“If you are working to make the world a better place, there are few experiences more rewarding and useful than having your thinking turned upside down. A shift in thinking is the essence of transformation.”
Peter Block, in foreword Collaborating with the enemy
By Thomas Macintyre, T-Learning case study Colombia, and Cristina Temmink, T-Learning case study the Netherlands.
Conflict as a necessary ingredient for learning and transformation is a provocative idea. Humans in general are conflict averse, and much emphasis is placed on collaboration and dialogue as a means to find common grounds for resolving tensions and reaching agreement. Yet, as demonstrated by various conflicts around the world, reaching agreement is not easy, and sometimes the results are ambiguous. A good example of the complex relationship between conflict and collaboration is the long running internal war in Colombia, where in 2017 the government and the FARC officially signed a peace agreement. In his book Collaborating with the Enemy. How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Adam Kahane speaks about ‘stretch collaboration’, the need to move beyond traditional notions of collaboration, taking advantage of the uncomfortable space between conflict and collaboration. The author makes special mention of the Colombian peace process, noting the fact that various factions never trusted each other and did not share a common vision. The peace deal only came about because of a recognition of the need to change the status quo. Kahane puts forward three major tenets for stretch collaboration, which we will explore in this blog:
- We have to affirm the legitimacy and value of every stance and each of its advocates. This idea manifests the belief that there is more than one worldview or mind-set to be considered.
- The way forward is to experientially learn together. We set aside any effort at coming up with negotiated certainties, and instead engage in joint experimentation. Everyone has an opinion, and it is only by trying some things together that we can jointly see which ones will help in the situation at hand.
- It requires us to place attention on the consciousness of ourselves and the people working to achieve collaboration (…). This consciousness is to be present in a new way, one in which we are able to notice what is occurring in the world rather than trying to impact it; we are as much a player in the moment as anyone else in the room.
Inspired by the tenets of stretch collaboration, we want to explore how experiential learning spaces in the T-Learning case studies in the Netherlands and Colombia – oriented towards the fields of sustainability and learning – can harness conflict and tension as a means to generate moments for critical reflection and transformation. The following are some of the experiences, which we connect to the competences needed to confront and harness conflict in transformative initiatives.
Cristina Temmink: Lekker Nussuh, Local Food initiative in the Hague, the Netherlands.
Lekker Nassuh, translated as ‘Good Munching’, is a community initiative in The Hague, the Netherlands, that focuses on sustainability around a local food system. It’s core business is to organise a weekly vegetable market where around 200 members pick up a basket of fresh local organic produce. The experience I want to share took place one afternoon in the fall of 2017, when I was meeting with two other core group members for a planning session. Soon, we were arguing about the self-organising nature of the initiative. I felt this to be an essential component of transforming organisations and the food system. People should not be told what to do, or what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. They have to experience and find this out for themselves, from their own context, and in their own way and pace. I saw our organisational role as creating a space in which people are invited and encouraged to contribute their ideas, experiences and genius, and to learn.
One of my colleagues in this meeting, who is also a friend, a visionary and a deep systems thinker, understands this well. At the same time, however, she has a strong management background, and I felt she had been acting very much as a manager of the initiative. I considered this was reducing peoples’ agency and sense of responsibility. Furthermore, what I perceived as her ‘management approach’ had increasingly built up resistance in myself, to the point where I was ignoring her many emails, which I read as being ‘instructions’. She, in turn, expressed frustration about my lack of collaboration, and the fact that others in the group were also ignoring her emails. She did not feel supported by me and other colleagues. We entered into a heated conversation in which we expressed ourselves from a space of deep frustration. We did not seem to get nearer to understanding each other, and at some point my colleague started to cry and raise her voice. This made me close myself to her arguments even more.
When we were at a peak in our conflict (my colleague crying and myself being stoic), our other colleague intervened. With fright in his eyes and a pale face he gave back to us what he saw happening. We fell silent and decided to take a minute to check in with ourselves and the situation. It felt like an eternity. We then briefly shared what we were feeling – what was happening in each one of us. I shared with the others how a heavy fatigue had fallen over me, and that I felt a deep sadness and powerlessness. My friend said she felt as her younger self, who had often been ignored and not heard. Our other colleague shared his fear of conflict and how he had been trembling when he intervened. This brief moment of slowing down and reconnecting to ourselves helped us reconnect to one another. It also broadened our perspective. By making explicit the unconscious undercurrents, these became conscious. This completely changed the situation: we could see ourselves in a broader way, all trying to ‘do our best’. We could see how our own beliefs, experiences and pain had narrowed our views on the topic, and our ability to understand each other.
When looking at this conflict using Kahane’s three tenets for stretch collaboration, they can be identified, but in a different order.
