A New Approach to Engaging With Our Conflicts

by Tom Rothschild 
Brooklyn Meeting
(now attending Strawberry Creek Meeting)


It’s time to take a fresh look at “conflict “and how we respond to it and engage with it—or all too often, run away from it and pretend it doesn’t exist, particularly when it’s within our meeting or involves us personally.


From almost our beginning as an organized religious group, Quakers have spoken out against “all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons” and declared this to be “our testimony to the whole world.” We have proclaimed this testimony far and wide, feeding, healing, and welcoming those whom our nation names as enemies, calling on those engaged in battle to make peace. We continue to carry this tradition of public witness today, “speaking truth to power,” in the words of Bayard Rustin, on many issues and in many places.


At the same time, at least within our own community, Quakers today seem to be very conflict-averse. Confronted with unpleasant situations of conflict within our own meetings, we often tend to deny their existence, walk away, or put responsibility on others. When we do this, we miss opportunities to respond creatively, restore community, resolve issues.


Over almost two decades of working with meetings and other organizations trying to resolve conflicts and find a place of unity and community, I have found that many, not only Quakers, avoid seeking help because they are reluctant to acknowledge internal conflict. They may, however, be more open if the situation is framed differently. A recent experience underlined this for me. A religious organization needed to set goals and plan for use of assets and property. Opinions ranged from “sell everything and give to the poor,” to renting space to other organizations, to long-term investments to cover future maintenance costs. They were sure they wanted my help to begin charting their course, and equally sure that the organization had no “conflict.” The process we created was not dependent on whether or not there was in fact any explicit “conflict,” and at the same time addressed all the salient issues. This process left them feeling confident of their capability to continue the work on their own.


The sum of my experience leads me to propose a fresh approach, not insisting on the word “conflict” (or euphemisms), while still acknowledging the reality of the situation, whatever it may be. Let us be open to simply identifying matters and situations needing discernment, decision, finding unity, without necessarily requiring further categorization.


We Friends have understandings and tools that we have developed over the lifetime of our Society, for listening, for spiritual discernment, that can help us find resolution—and spiritual growth—whether or not we  explicitly name the situation as one of “conflict.” We understand this work as a spiritual practice, in which we can grow, individually and corporately, and we understand the need for patience.


This approach can render us more open to take the first step and face concrete issues directly. This does not mean avoiding or denying conflict; indeed, to do so would be extremely counterproductive, even potentially dangerous. We simply start working on what needs work, alert to whatever may arise. And once people are actually engaged, they will often be more open to recognizing and dealing with conflict, whether incipient, hidden or full-blown, if they find it standing in their way. Then our skills of discernment, of listening can lead us forward, until we can see the matter clearly; and the conflict, if there is truly a conflict, will emerge from the shadows to a place where all can see and acknowledge it—in which case we can respond to it with all the understanding we have.