Rev. Andrea Ayvazian: Facing up to conflict in a community
NORTHAMPTON — Last week my friend Jeremy, who lives in Point Reyes, Calif., wrote in an email that he needed my help. He said that in his town — a remote community inside a national seashore — folks were divided and bitter due to a serious conflict that had torn them apart.
He said everyone had “taken sides” and even old friends were not talking to one another. At the heart of the conflict is an oyster company. The Department of the Interior insists that the oyster company must vacate the area because a commercial operation cannot exist in a wilderness setting. Now the community is divided down the middle: the two sides being those who “stand with the oyster company” and those who want to “protect the environment.” I had read about this conflict in the New York Times, but did not expect to hear from Jeremy, who thought maybe I could offer some advice about how to heal a community.
Jeremy’s message made me think of the community I love in Northampton and how we also seem to have been torn apart by the override vote.
No matter which side each of us stood or which way we voted, I believe all of us are sorry that the override has become a wedge in our community and a source of pain and conflict.
And before the override, there was the issue of the benches — but that issue was less intense and conflicted.
What I wrote to Jeremy, and what I keep telling myself as I reflect on the pain in our own community, is that conflict is an ever-present reality in human relations. We should not be afraid of it, make it more dramatic than it is, think it is a rare anomaly, or avoid talking about it.
Social science research has shown that the closer the community, the more intense the conflict. Furthermore, researchers say that when a community faces conflict, the goal is not to completely resolve the conflict — that rarely happens. The goal is to manage the conflict in such a way that it does not have a lasting destructive power that damages the community for years to come.
Social scientists tell us that there are three methods to end conflict: Avoidance, which often leads to intensified hostility and may cause greater problems in the future; conquest, which is when one side wins and the other side, crushed, retreats in despair (the pain of the loss then goes underground and resurfaces later); and resolution of some kind by creating a sense of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is not some naïve form of forgive and forget, all is now well, we are miraculously healed. Reconciliation is the difficult decision to move forward in harmony — even though people still disagree and are hurt.
Mediators and scholars in the field of conflict resolution write that those in conflict need to remember that everyone involved loves their community. Everyone involved is proud of their community. And everyone involved wants their community to thrive. We are told to ask ourselves: What is more important, my love for my community or my need to be right and hold fast to my anger and firm opinions? I have also read this important sentence: Someone can have an opinion that is different from yours and still not be wrong.
Resolving conflict depends on creating settings in which people can communicate their feelings, hopes and thoughts about creative solutions in forums that have clear ground rules and guidelines, are respectful and are skillfully facilitated. The literature on conflict resolution discusses these community gatherings as a way to air feelings and set the stage for reconciliation.
Researchers suggest a variety of methods to help large groups of people talk about difficult issues in a controlled and productive fashion.
The first is the “fish bowl method” which involves six chairs in a circle in the middle of a room with people in those chairs talking to one another openly, but one chair must always be empty. When a listener from the audience wants to speak, she/he comes forward, takes the empty chair, and then someone in the circle must leave.
Another strategy has “representatives” from each side of the issue speak to one another in front of a community gathering. The representatives do not have as their goal winning a debate or argument; their goal is to find common ground, voice shared values, and express ways to resolve the conflict. Only the appointed representatives up front can speak for the first 45 minutes, then the floor is open to comments and reactions from the gathered group. People need to be reminded to focus on issues, not people.
Communities in conflict must remember that people can disagree with one another and still live in harmony. Harmony does not mean singing the same note, it means singing different notes that do not clash. We need to keep in mind that our love for this community and our shared history in knitting this community together can emerge as unifying themes. We can all move forward with a sense of hope.
The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church, writes a monthly column on faith, culture and politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.