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Foundations for Building Conflict Literacy

This module was created by Wendy Wood and Jessica Baen. It will provide concepts and tools to enable users to:

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Embrace helpful attitudes and beliefs about conflict
  • Create basic frameworks for understanding conflict
  • Establish conditions for learning and transformation
  • Build awareness of physical and emotional responses to conflict

We never get into conflicts over things that don’t matter to us. Yet our actions and statements are often personal, hostile, and adversarial, and fail to acknowledge or transform our defensive, judgmental responses into skillful dialogues over what matters, and why. Every conflict takes us to a crossroads, revealing internal and external challenges that may lead us in different, and sometimes harmful, directions. Yet at the heart of conflict, there is a path to resolution, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Because of the nature of organizations working for social change, it is critical to understand and affirm the positive role of conflict in achieving their organizational missions and contributing to positive social and environmental change. Social and political movements therefore must build a basic understanding of conflict and develop the tools to skillfully recognize and respond to both internal and external conflicts as they arise, and transform them into sources of learning, organizing, and social justice.

Alternative definitions of conflict

  • Conflict is a failure of collaboration or community
  • Conflict is a lack of acceptance of ourselves that we project onto others, blaming someone else for what we perceive as failures in our own lives - diverting attention from our mistakes
  • Conflict represents a boundary violation, a failure to value or recognize our own integrity and therefore the personal space of others
  • Conflict is the sound made by the cracks in a system; the voice of the new paradigm calling for change in a system that has outlived its usefulness
  • Conflict is an opportunity and a request for authenticity, acknowledgment, intimacy, empathy, understanding, growth, or learning; in other words, a request for a better relationship

Options for Responding to Conflict

When conflict emerges, there are several options for responding, while recognizing there is no “right way” to handle conflict. We can choose to accept or tolerate the problem or leave the situation altogether; or we can address the problem directly and seek to constructively transform the way we think about and respond to it. Addressing and transforming conflict can take many forms. This module will focus on interests-based models for addressing conflict.

While there are many different methods of interests-based conflict resolution, a comprehensive approach may include these elements:

  • Cease fire/de-escalation/agreement to address the problem
  • Identification and discussion of stated issues and underlying interests and emotions (see the conflict iceberg image under tools and tips below for more information)
  • Resolution of the underlying emotional issues and satisfaction of interests
  • Settlement of the issues
  • Forgiveness and self-forgiveness
  • Reconciliation and return to open heartedness
  • Prevention and conflict resolution systems design

Understanding the Nature of Conflict

It is important  for social movements and organizers  to understand the nature of conflict.

Here are a few things to consider

  • The parties involved are interdependent; each needs something from the other, and they’re vulnerable if they don’t get it.
  • They blame each other and find fault with each other for causing the problem.
  • They are angry, fearful, or frustrated, or feel emotionally upset; these emotions may be obvious and known or disguised and unknown to parties involved.
  • Conflict can cause breakdowns in relationships, which impact people at an individual level, but can also reduce organizational effectiveness and undermine movement values.
  • There are many different kinds of cost associated with conflict, including political costs, and these can be reduced or prevented by learning how to respond more skillfully.


There are two dimensions to building conflict competencies in social/political organizations: a proactive side in which training and practice will enhance the skills of the group during normal circumstances; and a reactive side in which the same competencies are deployed and enhanced with the support of trusted and experienced conflict advisors, usually at times of heightened tensions. In the complex world of competing movements, ideas, and resources, those organizations which deploy both proactive and reactive approaches to conflict will ultimately have a better chance of moving forward to achieve their mission for positive social change.

Next Steps

Reflection Questions to Encourage Building Foundations for Conflict Literacy, Resolution, & Transformation

Examine these questions within the context of your own work or a contemporary global issue that relates to your work in social change.

  • How can I/we become more reflective and less reactive; more understanding and less judgmental; more effective and productive; and more responsive and less avoidant when I/we experience conflict?
  • What price have I/we paid for these conflicts and how much longer are we willing to pay this price?
  • What’s at stake if conflicts do not get resolved?
  • What support do I/we need in order to prevent, intervene, and resolve conflicts?
  • Reflect on some of the reasons why I/we get stuck in conflict: Conflict defines us and gives our lives meaning
    • Conflict gives us energy, even if it is only the energy of anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, shame, and grief.
    • Conflict ennobles our misery and makes it appear that we are suffering for a worthwhile cause.
    • Conflict creates intimacy, even if it is only the transient, negative intimacy of fear, rage, attachment, and loss.
    • Conflict camouflages our weaknesses and diverts attention from sensitive subjects we would rather avoid discussing.
    • Conflict can bring about social change.


Conflict Styles Assessment Tools

Conflict styles assessments tools can be used to explore our own styles or tendencies when we are witness to or a party to conflict. These tools include short tests that can be taken by individuals or members of an organization to identify their typical conflict style. These tests encourage individuals to:

  • Gain self-awareness
  • Learn about different ways to engage in conflict and which approaches are appropriate in which context

The assessments can be self-administered, but if administered to members of an organization, it is recommended that a trainer assist with the analysis and debrief and lead the group in a discussion about the material. For more information and to access Style Matters: The Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory test, click here.

