Category Archives: Transform the Healer

Essays reflecting on how to make vocations healing, activism, and peacebuilding a spiritual path.

Conflict as Spiritual Path


Conflict style awareness is truly useful in day-to-day management of differences.  It’s easy to learn.

But not so easy to do!

Easy:  Learning the basics of conflict styles.  Do this in a few minutes with this free “Intro to Conflict Styles”.  You can figure out your own conflict style almost as quickly by taking a conflict style quiz (such as my Style Matters; the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or even a cross-cultural one).

Challenging:  remembering, in the heat of conflict, to use those great conflict resolution strategies.  We are hardwired by nature with a tiny set of responses when we are frightened or angry: flight, fight, or freeze.  Those three simple responses enabled survival in the jungle and you can witness them any time you want in the animal world.  But they have limited use for human beings today.

To build partnerships and solve problems in a complex world we need additional options for responding, and the ability to choose rather than merely react.  We acquire these capacities, not by relying on instinct, but by thought, practice, and reflection.

Conflict as Spiritual Path

When we are angry or frustrated, brain functions change.  The instinctual flight/fight/freeze brain takes over; the rational brain steps back.  Emotion blots out thought.  We react rather than choose.  Instinct and habit rule, not judgement and skill.

But all is not lost.  In the words of Victor Frankl, the holocaust survivor whose writings have inspired generations: “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I sometimes speak of conflict resolution as a spiritual path and Frankl nails why:  What we do in moments of difficulty with others has enduring consequences.  In the seconds between provocation and response we make choices that shape us and our legacy as human beings.

Here enduring and timeless aspects of our being come concretely within our influence.  Here, over time, in the patterns of repeated choices, we make manifest that which we consider of greatest value.  Here we shape the essence of the soul.

(Similarly, here too, in times of crisis, we witness laid bare for the world to see the true character of nations and communities and their institutions of governance and law. Ignore political rhetoric if you want to evaluate leaders and nations; just study what they actually do in times of provocation.)

You are not a helpless victim of your past.   You already possess ability to choose wisely.   Perhaps in lesser measure than you wish, but you can enlarge it.  In the heat of conflict arise opportunities to do this.

By recognizing you have choices and taking responsibility to reflect on and grow in choosing well, in ways that reflect the essence of your life and being, you make conflict a spiritual path.

Four Choice Expanders for the Journey

1. Take the initiative when there is conflict brewing.  Planning is your best ally in responding well in conflict.  If you don’t plan, you put yourself at the mercy of your emotions and someone else’s timetable.

Planning doesn’t mean you must always engage.  Avoiding is sometimes the best solution – click on the Avoiding tab in this tutorial to see a summary of when and why silence or walking away is sometimes the best solution.  But if you avoid, do it by choice, not from habit.

When a difficult issue is brewing and you recognize conversation is required, take charge of yourself by pondering when, where, and how discussion will take place.   Think through what you hope to achieve in the situation, and what your opponent probably hopes for.  Make a list of your options and possible consequences of each. Then prepare a strategy to approach the other person.  Tammy Lenski and other web authors provide good ideas here.

Preparing and taking the initiative doesn’t guarantee easy solutions.  But it greatly increases your ability to choose and manage the responses you want to make in conflict.

2.  Work on listening skills.  Do a web search on “conflict resolution skills” and you can quickly find quite a list of skills that are truly useful in conflict resolution.  Listening skills deserves to top that list – it is a “force multiplier” that amplifies effectiveness of every other skill.

Do not make the common mistake of confusing listening with agreeing or accepting. Understand listening at its barest minimum, as information gathering.  Whether you decide in the end to smile and be agreeable, or stiffen your back and confront, a foundation of good listening provides valuable information and makes you more effective.

And of course, whether you employ active listening or its more demanding cousin, reflective listening, listening keeps your rationale brain active, thereby expanding your ability to choose.

3.  Practice your lines.  I wish I had a more compelling way to say it.  But conflict resolution unfolds in the realm of words and the best way I know to prepare for a difficult conversation is to practice what you’re going to say.

