Overview

Conflict transformation is the art of turning animosity, hatred, and domination into a spirit of collaboration, creativity, and community. 

Origins

Conflict transformation is a growing field of study and is a relatively new term, but it is not a new idea. It is inspired by people’s movements around the world such as:

  • The Indian Satyagraha non-violent resistance movement and the work of Mahatma Gandhi
  • African American Christian theological traditions, U.S. Civil Rights, and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King
  • South American liberation theology and the work of scholars and activists like Gustavo Gutierrez
  • The South African anti-apartheid movement and the work of Nelson Mandela, as well as the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Mennonite Christian pacifist tradition, specifically the work of Dr. John Paul Lederach at Notre Dame University
  • Indigenous peacemaking movements

The Dream of Conflict Transformation

The dream of conflict transformation is to end cycles of hostility and violence and build a healthier and more equitable world. Many practitioners find motivation through religious teachings or virtue codes, but the practice doesn’t necessarily need to have a theological component. Most universally, it falls into the realm of social ethics — in other words, the study and practice of treating each other rightly.

The reason conflict transformation is so challenging is that hostility tends to escalate and warp our perspective of how we ought to treat each other. When we are gridlocked into animosity, non-violent resistance or creative approaches to conflict can seem passive, weak, or strange.

However, conflict transformation is incredibly powerful. Each of the movements in the Origins section above has had an incredible impact on political and cultural realities. The secret is not just in the method — the “how” of transforming conflict — but in the approach — the “why.” Instead of rushing to resolve or simply trying to contain damage, conflict transformation practitioners focus on repairing systemic power imbalances and healing broken relationships.

Instead of rushing to resolve or simply trying to contain damage, conflict transformation practitioners focus on repairing systemic power imbalances and healing broken relationships.

Conflict transformation is often paired with the idea of restorative justice, which draws from indigenous wisdom traditions around the world that value restoring someone to right relationship and standing in the community instead of punishing them. In restorative justice models, motivation and power dynamics are crucial. Conflict transformation seeks to make space for understanding how power functions within conflict and how larger systems must be addressed before individual relationships can be mended or improved.

Conflict Transformation vs. Conflict Resolution

Few scholars who work in conflict studies use the term “conflict transformation,” but the term is growing in recognition because it’s goals are quite distinct from a traditional conflict resolution approach. In fact, some practitioners like myself advocate that when we focus on resolution, it can cause us to miss important steps of healing relationships and root causes of the conflict, like fear and power imbalances. Committing ourselves to resolution can prevent us from really seeing each other and creating together. Especially in situations of impasse where resolution is not possible, seeking or forcing resolution can be a distraction.

It is true that in some situations, trying to find a resolution is highly practical. But consider for a moment that the term conflict resolution seems to presume that conflict itself is a problem — something negative, something we need to fix or get rid of. This approach often misses the value of conflict and disagreement in our lives. When engaged meaningfully, conflict and disagreement can make our ideas and relationships stronger. Conflict is not inherently a problem; it’s a natural part of life. What makes the difference is how we choose to act within conflict.

Approach Comparison

Conflict Resolution

Conflict Transformation

Conflict is bad.

Conflict provides important opportunities to learn and grow.

The “other side” is my opponent or enemy.

The “other side” is my conversation partner and fellow human.

We should agree and get along.

We should collaborate and create healthier ways of interacting.

The highest priority is finding a solution that can solve the conflict.

The highest priority is understanding each other and building stronger relationships, so we can create trust and longevity.

We should end conflict.

We should identify and disarm the destructive underlying causes of conflict and build something better.

Conflict is making me uncomfortable and anxious. End these bad feelings now.

I am uncomfortable and anxious, but I won’t let these feelings rule my contributions. In the long term, working through hard feelings will be worth it.

Ambiguity is a sign of failure; one voice deserves to win.

Ambiguity is a sign of paradox; many voices deserve to be heard.

Success means moving on despite long-term consequences.

Success means seeing with new eyes and creating a positive, collaborative plan of action, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Adapted from The Little Book of Conflict Transformation by John Paul Lederach

How Brave Talk uses a Conflict Transformation Approach

Conflict transformation is as much a field of study as it is an attitude and an approach. There is no one single way to do it, but there are many helpful resources that can help. My forthcoming book Brave Talk is designed to help people grow in this art on an interpersonal level. It combines rigorous scholarship in ethics, rhetoric, and psychology with engaging storytelling and interactive lessons that are accessible to a general audience. It is not meant to be applied in situations of outright violence, maliciousness, war, or abuse where professional intervention is needed. It is designed to help individuals reshape their relationship with conflict and develop better skills for navigating it on a day-to-day level.

I am passionate about providing people with opportunities to change their relationship with conflict because we all have to live in a conflicted world, and we all deserve access to skills that can help us navigate it. Learn more about the book here.

 

Melody Stanford Martin - 14 posts

Melody Stanford Martin is a social ethicist and communications expert helping people of all ages develop skills of courageous dialogue and conflict transformation. She is the author of Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict (Broadleaf Books, 2020) and the Founder of Brave Talk Project.

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