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A Gestalt approach to Conflict

In the past few weeks many of the participants who regularly come to group dynamics or professional practice workshops have identified conflict, resolution and mediation as an important area in their practice and lives.

In this post I intend to offer a gestalt perspective on conflict and how we might as practitioners take a closer look and inquire into what conflict means to us. How we respond to conflict while it is happening and what happens when we anticipate that there may be conflict on the horizon of our relationships.

Conflict is often something we avoid at all costs and we spend energy either trying to prevent it occurring or placating conflict when it arrives in our lives. For others conflict is an invitation to fight and defend their territory. Somewhere in between these two poles is the middle ground where we imagine conflict can be dealt with in elegant ways, with art and skill.

Gestalt takes the approach that conflict is an essential part of healthy relationships. This is different and contrasts with the widely held view that conflict is to be managed until it no longer exists and somehow if conflict arises there is an error in our behaviour or we have made a mistake that has created the conflict.

Conflict may arise when people’s different needs and wants collide. When for example a country leader wants to expand his or her territory so that the expanding population can have access to more land on which they can live. Another example might be when a person’s wish to go to the cinema to see the latest movie contrasts with his partner’s wishes to have a romantic meal. Most conflicts are resolved amicably with one or the other compromising or striking a bargain where they watch the film one evening and then make plans for a romantic meal on another night. The country leader might be less willing to give up his or her fight for fresh territory and therefore the process of mediation and resolution might take longer than a few minutes.

A Gestalt approach encompasses a wholistic perspective that takes the whole field of experiences into consideration. We would want to hear about the circumstances of the conflict as well as some of the details. And as the person talking about the conflict is a representation of the conflict itself we want to hear what the conflict means to them and their part in the process of creating, resolving and mediating.

Gestalt is primarily concerned with the here and now experience so we would want to notice when conflict was arising in real time in a group or in a discussion.

In my experiences of working in groups conflict often surfaces when assumptions are made concerning what is happening and what we imagine the intent and motivations of others in the group might be. One person might assume that when others are quiet that they in particular have done something wrong or have offended them. When they clarify their assumptions they uncover different perspectives. The quiet person might be reflecting on their experiences and are considering their sensations and puzzling over their own sense of what is happening. However, if we operate from our assumptions then we might enter into a ‘fight’ over something that is unnecessary and unimportant.  Gestalt takes everything into consideration including our imagination and fantasies.

One story I have heard in many forms focuses on what might happen when we use ritualised or scripted responses to another person when we are in conversation with them. One guy had learned a way of responding to his wife when she was angry and frustrated with his behaviour. His mantra was to acknowledge her anger and then say that he would decide if he needed to change his behaviour. His wife became increasingly annoyed with him, as he seemed to block his real self with the script he had learned as a defence against his anxiety and his own anger when he was confronted with something he had done that annoyed or rankled his partner. Instead of being there with her listening to her emotions and feelings, valuing them and then being there as a full human being so he could make contact with her and resolve this glitch in their relationship. He used an approach where he maintained his own power position and accidently demeaned her feelings and responses to him. This also played out in his relationships with his co-workers and his team members. His colleagues at work experienced him as being inauthentic and flaky. They could not feel his real self and were dissatisfied with his defended self. Gestalt emphasises being with the other, making full human contact with love and compassion and listening to self and the other person.

A colleague asked me why people seem to be so afraid of conflict. If we view conflict as a mini war or battle then we might become afraid of encountering conflict as it threatens our welfare and possibly our physical and emotional health.  The fire of conflict seems to burn deeply into our souls and we are afraid of being consumed by the flames. The forest is in danger of being destroyed and we are resolute in making sure we dampen the energy and fire as quickly as possible.

Adults often remember conflict as an emotionally disturbing time in their childhood. When their father shouted at them or at their mother and they felt powerless and helpless to resolve the issues that have erupted in front of them. These memories of conflict experienced at school or in our primary family condition us to respond to conflict in certain ways. One person might try hard to appease their father so he does not get angry. A mother might tell her children to be quiet in case they upset their daddy. Or a father might say to a child; why did you make your mother cry? Pushing the blame onto the child as the father denies his own part in the co-creation of the conflict. Or maybe our mother used to quietly tell us off and threaten us so we became afraid of saying what we really wanted.

Gestalt takes the formation of our responses to our childhood experiences seriously and then surfaces how our past works out in the here and now, in the group in real time and within the relationships we have at work and in our personal lives. As we develop our awareness of how we respond to potential and actual conflict we can identify fresh ways of approaching conflict, practise our own ways of seeking resolution, and mediate different outcomes. Owning up to our own part in conflict, whether we avoid, compromise, accommodate, compete or attempt collaboration as overall strategies, we can begin to develop our sensitivity and compassion towards ourselves and other people when we appear to be in conflict.

We can use the gestalt cycle of experience as a tool to navigate our way through the forest of potential conflicts and develop live responses to the situation and the relationships we are growing with others. Once we understand our sensations and personal needs we might then be able to listen to the needs and wants of others. Instead of using tried and tested strategies we can in relationship in real time be with the other person so we can mediate and navigate our way through as real people, rather than as scripted professionals.

Gestalt meets people where they are and encourages contact within compassionate relationships. Instead of perceiving conflict as destructive, gestalt offers the perspective of fighting fire with fire; where the ground is cleared through deliberately setting a fire to clear away the rubbish that might be getting in the way of the relationship. The rubbish of assumptions, personal biases and patterns that seemed good when we were children and are now redundant for us as adults. Clearing the ground of our relationships takes willingness and courage from everyone who is involved. If we do not clear the ground we may find that we have accumulated enough unfinished business over many years that will eventually combust spontaneously burning the environment of our relationships away and destroying much of what we thought we had grown.

As we said above gestalt takes the perspective that conflict is essential for healthy relationships. Inquiring into how we live inside conflict and how we co-create it is well worth our time and effort. One way is to participate in a workshop that is dedicated to personal research into conflict. By engaging in a healthy dialogue about how conflict surfaces in your life and listening to how other people’s perspectives we can broaden our mental map of the process of conflict.

Conflict does not just happen; it involves the interaction of one or more people. In a facilitated workshop where you and others can discuss the processes of conflict you can begin to see how you might engage with conflict and uncover several places where you can make a difference and reveal the gifts that might be hidden within conflict. We can see conflict as an essential part of being in developing and growing relationships. And if that is so then we can see that as conflict develops we are privy to the deeper parts of ourselves and others where we find out how to live and work in diverse relationships that continue to add life and vitality to our work and play. Lets explore conflict together and find out how to create safety and use our natural selves to make our own mediation and resolution tools that we can use to build our confidence in embracing conflict as essential and healthy.

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