Resolving/Reducing Conflict in Covens and communities


Several years ago, I read Thich Nhat Hahn's book Being Peace. In it, he details a community conflict resolution procedure that happens in Buddhist monasteries he has known, involving the community's decision to cease whatever they were doing and gather together immediately to work through a conflict between two or more people. The procedure is not about "finding out who is right" or "making a case for one's self" which is what we often do in our Western models of conflict resolution such as court cases and other methods of peer critique. Rather, he offers us an alternative that allows each person ample space for well-mannered expression, a sense of support for their being, even if not their position, the community's choice to witness all sides of a story, and a path toward wholeness where no one is made a victim, scapegoat, or winner.

I was inspired by this model, and I adapted it for use in CAYA Coven. As an eclectic community with a wide possible swath of needs and ideologies, we cannot afford to begin critiquing who is "right" or "wrong" according to their own, heartfelt, honest truths. However, we DO need to be able to find the lowest possible common denominator of truth for everyone, and occasionally that can be tricky when two or more people feel that their personal priorities are in competition or at odds. Though we are not a monastic community, and cannot typically afford to just stop doing whatever we are doing (jobs, children, work) to come together for a conflict resolution procedure right in the moment, we CAN schedule said meeting for a mutually-convenient time, gather the relevant individuals together with a committee or facilitator who is trusted and beloved by all parties involved, and explore some aspects of Thich Nhat Hahn's process in our own deliberations. Over the years since I first wrote it, and in the adaptations that have followed, the CAYA Conflict Resolution Procedure has been one of my greatest teachers in the aspects of holding leadership, finding balance when emotions run high, the importance of truthfulness and honesty, and community-level discernment.

Of note: the current CAYA Conflict Resolution Team consists of me, Molly Blue Dawn, our Wildflower representative (who has facilitated the most procedures and been instrumental in helping to shape this evolving process), Rowan Nightshade, our Bloodroot Honey representative, and Kian Dubh Drakos, our Green Man representative.

In the past year, I had had occasion to share this procedure with a few different communities in my travels, and have found where the pieces that are uniquely CAYA or the pieces that are uniquely Buddhist might not be relevant to other communities. Yet the core concepts of nonjudgmental witness, expansiveness into new ways of being in community together, and the negotiations around the restoration of Perfect Trust nonetheless apply in many different types of groups spiritual, professional, family, friends. Thus, I have taken consideration of how other groups might employ this procedure, and wanted to share it with you in case it is of use in your group, family, or community.

Coven/Community Conflict Resolution Procedure

The following procedure is a detailed one, like many transformation spells can be. To take the time and expend the effort to establish conflict resolution in a magical community is like the weaving of a complex and subtle spell. The effort taken is a sign of respect and commitment to the goal. This procedure described below is based on CAYA Coven's Conflict Resolution Procedure. We draw heavy inspiration in this from a similar procedure described in Thich Nat Hahn's Being Peace. We also recommend Crystal Blanton's book, Bridging the Gapfor communities in conflict.

The procedure below will work  best for a community in which all parties are aware and in acknowledgement that they wish to stay members of the same community, but have suffered a break or crack in their mutual love and trust. The objective of this procedure is to establish the terms around which this crack will be mended to the negotiated satisfaction of all. Thus, upon entering this meeting, all are aware that everyone has committed to resolving this conflict, for everyone's highest good in the situation, and in the wider community. It is up to the personal responsibility and honor of everyone involved to uphold this commitment, and all commitments made during this procedure.

The moment someone agrees to this procedure, they agree to finding resolution. That commitment must be firm. This way, when all parties enter the discussion, they already know that they will find a way to return to wholeness and accord during this process. Should anyone at the discussion choose not to come into the collective accord, alternate arrangements will need to be made to deal with the conflict, such as a professional mediator, a willing parting of ways, or a rest period of both or all parties until they are ready to come to the table with greater openness.

This procedure is meant to help groups deal with: wounding in a friendship, a romantic break-up where both parties wish to remain in the group, or for a conflict that has arisen from a situation of ill-fated communication, misunderstanding, political dispute, challenged expectations, or other similar issues.*

You will need a trusted Facilitator who is respected by all parties involved. Ideally, this Facilitator knows the community in question up close, such as a Tradition Elder. In some cases, however, especially if one of the parties in conflict IS that Elder or leader, a respected person outside the immediate purview of the community might be invited to be involved.  This Facilitator, once agreed upon by all parties involved, takes responsibility for setting the most mutually convenient meeting time, and potentially hosting the meeting or finding a suitable place for the meeting. The ideal place for the meeting is going to be quiet, private, and available without interruption for up to three hours. All parties are requested to commit to stay until the conflict is resolved, up to about three hours, then break and set another date if necessary.

Once the Conflict Resolution Procedure has been agreed upon, all parties involved make the solemn commitment not to speak of this conflict to others or each other until the meeting has been held. This helps to diffuse the possibility of scaffolding one's own story with the sympathetic outrage of others, to protect the reputations of all at stake, and to keep the communication as direct between the actual parties invoked as possible. It is not to hide a conflict away in shame, but rather, it is an acknowledgment that it is not loving nor appropriate to spill our conflicts onto uninvolved parties, especially when there is an actual meeting to establish direct resolution immanent.

