What We Are Reading

The Little Book of Conflict Transformation

By Dan Dutkofski, Dean of Fine Arts, West Campus

Perhaps this has happened to you. At a conference, someone discovers that you work at Valencia and more times than not, the reaction is an overwhelming “it must be great to work at Valencia.” And the fact of the matter is this: Valencia is a great place to work. So why is it that on some mornings when I look at my calendar, I dread coming to work?

Those are the days on which I see an appointment with a student, a faculty member, or a staff member, and I know that the reason for the meeting is a concern or complaint. Conflict, as a rule, is something we avoid; scheduled conflict just seems wrong. An honest assessment of our daily schedules, however, makes one thing clear – conflict is a part of our daily lives and there is no avoiding it.

Recently, a group of colleagues gathered to discuss principles for the dispute resolution policies at the college and to anchor this work, we read “The Little Book of Conflict Transformation” by John Paul Lederach. While my immediate reaction to the title was not entirely positive, the book itself proved to be very thought provoking and has allowed me to reconsider the importance and value of those scheduled conflicts.

Here are a few of the ideas from the book that struck me:

  • Conflicts are normal. Maybe it is because the root of the word is from the Latin fligere (to strike) or because it is associated with wars and aggression, but we often see conflicts as problems to avoid or as failures to maintain a peaceful structure. If there is a conflict, clearly someone is wrong and needs to be corrected. This is especially wrong in an academic environment where assumptions are constantly challenged to advance learning and understanding. Conflicts are not only normal, but serve as the force behind change within the organization.
  • The presenting issue in a conflict is just one piece of a larger view. Since conflicts are part of developing relationships, often the triggering event is only indirectly related to the deeper issue, which is really in need of change. The author uses the example of doing the dishes in a family setting. When there is an argument about who will do the dishes, what is really being discussed is the understanding of each person’s role and place within the family. The student who comes in to argue a grade, the faculty member challenging a work load form, or the dean putting off doing an annual evaluation are all in the perfect place to better define their roles and the roles of those involved in the work of the college. No one needs fixing; rather, they need transformation, which is more long term and visionary, as opposed to a quick fix, which is temporary.
  • What is essential in conflict transformation is trust. A model of conflict resolution calls for clearly established procedures, the goal of which is to minimize the disruptions in the organization and to find immediate relief for the presenting issues. Conflict transformation wants to take the conflict and engage a process whereby something positive and lasting can emerge. The focus is not on the procedures and the content, but on the relationships that exist in the organization.
  • Conflict is an opportunity. We have too often joked that we do not have problems, but opportunities. Who knew that this was true! With a different perspective on conflicts, they are truly the occasions for growth, strengthening of relationships, and a way to prevent us from becoming complacent.
  • We do not solve conflicts by clarifying procedures. This was not in the book, as such, but certainly became clear to me in our discussion of it. Valencia is a great place to work because the people we work with share the same values and passion for learning. The conflicts arise when we disagree on the implementation of these ideals, and transformation allows us to move toward a better and better experience for everyone.

I still feel reluctant to face the person who walks through my door with a problem, but this shift in my understanding helps me to engage the time in a new and hopefully productive way.

Lederach puts it this way: “Conflict transformation is to envision and respond to the ebb and flow of social conflict as life-giving opportunities for creating constructive change processes that reduce violence, increase justice in direct interaction and social structures, and respond to real life problems in human relationships” (page 22).


  • Beth Renn said:

    Thank-you for sharing, Dan!

    PMThu, 11 Oct 2012 15:46:57 +0000Thu, 11 Oct 2012 15:46:57 +0000pm12,3:46 pm

  • Falecia Williams said:

    I appreciate your insights and candor.

    PMThu, 11 Oct 2012 21:40:41 +0000Thu, 11 Oct 2012 21:40:41 +0000pm12,9:40 pm

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