University News

Bitter or Better? Conflict as a Force for Well-Being at Mason

by Whitney Hopler, Communications Manager

Conflict is a part of all our lives. Often, it’s the destructive type of conflict that grabs our attention: political candidates insult each other, road rage causes an accident, an argument with a friend or romantic partner leads to estrangement. But conflict can be a positive force for well-being. Using conflict in constructive ways can help us learn valuable lessons that empower us to become stronger, conflict experts around Mason said.

“Conflict can often be so painful and so destructive. But it can also be a learning opportunity,” said Susan Allen, director of the Center for Peacemaking Practice and an associate professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. “Stepping back to see what we can learn from the situation will help make sure that the pain isn’t wasted, but put to good use to solve problems or increase understanding.”

No matter what issue is causing conflict between people, they always have the choice between approaching the conflict negatively or positively, said Dr. Nance Lucas, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. For instance, she said, students who are experiencing conflict as roommates on campus – a common issue – can get stuck in arguments if they view conflict in negative terms. But they can resolve the issue and improve their relationship by seeing conflict as a tool to improve both of their situations. “Instead of thinking of just winners and losers, they could think of mutual winning solutions. If conflict is approached creatively and productively, it can be a positive force for change for the better.”

Conflict always leads to change of some kind, so it’s important to try to use it for positive change, said Patricia Maulden, associate professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. “… all change comes in response to some type of conflict and conflict is more often a positive and productive influence than it is negative and destructive. We can easily see the negative and destructive aspects of conflict but cannot perhaps discern the more quiet forms of human engagement with conflict to solve problems. Socially and culturally we often attribute conflict as ‘bad’ and acquiescence or avoidance as ‘good.’ As a conflict analysis and resolution scholar and practitioner I would argue (taking violent forms of conflict out of this calculation) that the attribution of bad and good needs to be in reverse order.”

Maulden regularly brings students together to discuss their conflicting views on controversial topics, through Mason’s Dialogue & Difference Project. The project’s goal is to “provide a place where a variety of opinions, understandings, and views on the topic of discussion may be freely spoken and heard,” Maulden said. “The student-facilitated, structured table conversations provide an environment where contention is welcomed, opinions, views, ideas are expected, but where each participant has the responsibility to speak from their own perspective and to actively listen rather than interrupting, debating, or waiting for the person to finish prior to saying what they wanted to say anyway. There is no work toward consensus but rather toward understanding of different views and perspectives. … The dialogue provides a forum where different perspectives can be respectfully heard and questioned and where individuals can speak of their own ideas and experiences without sanction. In these ways, the potential for learning exists but certainly cannot be forced.”

Learning the most from external conflicts becomes possible when people are willing to deal with their internal conflicts first, said Dr. Mark Thurston, director of educational programs for the well-being center, and a psychology professor who teaches Mason’s “Conflict Transformation from the Inside Out” course. “External conflict is much more likely to be transformative in a positive way if we can first work constructively with our own internal conflicts,” he said. “Most all of us have an ongoing battle within ourselves, especially between voices of criticism and defensiveness. If we can find a way to work constructively with this kind of internal conflict then we stand a chance of carrying that process over into the way we deal with conflicts that involve others. The starting point for ‘conflict transformation from the inside out’ is to practice witnessing our own emotions and thoughts – that is, to mindfully achieve some ‘space’ from the internal battles and to learn how to dis-identify from the internal voice of the self-judgmental accuser, as well as the voice of defensive victim. Once we remember a centered place in our own consciousness that is neither of these combative poles, then some understanding and reconciliation becomes possible.”

Understanding is a vital part of the process, said Chelsie Kuhn, project coordinator for the well-being center. “One way to manage conflict is simply to try and understand why there is conflict in the first place. This requires some degree of acceptance of what is and taking responsibility for how you may have played into it over the course of time.”

One highlight of parties resolving intense conflict through understanding each other better happened at Mason’s Point of View retreat center in 2008, Allen said. The center brought Georgians and South Ossetians together after their war in the nation of Georgia ended. By learning about each other’s perspectives on a dam and other infrastructure both groups used, they were able to “cooperate with each other to provide water to both sides,” she said.

“Asking great questions and sitting back and letting people talk rather than going in with all the answers” is often an effective strategy for making progress in a conflict, said Lucas.

“Be fully present when you’re listening to someone so that you hear beyond their words to their emotions,” Allen added.

Students may encounter all sorts of conflicts during their time in college, but those conflicts can enrich their learning experience, said Kuhn. “If students enter into conflict with a growth mindset, meaning that they see it as an opportunity to learn and ask questions, then transformation can be more likely. In my opinion, not all conflict can or will be resolved, but the more we try to transform how we show up, the more likely we are to listen, create space, and find ways to think creatively about how to move forward.”