The ABC's of Conflict Literacy

Updated: May 7, 2020



Our friends at the Conflict Transformation Fund explain that Conflict Literacy begins with seeing conflict as an opportunity for growth and positive change. It also involves learning, practicing, and weaving together a range of concepts, skills, and tools that allow you to understand and work skillfully with conflict.


These ten core competencies were curated based on the collective wisdom of over two dozen leading thinkers, innovators, and practitioners in the conflict transformation arena.


1. Adopt a Positive Attitude About Conflict

Conflict isn't a bad thing. But our response to it can be. Conflict itself reveals what's important to each of us, and it's an opportunity for understanding, creativity, and positive change. But most of us do everything we can to avoid it. When you approach conflict with curiosity, humility, and flexibility, you're more likely to appreciate the nuance and complexity of the situation. It also helps to recognize that even in your certainty, you might be wrong – or at least hold only a partial truth. You can commit to engage intentionally with others, even if they don’t share the same attitudes and beliefs. When even just one party in a conflict shows up competently, it can have a massive positive influence on the outcome.


2. Find a Basic Framework to Understand Conflict

Conflict can be complicated. It helps if you go in with a comfortable understanding of some basic frameworks, definitions, and distinctions. For example, it helps to be able to recognize different conflict-styles (avoiding, accommodating, competing, etc.) or the different values driving a conflict (power-based, rights-based, interest-based). A deeper understanding of power dynamics, historical trauma, and cultural awareness, and the ability to skillfully side step the trap of identity politics, are critical to building conflict literacy.


3. Create Conditions for Learning & Transformation

Working with conflict can be challenging. It requires you to step outside your comfort zone. You can create "containers for learning" and transformation by building trust before you attempt to surface and engage with conflict.  You can establish a 'bold space' – where all the parties are allowed to disagree and still treat each other with respect. You can create agreements around honesty, inviting vulnerability, and respecting different opinions. The agreements have to fit the specific needs of each group and their cultural context.


4. Build Awareness of Physical & Emotional Responses to Conflict

Social-emotional intelligence lives in your body and your mind. Developing and practicing self-reflection skills to notice what’s happening inside you – both physically and emotionally -- is essential to exploring your role in creating and responding to conflict. This includes reading and articulating your body’s signals, and learning how your own background and story impacts how you engage in conflict. Self-reflection that grows your self-awareness gives you the freedom to engage your body and mind in transforming conflict.


5. Learn How to Regulate Emotions During a Conflict

Conflict by its very nature demands a lot from you, because it can trigger strong emotions. Your usual self-regulation is challenged the second you most need to self-regulate! But you can develop your ability to sit with discomfort, manage intense emotions, and express anger constructively. Developing presence and patience is key to achieving this, in addition to some tools to help you shift your state, gain perspective, and create space between your initial reaction and a potentially more helpful, constructive response.


6. Cultivate Empathy and Compassion

At the heart of conflict literacy is acknowledging our interconnectedness as individuals, groups, and communities. You can validate the experiences of others and build bridges, look for common ground, and cultivate compassion and empathy. This doesn't require you to abandon your deeply held convictions, but may allow you to see the pitfalls of holding fast to hardened positions.


7. Support Skillful Communication

The art of listening and asking good questions is at the core of conflict transformation. The ability to skillfully surface conflict, build rapport, and reframe limited viewpoints can make all the difference. In human communication, there is often a gap between the intention behind our words and the actual impact of our words.  By keeping this in mind, you can learn to speak more wisely and listen in ways that can change minds.


8. Evaluate and Improve Relationships & Systems

Sometimes the best way to deal with conflict is to be proactive. When you take the time to evaluate and improve how your relationships, teams, and systems are set up, you can often avoid unnecessary or un-constructive conflict. Building trust is one important way to strengthen relationships of all kinds. You can also make the effort to understand where others are coming from and why they might be behaving in a particular way. Establishing a clear process in advance helps you know how you will engage when conflict does arise.


9. Foster Healing & Restoration During and After Conflict

Conflict sometimes causes harm. It’s important to explore the varied personal, professional, and social impacts of conflict. When you  understand the role of trauma in conflict and in healing, you can help redress the harm that was caused and engage in processes for healing during and after conflict. When you bring a restorative lens to conflict, you increase the likelihood that it will be generative rather than destructive.


10. Restore Hope, Build Trust, and Create a Sense of Belonging

We all "long to belong." But modern culture creates environments where saying the “wrong thing” or disrupting status-quo can result in blame, shame, or excruciating pain. Our physical bodies sometimes process this as a mortal threat. You may choose to leave a group rather than risk making a mistake that would lead to rejection. In these fear-laden environments, hope's flame begins to fizzle. When you take the time to build (or rebuild) a culture of trust, you can honor each others' differences and hold people accountable without destroying their sense of safety and belonging. When you do so, you create an environment that allows hope to grow. And hope is the start of all positive social change.


Conflict Literacy is key to resilient people, resilient movements, and resilient communities as we navigate the inevitable uncertainties of change.


For access to more resources on conflict transformation, be sure to join our community of insiders!

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