Let’s say you’re inspired by that concept from Ury and Fisher’s famous Getting to Yes, about separating interests and positions.  What exactly are you going to say to move the conversation in that direction?

Or maybe you can see room to make concessions, but you’re so angry about the attitude of your opponent that there’s no way you’ll even hint at compromise until he gets off his self-righteousness?  How will you communicate this complex truth in a way most likely to bring progress?

I like journalling as a tool to think through what I want to say.  I often write out, word for word, phrases, sentences, and questions I might to use in an upcoming difficult conversation.   Sometime it takes many minutes to figure out the wording of phrase that can be said in seconds.

Maybe my first try at an opening line is: “I can’t believe how childish you are!”  Honest, but not so helpful.  Second try is “I’m outraged about the things you’re saying about me in staff meeting!”  Third Try: “You said things in staff meeting Monday that really got my blood boiling.  Eventually I calmed down, but I really don’t understand where this is coming from.  Could you fill me in on the history here?”

Obviously the third try invites a different dynamic than the first.  When I put the notes aside, it’s surprising how much remains in my head, not only words and phrases but also attitude, ready for deployment in moments of heated choice.

The ultimate way to practice lines, of course, is in role play.  From time to time I call on a friend or family member to take the role for a few minutes of someone whom I need to confront.  Here I try out words, phrases, and strategies from my notes.  Even if I disagree with the advice of my allies, rehearsal increases self-control and choice in the real life conversation that follows.

4.  Try calming techniques.  We’ve all heard of people who instill in themselves a habit of counting silently to 10 before igniting.  Conflict resolution consultant Tammy Lenski suggests additional techniques for mental detachment based on research:

– physically leaning back, which has been shown to help achieve mental detachment

– imaging that you are viewing yourself from a distance, like a fly on the wall

– moving away from the person you are upset with and if this is not possible, imaging that you are moving away and they are getting smaller.

Use This Powerful Force for Change

Call to Deep

By adopting practices of interaction largely stripped of symbols and moments to engage Depth, we cut ourselves off from the most powerful source of energy for creativity, connection, and change available to us.

Are you exploring the power of symbols in your work in conflict resolution and human development?

I am moved by an email I recently received from Samaritan Inns, which serves homeless people. “At Samaritan Inns, during every counseling session, we sit out one empty chair. Every client knows that this chair represents the person who isn’t here yet. This is the next client that walks through our doors and onto the road to recovery.”

That empty chair is a potent symbol of hope. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to place it, or to explain the meaning of its presence. It will be forgotten during most of an intense counseling session.

Yet it serves as a tangible, here-and-now reminder of things every person in counseling benefits from remembering. He or she is not the only one who suffers. The journey of recovery awaits, for all, whenever they choose to begin it. There is hope for things to get better.

As a symbol, the empty chair invokes these things without preaching, without words. It speaks silently, by its mere presence, to the depths that reside in all human beings but often remain untouched.

The Call to the Deep is often abused. All of us have been subjected to people who shout the Call or try to impose their interpretation of it on others.

As modern people we’ve rightly reacted to such manipulation. But we’ve also thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In adopting practices of interaction stripped of symbols and moments to engage Depth, we cut ourselves off from the most powerful source of energy for creativity, connection, and change available to us.

The Deep that resides within each human being (or “beyond”, if you prefer) offers its power only to those who seek it through hopeful choice. Loud proclamations, angry condemnations, and invocations of guilt obstruct access to this place.

In today’s  world of competing narratives we’ve exhausted the power of words to call upon that place of deep knowing where we hear and remember Depth.  I’m quickly bored and rarely moved by verbal strategies to take us there. I’m refreshed, intrigued, and inspired by non-verbal ones.

Movement, symbol, sound, smell, silence.

If you were to place an empty chair in your classroom, workshop, session, or meeting, what would you want it to symbolize?

