How Can We Be (More) Comfortable Being Uncomfortable and Facing Conflict?

| Equity and Inclusion
An individual is standing in the middle looking uncomfortable, surrounded by six hands pointing fingers at the individual

Self-Reflection, Embodied Self-Regulation, and Collective Competence for Difficult Conversations.
By Michelle Tsutsumi, Strategic Convener & Organizer

This blog has been a difficult one to start because it focuses on an area of reflection and change that is deeply personal – transforming the need for comfort and fear of conflict. Having the work of Tema Okun and COCo (the Centre for Community Organizations) to support my process has been helpful to see how deeply rooted and structurally embedded these reactions are, that feeling entitled to comfort and avoiding conflict are core characteristics of white dominant culture.

Moving from awareness to change is an ongoing and intentional process for me. Having grown up in a family filled with silence (I don’t fault my parents for this, as I now know that much of this is related to inter-generational trauma), I didn’t learn how to listen to embodied reactions, find words to describe what was happening, or engage in dialogue when tension or conflict were present. In a nutshell, conflict avoidance was deeply embedded in my way of being and this contributed to an intense frozenness when conflict appeared. My biggest learning is that conflict does not automatically mean abandonment or loss of relationship (it might in some cases, but it’s not a given). I can see now what a powerful mode of control this duo creates – making people believe that they will no longer belong if they name something that is problematic or might cause discomfort. Unfortunately, there is some reality to this where systemic exclusion is present in workplaces. The risk of being shut out of an organization for naming systemic exclusion is one that needs to be thoroughly considered.

A few practices stand out as helping me to learn new ways of staying present in discomfort and working through conflict. Creating space for self-reflection and embodied self-regulation has been essential. I am paying closer attention to the signals from my body and tending to them so that I can stay present; taking the time to pause and discern present from past; and sometimes naming it in a group as a way to acknowledge the tension. Related to this is learning a process to prepare for difficult conversations that is rooted in care and compassion (which can be hard when the tension is thick!) and practicing what I want to say before I need to say it. Role playing, as recommended by Tema Okun and COCo, is incredibly helpful to lessen the charge and fear related to being in a difficult conversation.

I am also grateful to the collective learning and being that I have found through Elaine Alec’s Cultivating Safe Spaces (facilitators meet monthly) and Education for Racial Equity’s somatic abolitionism and community consultations (I am still meeting with the triad of similar bodies of culture that I was matched with almost two years ago). Based on my learning journey over the last couple of years, I encourage anyone and everyone to find some folks to share this process with. This, in itself, is the strongest antidote to white dominant culture and will provide the collective container for care, sharing the heaviness of this work, and celebrating the transformations.

Antidotes to right to comfort and fear of open conflict (all from COCo’s document linked below):

  • Role-play ways to handle conflict before conflict happens;
  • Distinguish between being impolite and bringing up difficult issues;
  • Learn to hold truth-telling conversations as a team and help each other feel heard in these moments;
  • Unlearn attitudes around ‘acceptable’ ways of calling attention to painful truths. Make space for emotions and think expansively about how problems are flagged in the organization;
  • Once a conflict is resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it at a later point and consider how it might have been handled differently.

We invite you to reflect on the following:

  • What do I need to learn and practice to be able to face conflict and call attention to difficult issues?
  • How can my organization find ways to help manage our fear of open conflict other than avoiding conflict together?
  • What are ways in which self-reflection, trust, and openness to being challenged are fostered in the collective culture?

In our next Equity & Inclusion in Co-ops Community of Practice on November 23, we will focus on Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive (ARAO) Frameworks, as well as how to implement ARAO practices like The Onion Tool. Sign up here, come and learn alongside other people in the co-op sector.

Credits & further learning:
White Supremacy Culture in Organizations, by Dismantling Racism Works adapted by
The Centre for Community Organizations
White Supremacy Culture, Tema Okun
White Supremacy Culture – Still Here, Tema Okun
Dismantling Racism Workbook