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Natural Awakenings Atlanta


Conflict Resolutions that Work to Bridge Divides

by Linda Sechrist

Healing happens when we handle conflict in a healthy and transformative way.

Call to Action

Thirty years ago, notable voices began urging Americans to embrace a sustainable worldview of unity in diversity, recognizing our core oneness as a solution to an increasingly out-of-balance society. Success in this endeavor depends primarily on the “habits of the heart” of our citizens, developed in local milieus of families, neighbourhoods, classrooms, congregations, voluntary associations, workplaces and places where strangers gather.

Activating Answers

While mainstream media often largely focuses on the negative aspects of conflict — discord, divisiveness, intolerance, violence, incivility, injustice, chaos and complex problems—a counter movement is convening constructive conversations. Participants are initiating dialogue and deliberations intended to resolve conflicts and create cohesiveness, collaboration, cooperation and compromise among local factions that disagree on how to deal with everything from health care and social justice to environmental protection and climate science. Educational training materials and books are giving outdated models of conflict resolution a facelift.

In The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America, Sarah Van Gelder devotes a chapter to a Greensboro, North Carolina, battle over a story about a deadly, racially charged incident from the city’s recent past. She quotes James Lamar Gibson, a 20-something African- American activist and core organizer for the Counter Stories Project: “We’ve been stuck in an old conversation for a couple of decades. We want to have an army of people with restorative conversation skills, so we can get past the divisiveness and imagine together a different sort of Greensboro,” he says. The project began with facilitator training, and then developed story circles in which residents were able to have the difficult discussions that don’t ordinarily take place among the police, city council, churches and social agencies.

Today’s conflict resolution experts are discovering that conflict is an essential and powerful call for applying spiritual principles and exercising spiritual practices.

Provocative Questions

“What if we considered conflict as a secret ally or a guidepost, showing us what really matters to us and how much we care? What if our intense emotions are sources of invincible energy, with the power to build the world we want, together? What does having conflict in a healthy and transformative way look like?” queries Ma’ikwe Ludwig, executive director of Commonomics USA, an organization which educates and advocates for a world where a commons-based economy creates economic and ecological security for all.

“Conflict has the power to bring to the surface what’s really at stake and to unite people toward a common goal,” advises Ludwig. Her thought-provoking questions can help shift perceptions toward the idea that we need to use conflict; maybe even welcome it.

Ludwig, author of Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, recently helped present new perspectives on conflict resolution during a webinar for Transition US members interested in creating inclusive and diverse communities through collaboration. The non-profit inspires, encourages, supports and provides networking and training for grassroots initiatives seeking to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as oil spills, climate change and economic crises.

Courtney Breese, managing director for the non-profit National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) and her colleagues, together with thousands of innovative thinkers, are helping by introducing people to simple dialogue and deliberation structures, processes and resources that invite

A community is a group that can fight gracefully… Chaos is not just a state; it is an essential process of community development. ~Dr. M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace
leading to constructive civic engagement. Breese remarks, “We’re open to working with anyone interested in learning processes that can help bridge divides. We also like sharing stories about what is working.”


The group’s downloadable free tools help newcomers: A beginner’s guide for exploring dialogue (; a how-to-guide for Conversation Café (CC) hosts (; and the American Library Association Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change Project ( “To date, we’ve had at least 800 librarians participate in free NCDD webinars,” Breese notes.

CC is a simple tool useful in exploring difficult topics and provides a safe space to process different perspectives. “Initial agreement on basic rules includes suspending judgment while listening and seeking to understand others, refraining from persuading or converting and talking only from personal experience,” explains Breese.

One new network member, J. Scott Wagner, author of The Liberal’s Guide to Conservatives, speaks about the importance of using neutral language in dialogue. “I learned from him how words can be emotional triggers and signal one-sided perspectives, leaving some group members feeling angry or excluded because they feel the speaker won’t be open to hearing their perspective,” says Breese.

After three tours of the U.S. and hundreds of interviews with conservative individuals, Wagner, founder of the non-profit Reach the Right, was inspired to use his knowledge of five arenas—neurology/cognitive psychology, personality, bias, social conformity and morality—to help progressives understand conservatives that are not only their political leaders, but also their relatives, partners, friends and managers.