With what symbols do you or might you remind the people you work with that they are not alone in their pain, that “this too shall pass”, that warmth and love still exist even if we don’t feel them right now, that moments of “better” will come, that forgiveness is possible?

What strategies and practices have you experimented with, or better, built into the routines of your work or life that invite all present to the River, that place of the Deep where human beings meet hope, light, and possibility for fresh beginnings?

Tips for a Conflict Resolution Career


Career in Conflict Resolution-2


Everywhere I’ve lived and worked, I’ve met people who feel a deep inner echo to the idea of making peace.  I’m a bit mystical about such things. The inner echo is one mark of a calling and I have a lot of time for people hearing it.

But then it gets complicated.  How to get from inner echo to outer action? Sustaining my own call over 37 years and observing others, I’ve learned a few things:

      1.  View a job in conflict resolution and peacebuilding as a long-term objective.

        Almost nobody gets a degree in conflict resolution and then walks straight into a job in the field. You prepare and position yourself, you build experience and relationships, and if you are lucky a path slowly opens. Which means that, unless you are independently wealthy, you need to….

      2. Maintain at least one area of expertise or credentials besides peacebuilding.

        Most people with a job in conflict resolution subsidized their interest for a number of years with something else.   It takes a while to build up experience and a reputation in conflict resolution. In the meantime you’ve got to eat.  Whether law, social work, editing, teaching, web freelancing, pastoring, or carpentry, you’ll probably need something else to live on. This is not a bad thing because there’s more than financial reasons to have a second set of credentials.

      3. The path to full-time work in conflict resolution often runs through something else you’re already good at.

        People in conflict don’t want just any old mediator. They want someone competent in the area of their disagreement. Businesses want assistance from someone who understands business; schools, an educator. Religious organizations want “one of us.” International organizations seek facilitators, trainers, and consultants with deep knowledge of a region or relevant disciplines. So expertise in another area gives you your best opportunities for building a career in conflict resolution.

        Even if you cannot yet credibly present yourself as a resource on conflict resolution, you can still  advocate for creation of structures and processes for constructive resolution in the settings where you are connected. Start a playground mediation program in your school if you’re a teacher, encourage clients to explore mediation if you’re a lawyer, counsel a client in dealing with a conflicted family if you’re a social worker, lead a workshop on conflict resolution for a group of youth if you’re a youth worker.

        One great way to start is by leading a conflict styles workshop. Groups and teams of all kinds benefit from spending an hour or two reflecting on conflict style preferences of individuals in the group. So long as you are comfortable with basic group facilitation you don’t need to be a conflict resolution expert to lead a successful learning experience. Download my free “Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops” for help in designing the workshop.

        In all the above, you’ll make mistakes but you’ll learn fast! If you enjoy it and others respond well, you’ll want more and you’ll find ways to do a repeat. Over time,  more and bigger doors will open.

      4. Expand your vocational goal from mediator to peacebuilder.  

        Mediating is a valuable but rather narrow go-between role, often confined by professional or social expectations, for which there is limited need in our world. Peacebuilding is a way of being and contributing to constructive resolution of conflict that can find expression in any number of roles and functions. There will never be enough peacebuilders because human beings are diverse and therefore conflict is inescapable.

        You might find, if you are, say, a lawyer, that you love being known for handling legal cases in ways that encourage early settlement. An administrator might take deep satisfaction in becoming highly effective in managing staff disputes. Even if you are sure you wish to end up working fulltime as a mediator, one of the best things you can to do open doors for that is to become known in your existing profession as someone with great conflict resolution skills.

      5. Polish writing skills.

        Conflict resolution work almost always involves the creation of new processes and structures. You have to advocate unusual ideas, develop proposals to get approval and funding, draft reports, create summaries. All have written communication at their core.  So at a minimum make it a goal to learn how to write clearly and simply.

        In a world where digital communication influences everything, learn tools for use of visuals in writing as well. You probably already know how to use Word and Powerpoint. What about, where you can easily craft killer visuals with attractive fonts and pictures at little cost?  (I have no relationship to any of the mentioned products or sites.)