Each party involved in the conflict prepares a written or verbal statement of their involvement in the conflict, including as many details and specifics of the situation(s) at hand as possible. They will share this detailed statement in the meeting. It is important to take the time to ask yourself, if you are the one preparing the statement, questions about the nature of your statement: "Which parts of this memory feel very secure and which ones feel fuzzy? Am I having a hard time with any part of this story in terms of getting my facts correct? Have I missed any important details? How much of my truth here is relevant only to me, and how much of it is relevant to this situation? Is there anything I need to explain about myself, my feelings, my personality, my intentions, that seems to have been unclear during this conflict? Am I giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, or has this situation damaged my ability to do that?" This level of detail helps to establish the differences between the perspectives involved, which are often considerable. The fact that two or more people can remember the same series of events so differently does not necessarily mean anyone is "wrong." Sometimes, a few details ARE actually wrong, and the act of sharing can help refine a faulty memory (we all struggle with that from time to time, and a faulty memory need not be grounds for a sense of guilt). Sometimes MANY details are wrong, or a person is willfully obfuscating the process, which also needs its own form of address. But usually, the variance in details is a fruitful opportunity to establish understanding about how differently people witnessed the events, and to therefore have compassion for themselves and one another.

Each party also prepares a list of needs that they feel would help them to go forward in love, trust, and confidence once more. Please understand that these needs are not demands or ultimatums. They are a scale of possibilities, and once the meeting has concluded, some will have been met. Perhaps all will not have been met. Then, each individual needs to decide whether they will stay or if they must part ways with the community about any given unmet need. In a community of shared vision and co-operation, we must be prepared to compromise and to be gentle in our demands of one another. Contemplate: which needs will be deal-breakers for you? Are these reasonable for the context?  Are you setting yourself up to leave in anger before even having the conversation? Where is fear, anger, or ego pushing you in contemplating your needs and deal-breakers? Where are you finding love and compassion for yourself, and for others, in your needs? Are you able to be satisfied if no central "truth" is agreed-upon in this meeting? Are you able to allow for many possible truths? Once this statement of needs is prepared, it is sent to the Facilitator before the meeting.

For the meeting itself, the Facilitator arrives early to set up, bringing paper, pens, and a bell. The Facilitator might also choose to bring a small arrangement of items that represent peace, love, and compassion, and build an altar in the room where the meeting will take place.

Once everyone arrives and takes their seats, the Facilitator welcomes everyone warmly and kindly, greeting them by name. The Facilitator then offers a heartfelt, loving declaration of safe space and commitment to precise conversation (perhaps via a community prayer or practice, like casting a circle, or some personal and authentic words) Following this, the Facilitator sets the "feeling tone" of the proceedings by inviting everyone to remember compassion, politeness, and careful communication as important aspects of the proceedings. The Facilitator then asks the blessings of the Powers that walk with each person, aligning our core selves with the enlightened ones of spaciousness, the Divine foundation of ALL, to be present for the discussion.

The initial round of statements are shared, generally first by the person who called the meeting, then by the person(s) called to resolution. The Facilitator may decide to order things differently, depending on the situation at hand. Between each statement, all parties sit in silence for a few moments, eyes closed, and allow ourselves to observe our emotions. We sift fact from feeling. We tick off any items which require factual correction,  direct explanation, apology, or further clarification of any sort. We do not prepare any response at this time; we merely note what must be addressed, then let it go and continue to process the emotions we are experiencing. We willingly take command of our emotions in these moments. We return ourselves to a sense of spaciousness in these moments. We remember that love brought us here and love is the only thing that will set us free. The Facilitator gently reminds all of this purpose, and holds the space for a few moments while this happens between each initial statement.

Optionally, each party in the conflict might select a friend from within the community to speak on their behalf after the first round of statements is shared. This representative is not a lawyer making a case for whether the party they represent is right or wrong, but rather is a spiritual friend with a perspective that is fair and balanced. This person speaks about the details they have heard in the proceedings, as well as what they personally have experienced or know, about the nature of the party, the impact of the conflict in the wider community, and their thoughts on what might be learned from the situation for all. For example, a really effective representative might say something like, "I know that So-and-So is a tender, dear person with the best of intentions. I also know that she occasionally has a hard time keeping a secret, and has struggled with some circumstances where her intentions were misread in the past because of this. I know how hearing that she had mentioned this private information in a group meeting might have come across as gossip or betrayal even when this issue was actually discussed with only the best of intentions toward all involved, and true intent to help. I think we can all be reminded, in this situation, of how sacred confidentiality is within a Coven community." Or perhaps, "I know that usually So-and-so is fully of laughter and sunshine, and that on the day in question she acted out and spoke roughly in that meeting. I can see, from our proceedings today, that this was hurtful to some who were there. I truly believe, based on what we have heard today, that So-and-so did not mean to be so rough in her speech, and felt badly about it. She also told me she felt worried about how she had come across in one of our private conversations. I think this situation was a good reminder to all of us that we have to be extra mindful of our speech when we are having a rough day." The Representative is there to show all parties, on both sides of the conflict, love and compassion, and to help by witnessing and offering their opinion. These opinions offered by Representatives can really help establish shared context and defuse some of the polarizing elements that Conflict brings up, when they approach their role with care, honor, and thoughtfulness toward the greater good of all. If no Representative are present, the Facilitator offers a similar kind of processing for each party in the Conflict Resolution Procedure.