He offers a simple explanation for anyone drenched in inaccurate biases. “We inherit unconscious genetic personality characteristics that lead us to develop our ideology, with which we construct our world and align with others that are in agreement. Differences in our personality characteristics are the culprits that create conflict.”

Community Need Erases Enmity

Drawing on 25 years of experience of enabling sworn enemies to create peace in places such as South Africa, Northern Ireland and Colombia, Adam Kahane, author of Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, shares insights into the “enemyfying syndrome” that instigates conflict.

This habit of thinking and acting as if people we are dealing with are our enemies and the cause of our problems is all around us and dominates the media. “The enemies are always the others, ‘those people.’ Enemyfying, which feels exciting and satisfying— even righteous and heroic—usually obscures, rather than clarifies, the reality of the challenges we face. It amplifies conflicts, narrows the space for problem solving and creativity, and distracts us with unrealizable dreams of decisive victory from the real work we need to do,” observes Kahane.

Kahane sees the challenge of conflict becoming more acute. “People today are generally more free, individualistic and diverse, with more voice and less deference. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are growing.” Yet, contrary to the common view, it is possible for people that hold contradictory positions to find ways to collaborate.

That’s what he and 40 others representing military officers, guerrillas and paramilitaries; activists and politicians; businesspeople and trade unionists; landowners and peasants; and academics, journalists and young people, accomplished in the Destino Colombia project. They organized to contribute to ending their country’s 52-year civil war.

Motivated to Act

Jonathan Bender, founder of The Performance of Your Life, a public speaking and personal development business, has been on a lifelong quest of fostering personal growth and societal transformation. His therapeutic classes and workshops.

The Language of Compassion

A powerful tool for peacefully resolving differences at personal, professional, and political levels, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion guides us to reframe how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of “habitual, automatic reactions,” he writes, “our words become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are led to express our- selves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention.”

While most of us will never have the opportunity to guide warring factions abroad, most certainly we can use the insights from Rosenberg to create a more peaceful and loving home environment. NVC aims to change our patterns of blaming, judging and criticizing others to focus instead on what is being observed, felt and needed. When we spotlight our own perceptions, we mitigate resistance, defensiveness and violence.

Using the four components of NVC, we learn to see clearly our own behavior, rather than point the nger at someone else. They are:

  1. Observation: the concrete actions you observe that a ects your well-being;
  2. Feelings: how you are feeling in relation to the observation;
  3. Needs: accepting responsibility for what needs, values and desires creating yoru feelings;
  4. Requests: concrete actions you request in order to enrich your life.
One conditioned response to a situation might go like this:

“I can’t stand your smoking! You are driving me crazy. You need to quit or I’m leaving!”

Instead, using the 4 components of NVC, our compassionate communication might go like this:

An example of observation without evaluation, judgement or criticism:

“When I see you smoking”

An example of feelings:

“I feel scared that I could lose you too soon from a smoking-related disease”

Non-feeling words generally mean we are interpreting others such as: abandoned, ignored, attacked, betrayed, intimidated. ose are still pointing at what you think others are doing to you. is is not a feeling.

An example of needs:

“Because I want to grow old with you and continue sharing this wonderful life.”

Notice instead of pointing out what’s wrong with them, you talk about your needs. “ e more directly we can connect our feelings to our needs, the easier it is for others to respond compas- sionately,” writes Rosenberg.

An example of a speci c request:

“Would you be willing to look for di erent ways that might help you stop smoking?”

It’s important that your request doesn’t sound like a demand, or that blame or punishment will follow if they don’t comply; your request is for a willing participant to eventually ful ll everyone’s needs.

There are many more gems to be discovered in Rosenberg’s book including examples and exercises for compassionate communication, how to express anger, the cost of unexpressed feelings, and resolving internal con icts, to name a few. While the work is not necessarily easy because it is a consciousness shi from the conditioned ways we express ourselves, it is worth the ef- fort to allow compassion to blossom, enrich- ing your life and those around you.

Resources for Nonviolent Communication:

  • Search for local practice groups
  • The Companion Workbook byLucy Leu
  • Additional writings by Rosenberg available on
  • The Center for Nonviolent Communication
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