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Navigating Conflict with Grace and Empathy

By Nicole Bauman and Susan Grove

Non-violent communication is one the practices we see as preparing us to be effective collaborators and more empathetic when we face tension and conflict.

Are you committed to your Good Work, but find conflict getting in the way of deeper collaboration and preventing movement toward your full potential and goals? 

All of us carry a certain amount of baggage. 

Old tensions and unprocessed hurts fester, impacting trust and straining working relationships. Not feeling seen, heard, or understood makes it difficult to partner meaningfully. Perhaps you’re feeling stressed and exhausted, without enough support to tend to difficult relational dynamics, or the way in which systemic oppression plays out around you. You may feel like there’s never enough time. And you may experience heartbreak and anger and grief at the loss of connection with your colleagues and collaborators, and at how conflict gets in the way of actually being able to do the important work you care about; work that you are trying to move forward together.

Why does conflict often cause such painful or alienating reactions in us? 

Our brains are wired to scan for danger. Our nervous systems have evolved to sound the alarm at the first sign of threat, all in service of our protection. We are seldom aware of our automatic brain functions, the ones that regulate our fight/flight/freeze/appease responses and emotions, ; they are constantly checking the environment for triggers or clues, saying, “Am I safe? Do I belong?”

Is it any wonder, then, that we can become so quickly activated at the first hint of conflict? Our various micro- and macro-traumas are stirred up, and suddenly we’re fighting tooth and nail for what may feel like our very survival.

When we’re activated, we may tend to look for a culprit and seek resolution through blame. It’s my fault! Or, it’s your fault! Or, I toggle back and forth between blaming you and me. 

The question is: does blame lead toward the connection, understanding, and ease we long for in our working relationships? And if not, what other ways are possible?

We have experienced a different way to deal with tension and conflict. This way honors our longing for connection and starts by practicing methods of calming our nervous systems in the face of conflict. When we’re activated, instead of heading for blame, we can receive from ourselves or others the kind of empathy that leads to clarity about what we’re feeling and why.

Being seen, heard and understood, through empathetic communication, can help our brains relax, knowing we’re safe. By learning to be present with our own big feelings, we can grow our empathic capacity – our windows of welcome – in ways that allow us to be with the big feelings of others. From a more grounded place of clarity, calm and capacity, we may gain more inner space and resilience to consider what might be happening inside others involved in the conflict. 

Using the practices of non-violent communication, we can avoid being stuck in a loop of blame – I blame myself/you, you blame yourself/me, and around and around we go – and instead we can show up with greater openness and a desire to understand what’s going on at a deeper level. We can connect to what’s important to each person. 

What are we feeling? What needs, values or longings are connected to our feelings?

Understanding these things, we can connect with ourselves and others, opening the way to more abundant and creative strategies for honoring our different needs with greater ease and helping us move away from pursuing what’s important to us in ways that generate tension. This way of navigating our experience of difficult feelings comes from the field of relational neuroscience and the practice of nonviolent communication.  

There are a number of simple nonviolent communication tools. Simple, but not easy. They invite us into an ongoing practice. Through repetition, we can forge new connections in our brains that support us when we choose to move beyond the blame game in our approach to conflict. If you are familiar with nonviolent communication, this guidance for practicing offering and receiving empathy with a buddy may feel supportive. 

If you are not familiar with nonviolent communication or you’d like to deepen your practice, we welcome you to join us for our 7-week course entitled Navigating Conflict: Building Skills for Connection and Resilience, starting September 22, 2021.

In GWI’s efforts to align what we do and offer with Just Transition (JT), we are deepening our understanding of the Just Transition framework (also available in Spanish) and the guidance it provides. It helps us see clearly that the current dominant economy is extractive and fails to ensure the well-being of people and our shared planetary home. It paints a picture of the just, regenerative economy we are seeking to collectively amplify. It guides us in what to DO, offering a set of principles we can focus on weaving into our Good Work to build a regenerative economy. It invites us to rethink how to BE in preparation for a culture centered on care and for work driven by cooperation, suggesting practices that can lead to greater mindfulness, collaboration, connection with place and nature, creativity and conflict resilience.

Nicole Bauman is a white, middle class, queer, genderqueer, farmer, healer, facilitator, movement builder and parent, rooted in community and organizing in the Rust Belt city of Elkhart, IN (occupied Potawatomi territory). Nonviolent Communication and Somatics have been empowering tools for Nicole’s own personal healing and transformation, and has also increased their capacity to show up more skillfully to communication, conflict and collaboration, interpersonally and within the movement. Nicole’s embodiment and teaching of this work is deeply shaped and informed by their own parenting journey, as well as years of work as a birth doula and yoga teacher, and a decade of living in an intentional community. Nicole is also training to become a certified Healing-Centered Coach.

Susan Grove is a GWI Worker Trustee. You can learn more about her work here.

Photo credit: GWI archives. Pictured are Vibha Chokhani and KC (Kyralesa Wiley), GWI Fellows from our 3rd cohort.

New and emerging, this Resources section of our website will share articles, blog posts, and materials to provide an insight into the practices and skills we believe are needed for Just Transition, including tools for collaboration, conflict resilience, and sharing power. Join our mailing list to hear about updates and new releases.

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