Transforming Conflict

by Karen Reixach 
Ithaca Meeting
Clerk of Committee on Conflict Transformation


The more usual way of talking about responding to conflict is conflict resolution or conflict management.  The New York Yearly Meeting Committee on Conflict Transformation bases its work on the sense that conflict is normal, that it is a doorway to deeper engagement with others, with self, and with Spirit, and that addressing conflict requires change. We use the word transformation to emphasize these aspects.


Conflict resolution or conflict management often focuses on the immediate issues and looks for solutions. For example, people have different ideas about First Day School for elementary school-age children. Some parents insist on the importance of education in Quakerism; others feel equally strongly that kids are in school 5 days a week and need time to connect with other children and adults, with Quaker values absorbed through interaction. The First Day School Committee decides on 20-25 minutes of free play as children arrive, 20-25 minutes of Quaker education and 15 minutes in meeting for worship. Conflict “re-solved.” Much good work has been done on approaches to conflict resolution; for example mediation has been used at individual and group levels with good effect.


Conflict transformation looks not only at the presenting problem but also for the underlying dynamics and the resources for change. The challenge of First Day School raises questions of theology: what, how, and even if Quakerism is presented. It may mean that teachers seldom get to participate in meeting for worship. There may be resentments about unrelated issues that are played out around the First Day School issue. Rather than seeing simply the presenting problem (which is not to minimize its importance), conflict transformation seeks to understand the particular episode not in isolation but as part of a network of relationships and embedded in structures that affect the ability to respond constructively to the particular episode and to the underlying dynamics.


John Paul Lederach, a student and practitioner with a bias for conflict transformation, compares the two models—see table below.


Lederach observes, “Rather than seeing peace as a static ‘end-state,’ conflict transformation views peace as a continuously evolving and developing quality of relationship.”


Dialog is an essential part of conflict transformation. Quakers have particular resources in this regard—worship sharing, meeting for worship with a concern for business at the committee level as well as the meeting level, threshing sessions, and the work of AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project).  Our committee engaged Kay Pranis, an expert in using circles processes, to train Friends and others in this ancient and contemporary approach to building community, celebrating, and transforming conflicts.


Friends who wish to explore conflict transformation more deeply might want to read John Paul Lederach’s Little Book of Conflict Transformation and Kay Pranis’s Little Book of Circle Processes. The Committee on Conflict Transformation is available to offer workshops for Quaker groups or to assist meetings and other Quaker groups experiencing conflicts they wish to transform.  Please be aware that we do not have a magic wand to wave and make everything better, that it takes time to get into difficulty and time for transformation to happen.


Table below by John Paul Lederach comparing two methods of responding to conflict. See “Why Conflict Transformation?” by Karen Reixach, above.
  Conflict Resolution Conflict transformation
Key question How do we end something no desired? How do we end something destructive and build something desired?
Focus Content-centered Relationship-centered
Purpose To achieve an agreement and solution to the presenting problem creating the cirsis To promote constructed change processes, inclusive of, but not limited to, immediate solutions
Development of the process Embedded and built around the immediacy of the relationship where the symptoms of disruptions appear To promote constructive change processes, inclusive of, but not limited to, immediate solutions
Time frame Short-term relief to pain, anxiety, and difficulties Mid- to long-range and is intentionally crisis-responsive rather than crisis-driven
View of conflict Envisions the need to de-escalate Envisions conflict as an ecology that is relationally dynamic with ebb (conflict de-escalation to pursue constructive change) and flow (conflict escalation to pursue constructive change)