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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Transformation requires disruption and a degree of chaos to increase the sense of urgency that change must happen. However, there must also be enough psychological safety that the chaos does not completely overwhelm our ability to reflect and reorganize ourselves. A catalytic event will either push us forward toward transformation or tighten our tether to preservation. In my work as a consultant, I have seen strategies that were stressful enough to create change but ultimately were not safe enough to allow people to form new patterns. On the other hand, I've also seen educational strategies that allowed safe spaces for open dialogue but did not create enough discomfort to push a group's members beyond their old patterns of relating. There must be both!

The Chicago Urban Project students had hit a crucial point in their path to real community. Prior to the Race Reversal Fantasy exercise, the group was in what M. Scott Peck calls the "pseudo-community" stage. In his book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, he explains that most groups begin with a safe level of interaction. The members rarely argue or disagree with each other and relationships are characterized by friendliness, tolerance, and great care not to offend one another. That's exactly where we were before the Race Reversal exercise! However, in order to move to a deeper and more genuine level of relating, our group had to experience chaos by expressing our differences and seeing each other's imperfections.

The question now was whether they had the ability to go forward and experience genuine community or would choose to bail. Was it safe enough to move forward?

I called the group together the following day to regroup and debrief the exercise. I explained that what had happened the previous day was a good thing. Instead of seeing it as a catastrophe, I reframed it for my students as a catalytic event. I explained the disruption and the chaos, clarified what had happened, and gave it meaning.

Now we could enter the emptying stage that follows chaos to produce constructive change. This is when each person "empties" himself or herself of the need to change or persuade anyone else. So we shared our thoughts, feelings, and opinions as a way to disclose our true selves. As each person risked this type of vulnerability, the group listened without passing judgment, seeking mutual understanding and respect. It was a long conversation, but ultimately the previous day proved to be a powerful catalytic event for the group. The students and I were revitalized to continue in our reconciliation journey and enter the realization phase.

So, you see, if we endure the shakeup we can experience true community with a new level of honesty and transparency that leads to personal transformation and social change. Catalytic events can be painful and disruptive, but they can also be harnessed for good to move us forward into reconciliation.

—Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil is an associate professor in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University and serves on the pastoral staff at Quest Church in Seattle. Taken from Roadmap to Reconciliation by Brenda Salter McNeil. Copyright 2015 by Brenda Salter McNeil. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

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