Guides for Generative Conflict

Navigating conflict will never be the most comfortable thing in the world. Here's how you can move through conflict more easily and confidently.

By Justina Thompson — January 17, 2023


Guides for Generative Conflict

Resistance can be normal in learning settings where we are constantly introduced to new ideas in perspectives. Critical thinking teaches us to question new pieces of knowledge introduced to us, even when we can trust the source and the intention of delivery.

Especially in spaces where goals focus on establishing common understanding, learners coming to the table with different lived experiences and initial sources of knowledge can find themselves in conflict. Passion and ego can make the landscape of conflict a little hazy. If we have more conversations about making conflict a generative process, folks can work through the space with intention. They may even come out with new information, growth, and practice working across differences!

Beyond the classroom space, misunderstandings among roommates, friends, and family members, are so common. More often than not, while the initial misunderstanding starts small, the communication afterward becomes a significant source of tension in a relationship moving forward. If there were steps or tools we could all use to explore conflict as a space for generative growth, we wouldn't have to avoid conflict and could even see it as a source of depth and power for our connections in life.

It's Inevitable

Even to me, conflict initially seemed like a scary thing. Disagreeing with others felt tense, explaining my perspective at times felt exhausting, and the potential for a bad reaction, left turn, or escalation was always lingering. At a certain point, I realized a fact of life is just that people's understandings of life differ. The way the world works is very nuanced. Family dynamics, what individuals experience, and many other things create a specific lens of how someone sees the world. When two people come together and have different lenses, the right questions to differentiate points of understanding aren't always on hand. Intuition can do a lot of work in teasing out some of those questions. Building and understanding your intuition is an in-depth process.

I don't claim to be an expert, but I've spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to understand how to navigate these differences of thought and perspective with grace and ease. I've learned a few things in the process that I'd love to share:

Neutral Spaces

Healthy practices around conflict don't always have to be reactive. Setting goals, boundaries, and agreements, especially around shared spaces, helps in the future if conflict does arrive. And when setting these, discussing a neutral space can help set the tone. No one person has the "home court advantage." If both people choose to discuss at the neutral space, it's grounds for deeper intention as you enter. Boundaries for space and thresholds crossed can create areas of protection for all parties involved. If any bad feelings or negative energy comes up, it can stay in the neutral space and not have to linger in regular living spaces.

Internal Reflection

When introduced to new perspectives, what does it take to sit with them and hold them against what we already know and have experienced? I only understand the depth and firmness of my beliefs once they face a challenge. Through journaling, discussions with friends, research, and reading, I can move through different spheres of understanding to make meaning of what I know. These are all critical practices in building my intuition, which often manifests as a physical feeling somewhere. For example, if my instinct tells me something is ne gative or untrue, it may come across as a tightness in my chest, nausea in my stomach, or even shakiness in my hands.

These signs are different for everyone. Listening intentionally to your body begins building that intuitive sense. If you're ever thinking about challenging a thought, questioning an action, or just wanting to follow up on something that someone said, it's an excellent step to take time to reflect alone before the follow-up. This is the time to set intentions with your delivery and decide if you're looking for a space to share how you were impacted, seek common understanding, or find solutions! Taking that step to check in with yourself first is essential to staying grounded when having a tough conversation.

Emotional Discernment

Whenever passion is involved or there's a personal investment, individuals can bring a lot of emotions into a conversation. To respect folks' humanity, I always find it important to validate another person's emotions. Emotions aren't things we can control, although we can decide how we act on the emotions that come up. This distinction is essential when navigating conflict. If you try to resolve a miscommunication with someone, and they're expressing that they're hurt, your instinct may be to clarify that your intentions were not to hurt the person's feelings.

While this can be helpful, it's also essential to make it clear that the other person's emotions are valid and to acknowledge impact vs. intent. Beyond that, your words can bring up past experiences and emotions that have nothing to do with your direct actions but still deserve space to be held. In these times, the past reflection period combined with discernment in the present moment can make room for you to hold space for any emotions that may come up but also not internalize them (or reflect on what you could have done differently to show more care in the future).

Navigating conflict will never be the most comfortable thing in the world. You can move through conflict more easily and confidently knowing that you're: 1.) Intentional about your approach; 2.) Taking time to reflect internally and ground yourself, and 3.) holding space for emotions that appear while practicing discernment in the moment.

Utilizing these three tools together has made navigating conflict a lot less scary and a more intentional and generative space for me to move through. I hope this can provide the same support for folks stepping into new phases of their adulthood! This work takes time, so be gentle with yourself always and keep an eye out for similar reflections on healing and boundaries to complement these tools.

Justina Thompson

Justina Thompson

Justina "Farmer J" Thompson is the Farm Education and Volunteer Manager at Urban Creators, Philadelphia, PA. Justina intentionally attended school in Philadelphia so she could “connect her passion and experience to the ongoing environmental justice work in the area.” As a speaker, educational curriculum designer, program leader, and community organizer, Justina possesses extensive knowledge on urban farming inspired to work in the field of environmental justice from a young age.
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