Let’s Fight: A Process Oriented Approach to Conflict

Photo: Randi Tarampi (Unsplash)

Conflict is at the heart of every group. The rules and regulations governing human activity and the social systems we construct are designed to prevent or control conflict, or to determine which humans will have power over the behaviour of others. Most of the time, most of us ignore, avoid or deny conflict. Yet if awareness brings choice and freedom, attending to our inner and outer diversities and conflicts and communicating effectively about them is surely important for human wellbeing. This is why Arnold Mindell exhorts us to ‘fight more’ and why group process work aims to bring out and explore conflict and to work on it together in ways that increase awareness and foster relationship.

The first group I belonged to was my family, a small group of four people (and usually a cat or two) in which, as a small child, I usually felt safe and free. Sometimes our small family group was joyously expanded and diversified with the addition of various grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Occasionally, when my parents argued, or got angry with us kids for fighting or disobedience, things could get uncomfortable. We were a ‘normal’ white family, self-consciously middle class, with covert yet ever-present reminders of difficult times in our DNA and family sayings like ‘You can’t have everything you want’ and ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.’ The beliefs and values embodied by my parents reflected those of mainstream Australian society in the 1950s and 1960s. As with most families, conflict could be present in the atmosphere but was rarely openly acknowledged. Anger, like other strong emotions, had to be controlled or suppressed. Arguments were signs of a failure to ‘be good’ and ‘get along with others’.

When I was eighteen, towards the end of my first year at university, I had a revelation that influenced the rest of my life. I saw that religious and political movements and organisations of all kinds generally begin with a small group of visionaries and devoted followers who are passionate and creative, pouring all their energy and love into creating a structure that can hold and manifest their vision. But in most cases, over time, something changes. The original vision, articulated as values, gets formulated into beliefs, which may be inscribed as rules. As the creative founders die or move on, their visionary spirit can be lost. Organisers, managers, and promoters take control. The structures, like the minds of those who rule and follow them, can become rigid and hollow. I despaired at the seeming inevitability of this process, but declared in my journal that ‘I will never live by empty shells.’ I promised myself that I would try to learn how to live in a way that allowed me to stay open, passionate, and creative. From my vantage point 44 years later, I see that this manifesto has led directly to all of the changes and troubles in my life, including my study of Process Work, which offers hope and awareness about how we can live and work together.

In November 1998, I participated in the ten-day Worldwork Training for facilitators led by Max Schupbach and Jytte Vikkelsoe in Noosa, Queensland, Australia. What follows is a personal summary of some key points from my learning.

Day 1. Field theory, roles, edges and hot spots. The field of a group is a holographic social force field which is omnipresent and includes everyone present, regardless of how they identify themselves. Arnold Mindell defines the field as the ‘atmosphere or climate’ of a group, including ‘physical, environmental and emotional’ aspects. This field not only influences but organizes people into groups and roles according to the forces present as beliefs, values, norms and identities. Someone takes a position. Someone else states opposition to it. Others take sides, either overtly or covertly. There are declared values and unconscious or unspoken ‘hidden agendas’ at play. From a psychological perspective, the group field is structured by the interplay between its primary and secondary processes—the polarised experiences and communications of the people within it. The polarities in a field are expressed through roles. When a group identifies solely with its primary process beliefs and values (such as ‘being peaceful’ or ‘making a profit’) and marginalises secondary beliefs and values (like ‘being angry’ or ‘taking care of people’), diversity gets lost and creativity is stifled. A complementary view of conflict proposed by Arnold Mindell is that the field itself generates polarisations, and people are moved by mighty timespirits to enact the various roles required for the conflict to play itself out. Perhaps conflict arises, not solely because of personal beliefs and interpersonal power struggles, but when a group is taken over by the polarity with which it mainly identifies. Then the other side arises to oppose it, and humans can find themselves enacting roles like puppets, without awareness. Have you ever felt like something just ‘took you over’ in an argument?

A role that is present but not represented in a group is a ghost role. For example, in a group where no children are present, people may speak about children. Because there is nobody representing them, ‘children’ in this group are a ghost role. When someone represents and speaks for a ghost role, there is a feeling of relief, because the group field wants every role to be expressed. Edges are communication blocks, resulting from fear and repression, that stop the flow of group process. Hot spots are a special kind of edge that arise in non-linear group process; they are moments of intense feeling that have a sudden impact on everyone and then are seemingly forgotten or brushed aside. It is important for facilitators to identify and unfold hot spots, because they contain information valuable to the growth and process of a group.

Day 2: Sorting and Consensus building. Sorting brings out the topics present in the group, including issues that may be hidden. The facilitator states (and may write up) the issues as they are presented. During this process, the facilitator takes note of roles, conflicts, and hot spots that come up but does not engage with them. (Because there is no agreement yet to begin a group process, any process begun at this point will not be allowed to complete.) After sorting, consensus is built to begin working on a chosen topic that has energy and is pressing for this group at this time. The facilitator observes feedback from the group around the different issues and uses her metaskills to notice which topics have the most heat and urgency, while allowing space for all issues. The field will move the group toward its own natural consensus; the facilitator’s job is to follow and support this process. This training had a lasting impact on my ability to trust group process in my work as a teacher and group facilitator. I sometimes catch myself being busy with tasks and missing group feedback, or feeling an urge to control what is happening in a group. These are times when holding space for what is happening—for myself and for the group—is crucial.