After all initial statements have been shared, (either with or without the inclusion of Representatives) there is a short break for bathroom, water, etc.  After the break, the meeting will resume. Each party in the meeting is invited during the break to get up, walk or move around, have water or a snack if necessary. Then, returning the the meeting, each person directly involved in the conflict is invited to take a few minutes to prepare a response statement, with no urgency or rush, staying present and solemn the whole time. The paper and pens provided by the Facilitator might be helpful now. The Facilitator encourages all parties to take the time to consider including gratitude, personal responsibility, and the good parts of each person involved in their thought process as well as any items that may be less comfortable or clear. Often, we feel such an urgency that our pains be addressed that we slough off layers of loving formality we might offer when we are in a better balance. When this happens, the conversation then devolves into a lower emotional frequency of anger and blame. The Facilitator makes certain to keep these proceedings formal, so that the group do not dip into that lower vibration.

Response statements are now shared, in the same order of the first round. An ideal response statement might go something like this: "I understand all that was explained in the first round of statements. I had perception that So-and-so was gossiping about me, but I accept the explanation that she is just not great at keeping secrets. I am sorry I flew off the handle when we spoke about it. I don't think anyone else should feel hurt just because I felt hurt. However, I do still feel hurt that my information was revealed without my permission. I would like to ask that So-and-so go back to the person(s) she told and let them know she was in error about sharing that info. I also want to know, in the future when I am dealing with So-and-so, that if I say something is confidential, that she understands how important that is to me." Between each statement, all sit in silence for a moment, correcting any false internal stories they might have been holding, acknowledging the truth of the other person's statements, allowing themselves to feel good about the careful and compassionate way in which they expressed even truths they might have been nervous to share. Internally, all continue to hold and monitor a sense of commitment to spaciousness and resolution.

Should these responses necessitate further conversation, clarifying questions, or deliberation, the Facilitator may suggest a third round of statements, offer a break for contemplation once more, and resume for the next round. This process cannot be rushed, and the structures here are very effective in their repetition over time at helping both parties come to resolution if both parties are truly committed to that goal. Once statements have concluded, the Facilitator turns to the negotiations of needs.

All lists of needs are read aloud by Facilitator, who offers an impartial delivery of these. The needs are then re-evaluated for potential conflicts and compromises by the Facilitator. For example, "I see that So-and-so has requested this, but Such-and-such has asked for that. Those two requests are not compatible. How might we negotiate these requests to make sure both of your most important needs get met?" All parties then brainstorm and work through the possible solutions that might alleviate the problem. A formal agreement is then established, recited aloud, notated in writing if necessary, and formally acknowledged around the fulfillment of the crucial needs, to the greatest degree of completeness possible. Usually, by this point in a conversation where all parties entered with good will, this is possible. If it is not possible, it might be best to ask for the meeting to be reconvened to discuss the needs at a follow-up time, after everyone has had some time to think about the procedure.

Once the needs list has been thoroughly processed, any last statements or agreements are formalized at this time. This is a great place for final apologies, last notes on things that were unclear, or other clean-up business. Facilitator then asks three different times, in three different ways, if all are satisfied with the proceedings and ready to rebuild love and trust. For example: "Are we all satisfied with today's proceedings, and ready to move forward into the future together and re-establish love and trust? Has everyone felt heard and witnessed, and feels like they can return to a state of love and trust after this meeting today?  Are we all in agreement that this conflict has been successfully resolved today, and are we all prepared to go forward in love and trust once more?" Once all have answered to the affirmative, three times, the Facilitator rings a bell and declares the proceedings concluded. Facilitator offers words of thanks to those gathered powers, the participants, and the facilitator, then all depart with as much genuine warmth as possible.

The Facilitator then sends a brief written overview of the proceedings and copy of agreements made by each person to all involved parties. Once this conflict is resolved, all willingly put it behind them and go forward together.

While this procedure is not guaranteed to resolve each and every possible conflict out there, it is often quite useful for most of them. It is a good idea to bring this procedure in before something becomes big and unwieldy, but it works for all different types of issues, big and small.

If you decide to try this procedure in your own community, and have any questions or want to share how it went, please drop us a line at cayacoven@gmail.com. We'd love to hear from you.

*This procedure is not meant to deal with any breech of the law or specifically-stated group policy. Those infringements have their own consequences that need to be addressed by the correct authorities. Similarly, I would not recommend this procedure for dealing with sexual or ethnic harassment. Those policies are often covered by legal or group-level policy and protections, or should be provided for by the leadership of a group. If you belong to a group where your sexual or ethnic rights are being violated in any way, consult the leader of your group and ask for justice. If justice is not sought by the leadership, or if the leadership is responsible for said breech of justice, it is in your best interests to leave this group right away.