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Quakers and Conflict

Sara Keeney
On Mediation (January 2020)
Inward Light

In your Quaker meeting, you may have experienced events similar to these: a Friend doesn’t want to be on a committee with another Friend due to a past conflict; two Friends complain about a third party, whom they find to be impossible (yes, it does happen); a Friend speaks up in business meeting about a conflict that is going on, and no one responds or takes any follow-up action.

As Friends, many of us have worked with a variety of programs to learn and practice constructive ways of dealing with conflict. Alternatives to Violence, Compassionate Listening, and Creative Conflict Resolution – all of these have Quaker roots. Many Friends have learned and practiced the method of Nonviolent Communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg. We recognize the value of using these methods, knowing that as practitioners of a Peace Testimony, we can benefit from learning more about ways to resolve conflict. And we often agree with the concept that our own small groups can be laboratories for ways to constructively deal with conflict.

Yet, in my experience, we also sometimes confuse peacefulness with the absence of conflict. Of course, peace needs to include the absence of physical and emotional violence among people. However, because we are human, because we live and work in groups, because we have different perspectives, there most certainly will be conflict, anger, strong hurt feelings, and issues that arise among us and seem irresolvable.

Last summer, during Intermountain Yearly Meeting at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, a group of Friends sat down together to think about conflict in our meetings and how we deal with it. I had long been interested in providing such a seminar, based on training in conflict resolution and mediation that I had practiced professionally for about fifteen years. The tools and strategies I have used are drawn from the fields of mediation and conflict management in business, but in my personal experience, these have also been useful in family and community life. I continue to explore and wrestle with applying this knowledge effectively in Friends meetings.

The seminar started with these queries:

What are some results of conflict in your meeting?

What does Quaker tradition have to offer us for dealing with conflict?

What tools can we bring from conflict-resolution skills trainings to our meetings? What can those tools offer?

Overall, responses to these queries revealed that conflict sometimes has lasting negative impacts on groups such as meetings, but Friends also experience conflicts as opportunities to learn, to understand more deeply, and to be transformationally creative. The conversation also revealed that Friends find much wisdom in our Quaker traditions, and we generated a list of wise counsel from Quaker and Biblical resources.

I highlighted in this seminar a particular conflict management tool that has been continuously useful to me, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Friends participating in the seminar mentioned it positively in the evaluation, as well. The tool provides a dispassionate way to examine the behavior styles we typically use when conflict arises – typical styles of individuals and of meetings.

We start with the premise that conflict is normal and natural, wherever people are working and living together. It often happens that our behavior or response to conflict may cause us to regard it as a negative experience, perhaps even dangerous. But conflict itself is simply a condition in which peoples’ needs, wishes, and perceptions appear to be in opposition. Conflict can be an opportunity for growth, change, and improvement. However, our behavior during conflict is key. And our behavior is based on deeply ingrained experiences, drawn from cultural teachings and fears. Our responses may be more automatic than we realize. We may proceed down one path of behavior, unaware that we might have other choices.

We each have a personal typical style of responding in a conflict. Whole Quaker meetings do, too. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a helpful tool for analyzing dynamics in a conflict situation. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann designed the tool in the early 70s, based on earlier work by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, who analyzed ways managers work with conflict in the business setting. Friends who are interested can take an online survey (www.takethetki.com) to help identify their own personal conflict styles.

The chart defines five positions that express different balances between meeting one’s own needs and the needs of the other person.

Avoidance (lower left) – a low level for meeting needs or satisfaction for both parties

Competition (upper left) – a high level for meeting one’s own needs and a low level for meeting the other person’s needs

Accommodation (lower right) – a low level for meeting one’s own needs and a high level for meeting the other person’s needs

Compromise (middle) – a middle level of meeting needs or satisfaction for both parties

Collaboration (upper right) – a high level of meeting needs or satisfaction for both parties

In the seminar, we reflected on our personal conflict styles and the styles we have observed in groups – especially Quaker meetings. We reflected on the implications of the different styles. Each style has advantages and disadvantages. Different styles have different cultural and gender associations, based on our socialization. We considered how our Friends meetings are socialized toward certain styles. And we considered the advantages and disadvantages of different styles for Quaker meetings.