One important lesson from this test is that there is no “right” way to handle conflict. No one style is superior in all contexts. However, in instances where both the relationship and the subject under dispute are important, a cooperative (sometimes termed “collaborative”) style may produce the most positive, sustainable results

The Style Matters Conflict Style Inventory identifies five conflict styles and organizes them on a graph to indicate differing emphases and priorities of each style

The Conflict Iceberg

The conflict iceberg is a useful metaphor to help us engage in interest-based approaches to conflict resolution. In conflict, what we see on the surface is often only part of the story. Underneath the surface of the water, below our stated positions and outward behaviors, lies a complex world of interests, values, assumptions, and vital human needs. Common ground and understanding may be found when we are aware of what lies below the surface for ourselves and those with whom we find ourselves in conflict.

Conflict Iceberg

The Cultural Iceberg

Similar to the conflict iceberg metaphor, the cultural iceberg can aid in intercultural communication. The image below helps us understand what parts of cultural identity are visible  and what lies below the surface.

Source: Language and Culture Worldwide LLC
Source: Language and Culture Worldwide LLC

The BEN Model

(Behavior Emotion Need)

This is a great tool and can be particularly helpful when a conflict arises and you need to ‘think on your feet’, especially as it relates to individuals. It is also a valuable tool as you look at what individuals, organizations, and communities might need in order to support the work within and between movements or organizations.

B = Behavior (the way in which one acts or conducts themself, especially toward others)
E = Emotions/Feelings (emotions are event driven; feelings are learned behaviors that are usually in hibernation until triggered by an external event)
N = Need (something that is essential or important)

When NEEDS ARE BEING SATISFIED, here are examples of what people might feel like:

  • Affectionate, Kind, Thoughtful
  • Engaged, Interested
  • Hopeful, In Awe, Inspired, Refreshed
  • Confident, Assured
  • Excited, Exhilarated, Joyful, Happy
  • Peaceful, Calm, Grateful

When NEEDS ARE NOT BEING SATISFIED, here are examples of what people might feel like:

  • Afraid, Fearful, Betrayed
  • Annoyed, Anxious, Embarrassed
  • Averse, Disconnected
  • Confused, Distracted
  • Angry, Hateful
  • Fatigued, Physical Pain, Tense

We all have a NEED for:

  • Connection: Love - Affection - Belonging - Equality - Respect - Meaning - Community - Consideration - Compassion - Purpose - Happiness
  • Safety: Physical & Emotional Security - Trust - Support - Stability - Less Suffering
  • Challenge: Learning – Growth – Competence - Independence - Stimulation
  • Structure: Boundaries - Predictability - Reliability - Control - Choice

Here is a list of feelings and needs.

This is how you can use the BEN model:

  • First: Pay attention to the behavior or set of behaviors that you are witnessing.
  • Second: Identify the emotion(s)/feeling(s) that may be behind the behavior(s)
  • Third: Try to determine what need(s) you think are NOT being met.
  • Fourth: Ask yourself - Can I/We meet these needs? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Fifth: Acknowledge to yourself and/or between the parties that there may be needs that are not being met. Discuss if there is a way to meet those needs, and if so, how? If not, why not?
  • Proceed wisely.

Active Listening

Skillful listening is essential for positive, productive conflict management.  When listening, people typically expend more mental energy preparing a response than they do actually listening. This can cause the listener to miss key information. Similarly, assumptions and biases can lead people to jump to conclusions or hear only what they were expecting to hear, rather than gaining new information that could be useful in finding solutions or common ground.

Active Listening helps the listener to:

  • Gain an accurate understanding of the speaker’s story
  • Gain a deeper understanding of why the speaker feels or believes what they do
  • Develop trust and connection with the speaker
  • Become aware of the speaker’s emotions and body language
  • Make the speaker feel heard and acknowledged
  • Encourage the speaker to clarify, elaborate, or refine their story

EARS - An Active Listening Mnemonic

Here is an excellent tool for remembering the elements of active listening:
Ask Questions
Empathize: Acknowledge the speaker’s emotions and show you care. People repeat themselves when they don't feel heard, and empathy can help make them feel heard.
Ask questions: For clarity.
Reflect: Repeat back; show the speaker you are listening and you “get it.”
Reframe: Cast the subject in a new light.
Summarize: Confirm you understand the important points; allow speaker to clarify, elaborate, or reframe.

"I" Statements

Like listening, learning to speak skillfully and express our interests can help us get our needs met in conflict scenarios. The “I Statement” is a useful tool to communicate our own experience and needs to another party without falling into unproductive patterns of accusation and defensiveness.

Questions to consider before speaking:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Is it kind?

Elements of an effective "I" Statement:

Observation: Make neutral observations describing what you notice. Speak from your own perspective. Try to avoid interpretation.
Feelings: Describe your bodily experience, emotions and sensations. Own your feelings. Avoid making hidden accusations (eg: "I feel ignored/attacked/left out.").
Needs: Explain why the issue is important to you. What are your deepest needs? Avoid positions, plans and strategies.
Request: Ask for what you would like to have happen. Don't say what you don't want. Remember, a request is not a demand. Be open to the other person saying "no." Listen openly to the response.

Here is a list of feelings and needs. 
Learn more about the nuances of OFNR statements here.


Books & Articles

Other Resources

Conflict Styles