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How to Transform Conflict into Peace

Monday’s lesson on praying for peace in this week’s Adult Bible Study Guide invites readers to jot down practical ways to strive for peace and harmony. As humans with differing viewpoints, we sometimes develop a habit of talking at each other instead of talking with each other. In a world that is divided and polarized, praying for peace feels hopeful at best and impossible at worst. However, what if God has already answered our prayers by giving us tools for building peace?

The word “peace” has become synonymous with the term “conflict resolution.” Perhaps a better phrase is “conflict transformation” because there is an important distinction between the two. There are those who are afraid of conflict or want their side to win no matter the cost. This can be problematic because oftentimes the problem doesn’t always resolve permanently. Conflict transformation on the other hand, comes from the work of peacebuilding by understanding each other. This collaboration results in all sides coming together for healing, thereby transforming broken systems into healthier ones. Conflict cannot be avoided. In a sinful world, it is inevitable that humans with differing worldviews and experiences will clash. Arthur Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies, notes that we need to learn how to “disagree better, not less.” Once we recognize that conflict in relationships is a normal part of co-existing, rather than fearing it, we can gain the tools of how to navigate it in ways that are healthy and transformative. 

An important part of peacebuilding is listening to understand the other person’s perspective. We can learn more about their world that might give us a compassionate framework to see other people. Brene Brown, in her book Braving the Wilderness, emphasizes the power of asking “tell me more?” in a conversation, rather than jumping to rebuttal. The invitation can diffuse a heated debate and humanize the conversation rather than perpetuating the us versus them divide. Personally, I find the following phrase helpful when a conversation gets heated: “This seems to be important to you—tell me more.” Encouraging the other person to detail their opinion leads the conversation to better dialogue and closer to conflict transformation.

Lisa Schirch, policy advisor and peace studies scholar and professor at Notre Dame, explains conflict transformation in her book Conflict Assessment and Peacebuilding Planning. She writes how when we begin to understand each other’s needs, conflict can diminish, leading to mutual problem solving. When we learn to let go of our egos long enough to see and hear the human on the other side of the conversation, including their needs, a bridge is built. 

In his book Nonviolent Communication, renowned psychologist and international mediator, Marshall Rosenburg, outlines the tools to navigate conflict between friends, family, or even countries. His four-part model is transformative:

(1) observe what happened—“when I saw/heard . . .”

(2) express feelings related to what happened—“I feel/felt . . .”

(3) share personal needs/values—“. . . because I need/value . . .”

(4) make a request—“would you be willing to . . .”? 

The process goes two ways in a conversation; both sides share their perspectives leading to greater understanding. This can only be experienced when we put aside our egos and our need to “be right.”

In her book, Fierce Conversations, businesswoman Susan Scott outlines additional tools on navigating difficult conversations. She explains a few reasons why people may avoid tough conversations and provides methods to reframe the anxieties and fears that can keep us in cycles of conflict avoidance. A conversation is “fierce” when people are brave enough to sit “side by side, looking at the issue together.” Scott notes that too many times, rather than having fierce conversations, people would rather triangulate—“where person A bonds with person B over their mutual loathing of person C.” Triangulation stalls stepping towards conflict transformation and exacerbates an us versus them culture, even within the church.

Professors Anastasia Kim and Alicia del Prado share some practical peacebuilding tools in their book It’s Time to Talk (and Listen). The pair write about the steps to take in navigating difficult conversations on polarizing topics, emphasizing the importance of grounding yourself and knowing your core values. Examples of these values include compassion, courage, faith, honesty, grace, and humility. These values give us the courage to enter those spaces and can open the heart of the other person. Here is an example from the book of what these core values may sound like when starting a difficult conversation: 

  • “I’m not exactly sure how to say this . . .” (core values: courage, humility)
  • “I hope you will consider taking a risk with me . . .” (core values: hope, courage, bravery)
  • “I’d like to explore doing something different here and would love for you to join me . . .” (core value: curiosity)
  • “I’d like to offer my personal perspective, and I hope you will hear me out . . . “ (core values: curiosity, creativity, hope) (p.73).

Even though discussing divisive issues can be scary, having courageous conversations make them possible. Ultimately, when we are grounded in our core values, we can show up to difficult situations while being open to understanding the other person because we aren’t coming from a defensive position.

As Monday’s lesson points out, it is important to pray for peace, but let’s not stop there. We can partner with the Prince of Peace, becoming the answer to those prayers by living out the strategies for peacebuilding. It may not always feel harmonious, but the results will form relationships that lead to communities that will grow deeper toward authentic understanding and respect. Peacebuilding ultimately leads to healing as we build transformational bridges, even amid our disagreements.  

Image: George Inness, Peace and Plenty, 1865. 

About the author

Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin is the former vice principal for spiritual life at Auburn Adventist Academy. She has served as a minister, teacher, and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for over two decades. She is currently completing a PhD in Transformative Social Change, with an emphasis in Peace and Justice Studies. More from Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin.
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