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.

Many of us are interested in talking about strategies for reconciliation, and that's good. But we need to realize that the most powerful ways we change are often out of our control. Change can be painful and coercive because we cannot control or manage it. Conversion and comprehensive change is arduous, difficult, and often very slow, because it requires us to give up long-held beliefs and assumptions. That's why it often takes a catalytic event in our lives to force us out of our spaces of comfort and into new spaces of growth and transformation.

A Catalytic Conversion

Saul's conversion in Acts 22 is a perfect example of a catalytic event. He was on his way to Damascus, where he planned to escort followers of Jesus back to Jerusalem, coercively repatriating them. Saul's desire to protect the purity and authority of Jewish law had led him to see both Jesus and his followers as his enemies. And Saul of Tarsus was certain he was right.

On the road, however, Saul encountered a great heavenly light that knocked him to the ground, and he heard the voice of God. In the process he was blinded. He was told to continue on to Damascus, but he wasn't told whether he would ever regain his sight. Moreover, he didn't know how he would manage to reconstruct his life.

Can you picture yourself in Saul's shoes? Can you imagine what it would be like to wait in literal and figurative darkness? Do you identify with his anguish? Because we know the story's outcome, the distress of Saul's catalytic event and subsequent wait in Damascus may not seem like a big deal to us. But we shouldn't gloss over the discomfort, even agony, that he must have suffered at this time of immense transformation.

It is in the confusion of this darkness that Saul's conversion begins, as his former certainties collapse and he is forced to open up to new things. For Saul turned Paul, his catalytic event pushed him into a new realm of vulnerability and opened him to the possibility of change. His blindness brought him to a place where he was eventually able to see anew!

That's what catalytic events are supposed to do. They force a shift. They push us out of our old framework and into a new way of seeing. This is both cognitive and affective, and it can be incredibly disruptive to the status quo, as we saw in the case of Paul. The old does not fit into the new, and life no longer makes sense in the same way. Catalytic events can be confusing and deeply disorienting. This will be true in our pursuit of reconciliation, and we must learn to see the confusion and discomfort as part of the change process that will eventually move us toward transformation.

How Our Brains Process Change

We know that stress and distress are both producers and products of change, but it's also helpful to understand how our brains change and the role external events play in the process. Bruce Wexler, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, tells us how our brains process change in his book Brain and Culture. His study of the brain's neuroplasticity offers us an important look at the role social culture plays in the neurobiological formation of the brain. Wexler's research suggests that we are prone to resist change. It is part of the way we are wired. We have a tendency to deny information that conflicts with our beliefs, and we will therefor shape new information to fit our preexisting ideas.

This is so important for us to understand. Many of our attempts at reconciliation fail because we are not taking account of the psychological and cultural resistance that people bring to the process. This is precisely why sustained reconciliation is so hard! But as leaders who want to influence others to embrace this reconciliation process, we need to know how to move past this resistance to change. We need to find a way to push people beyond their propensity to preserve their current ways of thinking and energize them to move in an entirely new direction. We've got a hard row to hoe!

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