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Conflict Transformation in TV and Movies

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

My wife and I started using movie and TV clips in mediation training after participating in a workshop facilitated by Baruch Bush and Joe Folger called Rethinking Conflict in 2008. We were so inspired by this teaching and learning tool that we picked up the ball and ran with it.

We show a clip from a motion picture or television show and then put up a conflict transformation chart based upon the graphic from The Promise of Mediation (New and Revised Edition, 2004, p.55), asking class participants to identify where the characters are on the chart. We call it a “map” and refer to the process as “mapping conflict transformation”.

Some of our most effective clips, demonstrating dramatic shifts in empowerment and recognition come from the movie Changing Lanes. As we observe vignettes of the story, the two main characters, played by Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson, move back and forth between relative weakness and strength (being more or less diminished, confused, hopeless and stuck) and relative self-absorption and responsiveness (being more or less self-absorbed, defensive or cut off from one-another). They seem to take two steps forward and then three steps back. At times one is finding more calm and clarity (on the right side of the map), while the other is crashing into the cycle of negative, destructive, alienating and demonizing interaction on the left side of the map. Progress is never sure nor is it parallel for the characters. As we plot the location of the characters on the conflict transformation “map”, they seem to be whipsawed mercilessly among the various stages of conflict. The same is true for a segment from the television series Brothers and Sisters involving a family intervention for a brother who is in the grasp of drug addiction. Class participants are asked once again to plot the location of individual characters. They realize that often the person who is loud and seemingly forceful is actually coming from a position of weakness and self-absorption on the left side of the map. And the person who seems quiet and withdrawn may actually be sure of herself and clear on what needs to happen (on the right side of the map). It’s remarkable.

We had a new insight during a discussion with a recent class of new mediators. We have always thought of using the “map” in a rather narrow sense – as a way to analyze peoples’ interaction when they are in conflict. On this day we were also talking about relational worldview in a general sense – how it can inform our response when we are in conflict or when we observe others in conflict. It occurred to us that we are always “on the map”. As we move through our daily activities, we are always in various states of personal strength and responsiveness.

When we accept this transformative theory of conflict, we have the opportunity to keep that map in our head and better understand our own personal resources and those with whom we are interacting. If we are anxious or uncertain, struggling with a difficult decision, we may understand that we are operating from the left side of the map, a position of relative weakness. We’ll understand that we may need more information or additional time and space to achieve clarity to see a path forward. If we are dealing with a friend or colleague who is being argumentative, we’ll understand that they may be feeling diminished, confused and defensive. At that moment, if we can keep in mind that their angst is about the interaction and not about the issue, we can respond in a more positive way. Conflict is always about a crisis in interaction; feeling disconnected, hurt and feeling disrespected, not feeling heard, not feeling valued, suffering from misinformation and miscommunication. Armed with this understanding, we have the presence of mind to reflect on what the other is saying, giving them the opportunity to hear themselves and edit their own conversation. With this support, they will have the opportunity to calm down and be more responsive. When they are feeling heard and respected, they are much more likely to shift from the left side of conflict map toward the right side where they are more able to hear another perspective.

It is all about relational worldview. It is our nature to want to be strong for ourselves and responsive and connected to others. Interactions can be and often are difficult. On a morning interview program, the creator of the series House of Cards, Beau Willimon, spoke about how each of us deals in power transactions every day, whether it’s with a family member, a colleague at work, or the person who cuts in front of us in the grocery store line. We are always somewhere “on the map”. And so are others. We don’t need to know all about the baggage they are carrying around or what happened to them this morning. All we have to do is observe and listen, recognizing the signs of relative weakness or strength and relative self-absorption or responsiveness. If we can then plot our location on the map in relation to others’ we’ll be more able to respond in a way that will improve the quality of the interaction – in a way that we can be proud of. Isn’t that what we want most?

Practice while you watch your favorite TV show or movie. There is conflict brewing in all of them. Where are the characters on the map? The characters come together and move apart, creating a drama that intrigues and has us sitting on the edge of our seats. It is all about relationships and we all have experience in that.

In a very practical sense, you can use this method in your everyday life in all your interactions. Try it when you interact with your children or a colleague at work. Where are they on the map? Where are you? Can you respond calmly, listening carefully and reflecting back their concerns? If you succeed, you will undoubtedly see an improvement in the quality of your interaction. You’ll be less traumatized and you will feel better about yourself and how you responded to the other. As Maya Angelou said, “Now that I know better, I do better.” Mapping conflict can help us do better. We have the information and the opportunity to figure out how to respond to conflict in way that improves the quality of our interactions and strengthens relationships.

Dusty Rhoades and his wife, Vicki, have been community mediators and conflict resolution trainers in Southern Maryland for the past fifteen years. They are certified by the ISCT as Transformative Mediators and have conducted hundreds of mediations in a variety of conflict situations, including small claims and peace orders at the District Court, Maryland Commission on Civil Rights discrimination cases, Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) and Parenting Plan cases for the Circuit Court, and a variety of other family and community mediations. Additionally, they are associates of Louise Phipps Senft at Baltimore Mediation and frequently train as members of her team. Dusty and Vicki also facilitate numerous difficult public conversations that build stronger and more peaceful community.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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