AMC Session Inspiration: “Courage > Conflict: Communicating Accountably”

As we begin another year of organizing for AMC2016, we are excited to highlight some of the big ideas that emerged from this past summer’s conference. We hope the ideas and creative strategies explored in the interviews below encourage you to propose a session for AMC2016!

At AMC2015 some of your favorite sessions explored strategies for dealing with interpersonal conflict and trauma through the lens of “transformative justice”. One of these sessions, called “Courage > Conflict: Communicating Accountably,” used a “detours” mapping tool to illuminate strategies for responding to difficult feedback in order to build stronger relationships.

Check out our interview with presenters Shreya Shah and Matice Moore.

How did the idea for this session come about?

Shreya: I facilitate social justice based workshops and organizational development processes with groups across the U.S. Groups are often surprised to hear how common conflict is. We are taught to keep conflicts private to maintain stable organizational funding or a “healthy” reputation, instead of learning from each other’s challenges and seeking solutions together.

I’ve witnessed communication breakdowns in various community and personal relationships where people can no longer hear each other, including when there is actual agreement. Layer this with the impacts of trauma and oppression, being in a state of conflict and strained relationships often means we feel heartbroken, isolated, and lost. So in our session I wanted to share a simple yet powerful tool that has been deeply transformational and useful when navigating challenging topics, not just in my work but also in my own life.

Matice: I've done training and facilitation with groups in the past on identifying forms of resistance against difficult or challenging conversations that make us feel vulnerable. When Shreya proposed that I co-facilitate the “Courage > Conflict” session, the idea really resonated with me.

Why was it important to present this session at the AMC?

Matice: I haven’t seen a lot of tools or support strategies to help navigate interpersonal conflicts that are readily available to grassroots groups or low budget organizations. Additionally, we're often too engaged in surviving and doing important movement work to take the time to reflect on our own coping mechanisms and ways we've adapted to deal with social dynamics and conflict. Offering this session at a gathering like AMC resonated with an audience of folks who want to build the relationship capacity necessary for innovative change-making.

We're often too engaged in surviving and doing important movement work to take the time to reflect on our own coping mechanisms and ways we've adapted to deal with social dynamics and conflict.

Shreya: The AMC draws tons of amazing creative activists and organizers ready for transformative and vulnerable conversations, listening, and learning. I’ve appreciated how participatory, interactive, and tender AMC spaces have been; folks come not just to gain skills and analysis but to build relationships and support for/with each other. It seemed like the perfect convening to have a large ripple effect on communities I care about across the States and Canada, and to have a dialogue about “call(ed) out” culture. We wanted to present our “detours” communication mapping tool which offers strategies for healthfully responding to difficult feedback and we wanted feedback from session participants on how to make this mapping tool even more powerful.

detours mapping tool
Detours Communication Mapping Tool used in the session

What were some highlights from the session?

Shreya: Matice shared a personal story illustrating dynamics and conflict that participants had likely experienced at some point in their own lives. You could see the progression of how small moments of tension, misunderstanding, or disagreement unfolded into conflict. We used this as a real, hands-on example to apply the “detours” communications mapping tool. A “detour” is any response that avoids responsibility for your hurtful impact on others, especially when related to your power and privilege. We deconstructed how actions and words in the story were actually detours (defensive, titfortat comments like, “I’m your ally”, or “I didn’t mean it like that…”, and so on). We contextualized how past experiences of trauma and fight or flight coping mechanisms get in the way of one’s capacity to listen, interact, and respond to others, despite our best intentions.

We wanted to go beyond theory and analysis and create a safer and braver place to try a different way of communicating.

Matice: The sheer number of people in attendance surprised me initially. I also enjoyed watching how the participants supported learning experience by offering terms that were new to me (like “gaslighting”) and conflict resolution strategies that had worked for them (such as using anonymous evaluation tools to address conflict and hierarchy in the workplace).

Shreya: With any conflict transformation tool, it is important to be ready to use them by practicing! We wanted to go beyond theory and analysis and create a safer and braver place to try a different way of communicating. Too often we are told to hide conflict and in this session we wanted people to know that good communication involves taking risks.

We asked participants to draw from conflicts they were struggling with, naming the detours in the situation. Then we had folks get into pairs, and partner A shared a phrase or sentence that made them feel defensive to Partner B, so they could practice more openness and transformative communication instead. They coached each other using some of the tips we shared. It was awesome to hear about people’s “ah-ha” moments in situations where things previously felt stuck.

shreya and matice
Shreya Shah and Matice Moore presenting at AMC2015

What were some takeaways from the session?

Shreya: I think the sharing of stories around conflict helped destigmatize conflict and offered two important ideas: (1) if we are engaging in authentic relationship, we’ll hurt each other at some point, but we have agency in our responses when we do, and (2) conflict has the ability to be generative and create openings to new understandings of ourselves and others. This requires shifting away from asking ourselves “How am I right in this situation?” to “How can this situation be used to build trust in this relationship, our communities, our movements?”

Accountable communication is a long-term practice. It’s about reflection, observation, (re)iteration, and self-care.

Participants were able to observe their own responses with new perspectives (and some laughter!) and took home some long and short-term strategies to try out. The energy in the room felt different after we practiced; people were glowing like they do after a good workout! Some folks told us they even used the detours map in situations that came up during the AMC weekend. The workshop seemed to be a powerful exhale for many folks, allowing them to feel less alone and less afraid to have hard conversations.

Matice: I think that people left the session understanding that accountable communication is a long-term practice. It’s about reflection, observation, (re)iteration, and self-care. We emphasize this long-term mindset and the need to be in practice, over time.

What’s next? How will this work continue after the AMC?

Shreya: I will continue using this tool with organizations and groups who reach out to me. I am also building a series of community-based workshops and blog posts that explore the intersection of anti-oppression, transformative communication, trauma, and accountability. I will be sharing these resources and other updates on Saltwater Training and Consulting's facebook and website. I’m invested in shifting our culture around communication and practicing the use of conflict as an opportunity for individual and community transformation and healing. Sharing stories, collective solution-finding, and having space and time to practice transformative communication strategies is a vital part of this work.

Matice: I'm interested in continuing to think about tools and resources for engaging with social dynamics and oppression within interpersonal relationships. Particularly in terms of how we heal new and old traumas so that we can grow our relationship capacity – and especially because this feels like an area of growth I need in my own life. I think it is a vital place from which to examine whether or not our values are in alignment with our behavior, and what folks are reflecting back to us, and to be supported in doing the vulnerable work of being in accountable community.

Want more AMC session inspiration? Read our interviews with the presenters of “Speculative Cities” & “Anti Eviction Mapping” and our interview with the presenters of “Old Gold: Do-it-yourself Music Production.”

It’s that time of year again! We’re coming up on the 18th annual Allied Media Conference, June 16 - 19 in Detroit, and we need your ideas to make this year’s conference the best yet. Artists, designers, technologists, policy advocates, media enthusiasts: we encourage you to submit a session proposal! The deadline to submit your idea is March 11, 2016.

Read next: