Group Conflict Can Be a Powerful Agent of Change

Group Conflict Can Be a Powerful Agent of Change

We actually need chaos for transformation to take place.
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After the guided imagery was over, the students were given 3x5 cards and asked to answer questions based on their recollections of the experience. Their responses were anonymous, and we posted them around the room for the group to mull over.

The stereotypical nature of many of the reflections caused quite a stir. Many of the students felt hurt, angry, bitter, and betrayed. After reading one of the responses, a black female student turned to face the group and shouted, "Who said this?" Everyone in the room froze.

The tension was palpable. One Korean student actually called her father and asked him to come get her. Some of the African American students from the community refused to spend another night with the team and went home. And several of the white students accused me of being racist myself, charging that I had chosen an exercise that was biased and unfair. It was a mess, and I went home in tears, convinced I had ruined the program and lost the respect of my students.

Embrace the Chaos

What I discovered that summer with the Chicago Urban Project was that this sort of disruption is an absolutely vital part of the reconciliation process. It's important to be aware, however, that there are major power and safety dynamics that come into play when there is chaos. People need to know who is in charge and who will keep them safe. It's a risky part of the process because people can be seriously hurt and they might want to get out altogether. I certainly experienced my share of anxiety with our group that summer! I was ready to throw in the towel. But then I remembered that distress is needed to overcome the resistance we naturally have to forming new relational patterns.

Edgar Schein, an organizational change specialist, posits that groups and organizations resist learning new patterns because it create anxiety, and I think he is absolutely right. Schein points out that inherent paradox when he says, "Anxiety inhibits learning, but anxiety is also necessary if learning is going to happen at all." Our group needed to be shaken up! It was necessary, and we pushed through to new and unexplored territory as a team because of it.

Chaos is a necessary stage in the community-building process. It won't last forever, but we can't skip this part no matter how much we might like to pass over it. Chaos is counterintuitive and problematic because our human nature craves equilibrium and a sense of stability. This is normal. However, we can value equilibrium too highly. Human beings actually need disorder and a sense of disequilibrium in order to grow and change. We need chaos in order for transformation to take place. There is no new life without the disruption of chaos. In fact, it is the heart of the Christian faith to believe that life comes from death.

The particularly difficult piece is figuring out where to go with our anxiety and sense of disorientation. What's next? Schein says that key lies in our "ability to balance the amount of threat produced by discomfirming data with enough psychological safety to allow [us] to accept the information, feel the anxiety, and become motivated to change." If a catalytic event occurs when there is little sense of safety, individuals and groups can experience a form of trauma that shuts down their creative capacity, and they will revert to a place of alienation and preservation.

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