. I stopped to ask what was the matter, and learned that it was the girl’s birthday and she had had several friends over for a sleepover and then, walking downtown, they had encountered several girls from their school and one had kicked the girl in the head. I invited them to come back upstairs to the office where the meeting had been held and asked how I could help. I told them that if it had been my daughter, I would have called the police, but I didn’t know what their parents would think. She said that she was so afraid of some of the other girls at the school that she regularly carried a knife to school. She also said her father had said that if this happened again, she should call the police, and so I did, and stayed with them til the police came. It took quite a while and the police didn’t seem very interested.

I was very shocked that she felt so afraid that she had to carry a knife to school; she was in grade 7, as I recall. I had always felt our community was so safe, that my daughters could walk to school by themselves. So when I got home, I asked my daughters (who went to the same school) if such bullying was typical. They said, ‘of course, Mum’, as if I was living in a different century. That Saturday, I went to the school to vote (it was our local polling station) and I ran into the principal, who had been the vice principal at my younger daughter’s previous school. I talked to her about this incident, and we agreed to work on finding a way to address this problem.

To make a long story short, I pulled together some local resources (a counsellor who worked with young girls, the community worker at the women’s organization, myself, and the principal) and we organized a six-week course that would be delivered in six one-hour units. We helped the girls learn about the differences between being aggressive, passive and assertive, and what each felt like, and we helped them learn constructive ways to address conflict with friends and in families. For the last unit, we invited an RCMP community liaison representative to speak about community policing.

I remember, during the very first session, as we sat in a circle and each introduced ourselves by our first names (including the principal), being struck by the extent of loss and pain these girls had suffered already in their lives – deaths in the family, family breakups, and so on – and by the way in which they comforted each other. As an adult, it had not occurred to me that their pain could be so real and so extensive, as they seemed so young.

The power of small things

We never spoke about why the course had been organized but in the fifth week, the young girl who had inspired it spoke up and explained that this had happened because of what had happened to her, and told the story – which took great courage. Obviously, she felt empowered in a new way. The principal told me that as a consequence of this course, one young girl had come up to her in a local store and introduced her mother, obviously seeing the principal now as a person and not just a person in authority; she was very touched by this. A year later, on my way home from work, a young girl stopped me. I didn’t recognize her; she was in an army cadet uniform. She explained who she was and said she wanted to thank me, because her life had been changed because of that intervention.

Many local peacebuilders in places like eastern DRC, Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka provide conflict resolution training as a basic building block in their work. It gives people the ability to resolve small problems between people before they turn into bigger problems. It helps people rebuild relationships, rebuild trust, and creates safe places for dialogue where people can learn to work together again.

These are not just lessons for places that we think of as being in conflict and being remote from us. We can learn from their experience in this area, of the importance of learning and teaching others how to resolve conflict and thus, of restoring and enhancing social relationships within communities. In my experience in Canada, we don’t do this routinely in our schools or our workplaces, but we should.

When I see political leaders deal with differences in policy and approach combatively and confrontationally, I wonder how they do not know that they model a way of resolving conflict that is not constructive – it seems to be about who has the most power, and how they can win. This is, at its heart, the problem of conflict in countries all over the world.

As countries, we are more alike than we are different, whether we are called a developed state or a fragile state. We can learn from each other, and in this case, we can learn from countries that have experienced savage conflict that one solution is to teach people how to address conflict effectively – and that we can do this wherever we live. This may seem like a small thing – I don’t think it is.

This blog post is adapted from a post I made on the Art of Hosting list, as part of a discussion about the riots that occurred in London in early August.