      6. Learn inbound marketing.

        This is a recent and still tentative learning based on the eye-opening education I’ve received marketing my Style Matters conflict style inventory. Seemingly unnoticed by people in the social change, peacebuilding, community development, and human rights worlds, a transformation is taking place in how businesses reach buyers and clients.

        Many successful online businesses now avoid the loud, attention-getting sales strategies once considered necessary to sell. Instead they invest in listening carefully to the people who use their products. They give away a lot of useful knowledge and services for free. They emphasize collaboration and networking. People come to view such businesses as helpful and trustworthy and don’t need to be persuaded to buy.

        Clear strategies and tools have emerged in the business world with tremendous potential for peacebuilders and other agents of social change. Do a search on “inbound marketing” for resources, many of them free, at least for small users. Two of my favorites are and

        Look at Craig Zelizer’s Peace and Collaborative Development Network for a rare example of inbound marketing in the social change world. Lots of freebies there – good ones that clearly respond to needs. Extensive use of social media. Blogging. Networking in all directions. Obviously the site requires revenue and generates some – ads, requests for support – but revenue generation doesn’t dominate.  And no, you don’t have to be as big and ambitious as that site to benefit from inbound marketing approaches.

      7. If you aspire to do peacebuilding internationally, get a foundation in community development.

        The cutting edge in peacebuilding internationally lies at the intersection of peacebuilding and development. Reflect that awareness in your career path and you will be more credible to agencies doing serious peacebuilding work.  The single best career advancer for someone interested in international peacebuilding would be to spend several years in development work, paid or volunteer.

        But do not make the mistake of targeting the large, monied international organizations that are widely considered the pinnacle of international work as your ultimate career destination. You will pay dearly to elevate yourself in such organizations, in currencies that are priceless – the health and stability of your personal relationships (“Consider the UN your wife,” a seasoned UN peacebuilder once advised me, not in jest), your rootedness in community, your hopefulness for humanity, your contentment of soul.

        That is not advice against a sojourn in such places, but rather a caution against staying too long in them or assuming too much regarding what can be achieved there, how you will be treated, and how you will feel about your life as a result of your time there.

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        Ron Kraybill has worked as an in-residence peacebuilding advisor and trainer in South Africa, Lesotho, the Philippines, Ireland and other locations for the United Nations, Mennonite Central Committee, and other organizations since 1979.  He now resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and blogs at Copyright Ron Kraybill 2016.  All rights reserved. May be reproduced if this statement of authorship is included and links are made to

Work Yourself Out of a Job

Transform_ConflictIn my early days in peacebuilding,  I met with John A. Lapp, the executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee.   I had just been “hired” for a one-year stint of voluntary service with MCC to establish a new unit, the Mennonite Conciliation Service.

“Your goal should always be to work yourself out of a job,” Lapp commented thoughtfully.  In the 37 years since, I have often remembered the words of this veteran Mennonite peacebuilder and development worker.  Like a zen koan, they have provided me with layers of insight about vocation and the requirements of peacebuilding.

Conflict Transformation Starts with Encouraging Self-Sufficiency

As modern professionals tend to do, I thought of my work as responding to the immediate needs presented by individuals I was working with.  I thought Lapp meant  that, when mediating, I should seek timely withdrawal from conflicts and encourage parties to develop their own means of working out differences. It seemed like good advice and I sought to follow it as the caseload of our new unit slowly developed.

I was unable yet to see that my mentor, a veteran development worker deeply tutored by life experience working with communities that were both conflicted and disadvantaged, almost certainly had in mind dynamics and needs larger than the day to day quarrels of individuals.

Transformation Continues with Building Capacity to Make Peace

As requests for mediation increased, I sensed a call for deeper forfeiture than I had first understood.  I could be only one place at a time; conflict is everywhere. To achieve our goal of encouraging constructive resolution of conflict in communities and the nation, I should let go of the goal of becoming the mediator and instead train others as mediators.  I loved mediating, but I recognized I must shift my priority to training mediators, a mission I felt pretty shaky about.

