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Conflict, collaboration and the courage to work with both

Colleen Magner
April, 2016


This article explores the notions of conflict, collaboration and having the courage to work with both. 

I was recently asked to write a motivation letter to participate in a global programme for people who work in post-conflict countries in transition. The inquiry centers around how we create environments for healing and constructing new relationships, particularly between historically polarised groups, those who previously considered each other “the enemy”.

My colleague Adam Kahane is currently writing a blog series, culminating in a book called: “Collaborating with the Enemy: An Open Way to Work with People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust.” The starting point of the book is that collaboration isn’t necessarily the best option. Sometimes we need to fight. Choosing to collaborate is a pragmatic choice, often when high levels of complexity exist, and where a clear way forward is not apparent.

With this choice in mind, when I sat down to write the letter, I realised that I can’t automatically fall back on my usual paradigm:  that in highly polarised contexts, working things out together is the best option. February has been filled with conversations asking questions of what’s going on in the country and where the work of Reos is most relevant.

On those quiet, hot and dry days, the conversations have conjured apocalyptic visions of drought, economic meltdown, increasing divisions of race and class; a loud message of bad times ahead. How do we make sense of it all and find a place that feels constructive, or in the words of the motivational letter’s inquiry: creating spaces of healing and new relationships that address the problems at hand?

Ironically, my first article in this series was: “Why disillusionment could be a good thing”. In that piece, I suggested that disillusionment is a good thing because it forces us to find another entry point to solving a problem, and not just going at it in the way we’re used to. I’m used to addressing problems with an approach that typically starts with creating a sustained process with a systems-wide, concerned, invested and influential group of people. But in this increasingly intense and polarized context we find ourselves in, what is  an alternative entry point? One of the key principles of systems thinking is that one can’t change a system from the outside. Unless you acknowledge you are part of the problem you can’t change it. When I was asked to sit and think about how to create environments for healing and new relationships, it occurred to me that the starting point might be to explore how am I part of the problem.

What would happen if I let go of the belief that to create healing and new relationships to foster progress in South Africa is simply to collaborate?  This question is really forcing me to look inward to think about how I might be part of the problem, and that my own reflections might allow for spaces of healing and new relationships.  Secondly, are there moments when I should choose confrontation over collaboration, and how does that enable space for healing and new relationships? I’m much more comfortable with collaboration than facing conflict.  To think about using these two approaches together feels both unfamiliar and pretty scary.

They are particularly scary because in my previous experiences of both introspection and facing conflict when working with healing, I have needed to open up to pain – my own and others. And I’m starting to see that the path to healing isn’t in a completed experience of pain, it is in being “in it” with others over and over again, and transcending the experience with new insights and often new relationships.

But we all know the antidote to unfamiliarity isn’t fear. It’s curiosity. And curiosity only comes with a dose of courage, which this invitation is asking of me (and others). It’s a good reminder to listen to Maya Angelou’s wise words: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

This article is part of a series “Moving Through Tough Terrain”.

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