When we were already deep into the conflict and, through the intervention of our colleague, we slowed down and placed attention on the consciousness of ourselves and the others, this broadened our perspective. By including the experience of the others, we could look at the situation from a more empathic and holistic space (tenet 3). That day, each of us went home with the understanding that all our experiences and (different) opinions were ‘true’ and that we had to work with it (tenet 1). We did not try to change, solve or ‘fix’ anything, we have just continued with our work and our experiments, but from this new broadened understanding (tenet 2). This has led to a deeper, more robust level of collaboration, where we learn together and challenge each other. When conflicts arise nowadays, we have learned to stop for reflection, and look consciously and curiously at the situation, and what it tells us. All in all, this experience has helped us navigate the sometimes rough waters of our challenging initiative and our complex selves in a better way.
Thomas Macintyre: the intercultural event “The Call of the Mountain”
Reflecting on the tenets of stretch collaboration, and the fascinating narrative by Cristina above, I have decided to share a process that is shifting my understanding of the nature of transformation. For five years, I have been actively participating in, and investigating an intercultural gathering called the Call of the Mountain (El Llamado de la Montaña), held every year in a different grassroots community in Colombia. As a one week experiential learning space, the Call of the Mountain (COTM) is a hotbed for intercultural learning between indigenous, afro, urban and neo-rural peoples, all with different ways of understanding and putting into action sustainability. In my research I have come to understand this event as a large Transformation Lab (T-Lab).
Yet despite the diversity of participants, the organising team for the event is homogenous: middle class neo-rural individuals from the Colombian ecovillage movement, with a strong desire to articulate the ecovillage understanding of sustainability through the five dimensions of sustainability (see figure below):
The 10 year COTM process reached a turning point in 2017, when the collaboration between the COTM organising team and the indigenous host community fall apart. After months of preparation, a breach in protocol resulted in the Indigenous community calling off the event, leaving the organising team in chaos. It is interesting to reflect on the concept of ‘stretch collaboration’ between the COTM organisers and the Indigenous community, and how the conflict has transformed the intercultural event. Below I consider each of the three tenets:
1) A key principle of the COTM gathering is the affirmation of the legitimacy and value of every stance and worldview of participants. As an intercultural event, focus is placed on designing open spaces where all voices are heard, and which encourages dialogue between worldviews. Methodologies such as dialogos de saberes (knowledge dialogues) has allowed an inclusive space to be created where a surprising diversity of worldviews have managed to be gathered in one physical space to share and learn.
2) Another principle for the gathering is that learning occurs when we experience things together. During 7 days, participants live together, cook together, and experience each others customs in a space designed for participation. Imagine a Hare Krishna devotee (a strict vegetarian) discussing meat consumption with an Indigenous Elder, for whom meat is an essential part of their culture. The tensions generated in these interactions can lead to transgressive learning through promoting a critical reflection of our own values and practices.
3) When I consider tenet 3, however – attention on the consciousness of ourselves and the people working to achieve collaboration – I begin to see the contour lines of a sense of hubris on the side of the COTM organisers in thinking that we could understand and control the interaction with the Indigenous community whose objectives and motives for collaborating in the COTM event were clearly different. With a focus on wanting to realize the COTM event – create an impact – the organising team failed to be consciously aware of the dynamics taking place in the Indigenous community. A reason for this could be that we were a homogenous group without voices from the communities we were collaborating with.
Interestingly, the resulting chaos, tears, and recriminations in the organising team – akin to the situation Cristina narrates above – led to a facilitated ‘Future Search’ workshop for COTM organisers. Through collective reflection it was realized that after a period of expansion for the event, in which the focus had been on outscaling sustainability articulations across different societal groups, it was time to slow down and take a step back. More emphasis would be placed on nurturing the core initiatives of the COTM organisers. I see this realization as a transformation in the collective consciousness of the group, whereby through a conflict, a different form of collaboration is emerging, more grounded in the realities and limitations of the core organising group, but which now has the possibility to grow in a more reflexive and mature way.
In terms of the competences needed to confront and harness conflict in transformative initiatives, the experiences above suggests that to become reflexive members of society we need to learn how to take a step back and reflect on conflict. For this to occur, however, we need to be willing and capable to truly listen. We need to be able to understand and affirm that other stances, world views and values are as legitimate as our own. This does not mean that we agree, or that we understand the other point of view. It means we accept that it exists and that it’s true from the other parties’ perspective. And when we can including this ‘otherness’ in our own world, we amplify the possible paths towards more sustainable solutions.
Finally, when conflict arises, we all to often have the tendency to walk out, or to move quickly into resolving, hushing, and looking for consensus without ‘staying with the trouble’, as author Donna Haraway would put it. The above narrative cases illustrate the value of pausing and exploring what the conflict and friction has to offer us in terms of learning about ourselves, others and the broader situation. Such reflections can lead to new understandings in our relationship with each other and the world around us. And such understandings, in turn, can then lead to conscious actions that bring forward alternatives to hegemonic structures in society.
 See Kahane, A. (2017). Collaborating with the enemy: How to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
 See Chaves, M. C., Macintyre, T., Verschoor, G., & Wals, A. E. (2017). Towards transgressive learning through ontological politics. Sustainability, 9(1).
 See Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.