Days 3 and 8: Rank and privilege. The personal awareness arising from this learning was a revelation to me. In those days, my sense of myself was as someone with no power or rank at all. The personal and group work on rank allowed me to recognise my social, ethnic, educational, psychological and spiritual rank. I also have a kind of ‘creative outsider’ rank that artists and rebels often have—feeling superior because we are different.

Days 4 and 9: Leadership, facilitation, and eldership. Leadership is a fluid role that can be momentarily filled by different people. A facilitator, by contrast, is an awareness-bringer for the group. She notices structure, roles, edges and hotspots, and helps bring out what is wanting to happen in the field. This can be a challenging task, because it is easy to be hypnotised by content, especially when it is dramatic or emotional. The facilitator needs well-developed metaskills, and most especially eldership, the ability to have compassion for all without one-sidedness. I have had moments of feeling like the elder and being able to hold group process, but there are many times in life when I struggle to support myself against my inner oppressors, or seethe with anger at political leaders.

Day 5: Working with personal abuse issues. To facilitate effectively and care for the whole group, we need to be compassionate with ourselves and aware of our tendencies toward one-sidedness, which can be a result of our own experiences of abuse. (This is a big and deep topic, which I’m flagging for a future blog post.)

Day 6: An awareness model for working with conflict. Essentially, this involves speaking up about a conflict, noticing the side you are taking and standing for it fully, until that begins to feel one-sided. Then take a neutral position, observe the field, and then take the other side fully. Go back and forth between these polarities until both sides are fully expressed. Notice any change in atmosphere and acknowledge if there is resolution. Be gracious and choose not to recycle the conflict. This is large group process in a nutshell. (Another topic which deserves a post all to itself?)

Day 7: Working with the sentient level. The sentient level is just below the place where polarities and conflict arise. Working at this level can be creative, calming and soothing and is useful especially when overwhelm, trauma or abuse issues are present. Today, we did inner work flirting exercises, firstly alone, and then as part of the group process. The flirt that caught my attention first was some beautiful colours of green and purple in people’s clothing. Its essence was flow and harmony. When I shapeshifted to become the essence, I found myself floating under the ocean and noticed the diversity of life forms, colours, and textures, all flowing harmoniously together. When I looked back at my everyday self and saw how brutal I could be toward my own inner diversity, I wondered how I could be more tender toward myself and create more flow and harmony in my life. In the second exercise, my flirt took me inside my own fingerbone, looking up at myself, just like a little skink I had seen on my walk that morning. From this tiny vantage point, I noticed some parts of myself who were afraid of conflict and wanted to leave the large group, and others who were interested or excited to stay. I found a consensus in myself to stay, and I was awed and amazed by my own ability to hold to my edge and sit in the group process that day.

Day 9: Eldership. An elder is someone who can feel for and relate to all parts of the whole—all roles in the moment. She can understand that wholeness happens over time, but any given moment has to be onesided. The question is: What needs to be done in the moment? Facilitating becomes a meditation; there is really nothing to do other than noticing what is happening in the moment.

Reflecting personally on my relationship with groups, my primary process is to identify myself as a bit of a loner: a thinker, writer, and artist who likes solitude, enjoys a quiet cup of tea or a few drinks with close friends, but avoids too much involvement with organisations, meetings and all kinds of community events. Not only do I fear conflict and confrontation, I also hate being organised and told what to do. But I also love people and long for company and intimacy, and to belong to a family, community, tribe, or relationship. I have been a lifelong learner, involved in all kinds of courses, trainings and seminars. I have become a therapist, teacher and group facilitator, and this inner tug of war between my introvert and extravert parts continues. In recent years I have identified more consciously with the social, community-oriented part in my work as an educator and therapist—but too much company can be overwhelming! Then my introvert rebels and demands time alone—walking on the beach, gardening, making art, writing, reading, or just hanging out at home. I like both sides of me. I can’t imagine just being a hermit, but neither could I bear a life of being fully available to people all the time. The elder in me says to follow my nature, wherever it takes me.


McCrea, Michele (1998) Unpublished notes from Worldwork Training in Noosa, Queensland, Australia facilitated by Max Schupbach and Jytte Vikkelsoe.

Mindell, Amy (2003) Metaskills: The Spiritual Art of Therapy, Lao Tse Press, Oregon.

Mindell, Arnold (1992) The Leader as Martial Artist: Deep Democracy Leadership in Conflict Resolution, Community Building, and Organizational Transformation, Deep Democracy Exchange, Florence, Oregon and San Francisco, California.

Mindell, Arnold (1995) Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation using Conflict and Diversity, Lao Tse Press, Portland, Oregon.

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