Transformation Expands by Training Trainers

I soon came to love training even more than mediating.  But as demand for MCS workshops increased, it became apparent that a still deeper level of relinquishment was called for.   My calendar couldn’t accommodate all the promising possibilities to lead training workshops.  Rather than training mediators I ought to be training trainers.

I began pulling away from doing training workshops myself and sought to focus my priorities around developing others as trainers and bringing them into MCS workshops as co-leaders and leaders.

This was strange and scary in the beginning.  I was used to being in front, teaching.  Now I was often at the back while others taught.  And if I gave away all my training expertise, wouldn’t I soon be left behind, with nothing to do?

Transformation Endures by Multiplying those with a Vision for Peace

Of course it didn’t take long to see that being at the heart of a network of trainers grateful for what I had taught them was even more rewarding than training itself!

Yet even this focus eventually proved too narrow.  Peace in our world requires people with broad and courageous vision of possibilities for peace.   Such people are present in every society and situation of conflict, but often they lack the courage and skills to act.

So the “job” as I have come to understand it in recent years is to find and be an ally to those with a vision for peace.  Some may become mediators or facilitators, but others will become advocates of tolerance, bridgebuilders to supposed enemies, conveners or funders of fellow peace visionaries, professionals in other callings who use their connections and influence to create processes and institutions that build peace, etc.

This is the right “job” for me at this time, I am sure.  Yet it is certainly the loneliest.  I miss the daily comraderie,  the sense of intricate rootedness I felt in earlier roles.   Sometimes I feel that I am floating rather than deeply engaging.  The structures – and rewards – of this new modality are still emerging.

Values that Guide Transformative Presence

At the root of my own deepening understandings of peacebuilding lie understandings of self, relationships to others, and calling that could be stated quite explicitly: You are not in this work just for yourself, to build a great career; you are to be deeply guided by the needs of those you serve.

And therefore: Since your role must respond to the needs of others, it is transitory.  Do not expect or seek permanency. In fact, success depends in part on your ability to precipitate transition wisely, in the service of others. This will probably require relinquishment, letting go of something desirable and rewarding. But that is as it should be, because you have a calling higher than any one job or role; let that higher calling define your role.

To do this requires a conscious commitment to the empowerment of others and a rather substantial personal capacity to contain the ego as the peacebuilder scales back from established roles that are often quite gratifying to the peacebuilder, in order to support others in stepping into them.

One of the moves I feel best about across my career was a decision to step out of a role I enjoyed as Director of Training, hand it to a promising young South African whom I had hired and trained, and continue to work under his supervision.  More on that in a later blog post.

Needed: More than an Iron Bladder, A Hard Head, and a Brass Butt

Dr. James Laue, the twinkly-eyed, pioneering Methodist layman and early proponent of the US Institute for Peace, used to sketch a comic drawing, the “anatomy of a peacebuilder”.  Along with a hard head, an iron bladder and a brass butt, a key element was an “ego container”.

In my view, the field of peacebuilding globally has plateaued.  The field is becoming institutionalized; too many decisions are made on the basis of turf and personal career interests of would-be peacebuilders, ignoring the requirements of transformation and empowerment of  people in conflicted communities.

Holding the goal of “working myself out of a job” helps me create an ego container and locate myself at that intersection of conflict resolution and human development called  conflict transformation.   Here my longings for professional security and accomplishment are confronted by my vision for integrity and transformation of the world.

From this uncomfortable encounter have emerged the most challenging – but also the richest and most rewarding – transitions of my career.

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@ Ron Kraybill, 2016,  May be reproduced so long as attribution is given.   This post is the first in a new blog category, “Transforming the Peacebuilder”, reflecting on personal formation and self-care of peacebuilders and other agents of constructive change.  This post is adapted from my chapter, “Transforming the Peacebuilder”,  in Andrew P. Klager, editor, From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding” (Wipf and Stock, 2015).