The seminar broke into five working groups, one for each style in the Thomas-Kilmann Inventory, and each group produced three lists about the style that they were considering: 1) disadvantages of the style, 2) advantages of the style, and 3) common “sayings” about the style. The complete lists are published in full in the Western Friend online library, along with a couple of other related resources (westernfriend.org/media/conflict-quaker-meetings-resources). Below are some samples from each group’s list:

  • Disadvantage: Chronic resentment may build
  • Advantage: Buy time for people to calm down
  • Saying: “Leave well enough alone.”
  • Disadvantage: Doormat factor
  • Advantage: Nurturing – may be needed for children, elders
  • Saying: “The customer is always right.”
  • Disadvantage: Hard feelings, may damage relationships, can cause escalation
  • Advantage: Higher achievement
  • Saying: “The best defense is a good offense.”
  • Disadvantage: Less satisfaction for all
  • Advantage: Both parties may agree the solution is fair
  • Saying: “Even-Steven.”
  • Disadvantage: Requires skill, practice, courage, patience
  • Advantage: May create more opening to new ideas, strengthens relationships
  • Saying: “We’re in this together.”

Looking at all this material during the seminar reminded me, once again, to open up my thinking about conflict and my response to it. I noticed that I can easily default to avoidance (my personal style, based on upbringing), but I also know that my response doesn’t have to be automatic. I can remember that I have a choice. Many other seminar participants described having similar insights.

We also noticed that, as Friends, we place a high value on collaboration, even though we often feel a lack of skill or “way forward” to move effectively into collaboration. Friends described experiences of feeling excluded from collaborative processes or times when attempts at collaboration actually seemed to sabotage agreements. To me, those experiences indicate that we could use training in how to collaborate effectively – to ensure that all are included, that all communicate their needs, that the solution truly works for all, and that we can re-open dialogue if necessary. One skill we can start to build right away is to let go of some fear of conflict by recognizing we can make a choice about our response.

Competition – or assertively putting forward our own needs – is a response that Friends may look down upon, yet we use it all the time when we protest public policies or call attention to situations that need to be changed. Although, granted, we typically protest with nonviolent strategies, lowering the risk of escalation.

Avoidance and accommodation – also frequently denigrated – can actually be useful in the short term, allowing time to develop longer-term ways to more deeply deal with issues, or to temporarily restore harmony. Compromise, similarly, can be handy in a lower-stakes conflict that needs a quick solution, when solutions perceived as “fair,” if not highly satisfactory, are sufficient.

Our seminar about Quakers and conflict reminded us that different styles of conflict can be useful in different situations – based on the advantages and disadvantages of the style, and the needs of the particular situation and the individuals involved. Over time, perhaps Friends will grow more comfortable with conflict, knowing we can make informed choices about our responses, rather than automatically defaulting to the styles we are most socialized to or are most comfortable with.

Here are some queries that you might consider with other Friends in your meeting:

How could you use knowledge about conflict styles to examine your meeting’s responses to conflicts in the meeting? To examine your personal responses?

How familiar are Friends in your meeting with skills for moving toward collaboration? How skilled are Friends at listening? At stating feelings and needs?

What structures are present in your meeting for working together to come up with mutually satisfying solutions when conflict arises?

As Friends, most of us live in mainstream American culture, which influences us toward valuing competition. We may personally place a high value on collaboration, but we might have little actual practice in collaborating. Even so, the more we try to collaborate, the more we will expand our awareness of collaboration skills that we want to develop. The more we work to develop those skills, the more we may choose to create systems to support collaboration in our Friends meetings. The more we develop such systems, the more we can be patterns and examples for healthy conflict resolution in our world.  D

Sara Keeney is a life-long Friend and has been a member of Albuquerque Friends Meeting (IMYM) for forty years. She is a retired educator, having worked as a teacher and principal. During the 90s, she worked with a community mediation center in Albuquerque, doing statewide work with peer mediation programs.

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