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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Can't We All Just Get Along?
January 15, 2000

"You're a jerk!"

"Oh yeah?! Well you're a selfish baby!"

"I hate you! If I never have to talk to you again, it will be too soon!"

"Fine! I'm outta here!"

Stomp, stomp, stomp, SLAM!

I'm sure none of you have ever had a fight like that, right? OK, be honest. Maybe it was your sister, or your best friend, or even one of your parents! Conflict is an inevitable part of life. Face it, everyone in the world can be annoying sometimes… even YOU! And you can't just decide never to talk to the person you are in conflict with again, unless you want to go live alone in a cave somewhere.

The theme for our time here in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is conflict and resolution. We're focusing on a conflict that involves millions of people and has been going on for decades. We're meeting people involved, trying to hear their sides of the story, and meeting groups that try to create peace and understanding between the people involved.

Could you imagine Ehud Barak, the Prime Minister of Israel, and Yasir Arafat, the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, having a fight like the one above? Instead of feet stomping and doors slamming, we'd hear tanks rolling and bombs exploding… and sadly, there's been enough of that already around here.

You may think that your personal, daily conflicts are completely unrelated to global conflicts like this. But what if we really did learn how to better deal with each other on a personal level? Do you think those lessons might help us better live as a society? And, even if they didn't, wouldn't it make our lives better anyway?

All over the world groups of people live together with the intention of forming communities and working through their differences. But this is not always easy.

Laird Sandhill, a friend of mine and the editor of a magazine called Communities, says "Community is not about eliminating the differences to find the joy, it's about living joyously with the differences. The road to joy often leads through conflict, not trying to take the bypass road around it."

alienation - emotional isolation, feeling like you don't belong and can't relate
consensus - a general agreement or concord; harmony
feedback - a response; information given back
individualism - a philosophy of each person for him- or herself
projecting -attributing an emotion to someone else (the way your dad acts annoys you, so you say he's being a jerk)
vilification -to make evil, damaging, and sometimes untrue statements about someone

That's right, Laird is actually suggesting here that conflict may be good! "When conflict leads to fragmentation and violence," he wrote, "a predictable sequence follows: frustration with not feeling heard, alienation, a growing sense of hopelessness, breakdown in communication, vilification or dehumanizing of the other, an expectancy of violence- verbal or physical. To get different results, we have to object to this sequence. The essential challenge of cooperative living-which is also the challenge of world peace-is working purposefully and productively with conflict."

The Chinese symbol for conflict, I'm told, is a comination of the symbols for "crisis" and "opportunity." I bet you didn't think of your last argument as an "opportunity," did you? But then, were you willing to change?

People who live in these intentional communities are working on better ways to communicate and resolve conflict. For example, some communities run on the "consensus" model, where the majority of the people involved have to agree to a decision before it is made. Consensus can be a lot of work, but once a decision is made, everyone feels like they were a part of it. In effect, it strengthens communities rather than pulling them apart.

A Cultural Tradeoff?

Traveling is, in reality, as much of an inward journey as an outward one. By seeing how the rest of the world lives, and how people from other cultures view me, I learn a lot about myself and my culture. Who am I? What are my values?

One thing I used to find odd while traveling was how frequently I was asked if I'm married, and how many kids I have. While the curious questioner seems horrified to discover that I am 27 years old and not married yet, I find myself annoyed that people I barely know are prying into my private life. Sometimes I want to exclaim, "It's none of your business!""

One day, somewhere in South America, someone explained to me the cultural differences that are at work in this interaction. "For these people, family and community are the most important things in the world. No matter how much education you have, no matter how great your job is nor how many places you've visited, they feel very sorry for you. They cannot understand that someone would consciously choose not to get married and have a family."

When I heard that, I felt as if in some way the world was telling me that my life is lacking something. People often romanticize the lives of peasants in developing countries: Perhaps we need to question if and why we have traded a deeper human connection with our communities for "individualism", wealth and adventure.

Now don't get me wrong- I wouldn't quit my job with the Odyssey for anything in the world. But it has made me appreciate my friends, family and community (conflicts included) so much more. Absence makes the heart grow fonder!

The Ganas community on Staten Island in New York City works with what they call the "Feedback Learning Technique". They have made a commitment to each other to give and accept feedback openly, as a way to improve themselves and strengthen their community. One thing you'll hear a lot of at Ganas are what are known as "I statements".

"Dad! You always have to embarrass me when my friends are around! You're so mean!"

"You're just too sensitive! You won't let me enjoy myself!"

This is an argument I had hundreds of times with my father when I was growing up. He would do and say inappropriate and rude things, and I would sink into the background, hoping no one noticed me. As far as I was concerned, everything was his fault, and he was mean. As far as he was concerned, I was just being a little brat who attacked him all the time. We spent most of my teenage years stuck in this dynamic.

I wish, back then, that I'd learned about a simple little thing called the "I statement". It wasn't until I joined Twin Oaks Community after college that I learned this nifty little rule for expressing "feedback"- a nice word for giving your opinion about someone else directly to them. Instead of blaming the other person-"You did this" or "You are such and such"-an "I-statement" is about you and how the action made you feel. And that doesn't mean saying, "Dad, I feel like you're a jerk!" An "I statement" usually comes in the form: "When you do such-and-such, I feel this-and-that."

Let's imagine that same conversation with my dad, but this time we're not allowed to blame one another for our feelings. Instead we use "I statements":

Me-"Dad, when you wear the baseball cap with the golden wings on the side and the windmill on top and sing zip-a-dee-doo-da at the top of your lungs, I feel uncomfortable-as if everyone is staring. I don't want to be seen with you."

Dad-"But when you ask me to stop wearing my goofy clothes and being myself, I feel like you don't enjoy me for who I am, and I get sad. It makes me not want to go out with you either."

It changes the nature of the interaction a lot, doesn't it? Instead of "projecting" your opinions onto the other person by accusing them of being some particular way, "I statements" help the other person understand your position. It leaves a lot more room for conversation and compromise, doesn't it? If everyone on the Jerry Springer Show used "I statements," ratings would go way down because the conflict would go way down, too!

"I statements" mean you accept responsibility for your own feelings. And when you accept responsibility for your feelings, that gives you the power to control your life, instead of thinking you are controlled by others. "I statements" are really powerful things! On the one hand, it's great because it means that my dad can't "make me" feel a certain way. But then again, it's a pain, because sometimes I DO feel that way anyway. Then I have no one to blame but myself! That is where the "opportunity for change" comes in.

The next time you want to give someone "feedback", try using an "I statement". Practice it in your classroom with sample conflicts. Maybe you can agree among your class, your friends and your family that you won't use accusatory "You statements" when you're in conflict.

Of course, using "I statements" isn't going to help the ongoing conflict here.

"When you bulldoze my house to build new settlements on my land, I feel sad."

"Yeah, well when you leave pipe-bombs on the street corner and blow up members of my family, I get a little upset, too."

But then, maybe if people had put aside their egos and put a little more emphasis on mutual respect and communication to begin with, things wouldn't have sunk so low! There are, of course, more advanced techniques for conflict resolution. Check out the websites below to learn more about other methods of conflict resolution and the intentional communities movement.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at
Related Links:

The Intentional Communities Website:

Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage and intentional community in Missouri:

The Ganas Community:

Kevin - Setting the Stage for War
Kevin - Safed: A Battle of Living History
Monica - Under the Sacred Rock
Team - Exercise Your Right and Write

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