Conflict Resolution: A manual for inclusive resistance, social justice and environmental defense groups

Conflict resolution is a process using the principles of non-violent communication in which we explore the competing needs that lead to arguments, tension and conflict among people.

In Extinction Rebellion, we are working together toward the same goal. But we may have different ideas of how to do that. Some of us may be focused on our particular tasks and not realize that our actions somehow interfere with the tasks of other rebels. We may find ourselves in a situation where resources we need are scarce. Sometimes another rebel may cause another’s needs to go unmet, usually unintentionally.

Creative Commons image by charlieCe of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by charlieCe of Flickr.com

This is how conflict arises in all activist and volunteer groups. It is inevitable. We have learned from generations of civil disobedience and non-violent protest movements around the world that internal conflict is the single greatest threat to our movements, much more destructive than any outside hostile force. Most non-violent protest movements that fail collapse or gradually decline, due to internal conflict.

And yet, we have also learned from experience that suppressing conflict, pretending it isn’t there, smoothing it over or forcibly shutting it down do not work. In the long-run, suppressed  conflict returns in one form or another and the longer it simmers, the more disruptive it becomes.

Therefore, we must find ways to resolve conflict which actually mitigate harm to all. The key to that kind of resolution is recognizing and meeting everyone’s needs to the best of our ability. Conflict resolution is the process of understanding and then meeting those needs, so that conflict dissipates rather than simmering or disrupting.

What standards guide conflict resolution?

We developed this guide for Regenerative Culture workers in Extinction Rebellion in the Czech Republic but it can be used effectively by anyone working in community, social or volunteer organizations. Here are some principles and standards that will help.

  • We recognize that conflict is inevitable. There is no need for shame or blame when conflict arises. Non-violent communication is the primary tool in conflict resolution.

  • If it is necessary to intervene with someone who is behaving in a disruptive or abusive manner, we do not confront this person in public online spaces. We use the non-violent communication process to address the problem directly and openly either in person, if at all possible, or in private messages, if a personal meeting is impossible.

  • If a conflict between two or more rebels affects the group or threatens to harm a group, the conflict resolution process is open to the group. Conflict that affects the group’s functioning is not a private matter. It affects us all.

  • Conflict resolution can be carried out within a local group or a working group autonomously using this handbook and non-violent communication skills. If a conflict resolution team is available to mediate, mediation may be called for.

  • We are committed to confronting elements of the toxic system which cause harm to vulnerable groups. If a conflict involves social exclusion, bullying, racism, misogyny, ableism, nationalism, homophobia or other manifestations of toxic social systems, we take this into account and confront these systems and their residues in ourselves.

  • Mediation will favor more socially vulnerable persons, if there is an accusation of harassment or bullying.

What practical guidelines will help ensure these standards?

  • Review and renew your group’s principles and values against discrimination/oppressive behaviors and for inclusion, equality and ethics. Hearing this announced to the group periodically has been proven in studies to decrease incidence of harassment as well as social exclusion in groups. It also makes vulnerable demographics feel welcome and safe.

  • Make clear at the start of trainings and intermittently in meetings that non-violent communication ought to be used and is part of your commitment to non-violence.

  • Review and renew your shared vision. In Extinction Rebellion, we are all fighting for our lives. When we have conflict between us, it is crucial to take a moment to bring forward the awareness that the person or people standing on the other side of the tension from me are fighting for their lives as well, possibly in a different way or with different priorities or communication/work styles.

  • Encourage short feedback loops in listening - feeding back in real time something that you had a reaction to, e.g. ‘It sounded to me as though your tone was a little tense just then. Is that correct/is everything OK?’ or ‘I don’t like it when you call me that - I feel very uncomfortable when this interaction happens,’ as long as these remain within the non-violent communication structure of observation without evaluation and statements of feelings in reaction.

  • Encourage a “step forward/step back“ attitude - taking personal responsibility and self awareness, making space for others to speak/be seen when one has been prominent for whatever reason OR challenging ourselves to speak up if we don’t usually.

  • NO GOSSIP policy: NO conflicts to be taken on social media at any point.


There are two processes for conflict resolution

  • Process ONE is for situations in which all participants in a conflict can meet.

  • Process TWO is for situations in which participants cannot meet because it would not be safe and there is a risk of harm to someone.

Process ONE

This is a Clearing Process for dealing with conflict--mutual or highlighted by one party. This requires both parties and a facilitator to be in the same space and only works if all participants agree to follow the process and bring good intention and a listening ear.

Agree a time and comfortable space to meet, agree on length of process and make sure you have everything you need, e.g. water, tissues etc 

Use I statements and allow time for reflection and pauses in process. 

Step 1: Setting up the atmosphere and intention

  • All participants to share some element of gratitude, e.g. ‘the sunshine on my walk here’

  • All participants to share their intentions - how they will conduct themselves through the process and how they’d like to feel at the end, e.g. ‘I will try and listen with an open mind and I’d like to feel at peace with you/this situation and be able to work well together’

Step 2: Seeking unity on the Facts:

  • One or the other party in a conflict may volunteer to go first. If an accusation is at the center of the conflict, the accuser should generally go first. If it is difficult to agree who should go first, flip a coin.

  • Person A shares their perception of the facts of what happened, the time, context, content etc. What would a video camera have observed? (No interruptions beyond reminders to avoid evaluation or judgmental terminology. Time limits may be set and may be amended if there is need.)

  • Person B does the same.

  • Facilitator: Observe where the facts are the same and where they are different. Acknowledging that two different perceptions may both be honest and authentic. We perceive differently from different perspectives.

Step 3: Awareness of feelings

  • Person A shares when they first felt negative emotions in the interaction, e.g. “when you said, xyz I felt angry.” Ask person A to try and go deeper into what is under the initial reaction ‘under the anger, I felt undermined/afraid.’ Get to the most basic feeling. 

  • Remind participants that the fact that someone feels something is a fact. The feeling is indisputable and does not imply blame. We are ultimately responsible for our feelings ourselves. Empathy lies in acknowledging the difficulty others experience when they feel negative feelings.

  • Peron B reflects back, e.g. “I hear that you felt angry when I said xyz and below the anger you felt that I was undermining you and you were afraid.”

  • Any clarification needed?

  • Peron B can then share how they feel in that moment in regards to what A has shared and how they felt during the triggering interaction.

  • Person A reflects back what they have heard. Any clarification?

  • Ask both participants to reflect silently or openly if they wish on previous experiences when they felt the same difficult emotions they experienced in this interaction. How is the situation different this time?

  • Ask both participants if they want to ask for forgiveness for any hurt that was caused, any action that was out of alignment with that person’s good intentions, any ripple effects that came from that person's words/actions.

Step 4: Awareness of needs

  • Both participants now reflect and share needs, e.g. “I need time and attention to take a breath before responding in the heat of the moment, I need reassurance that my work is valued, I need to clear boundaries to feel safe in interactions.”

  • Guide participants to break down their needs to universal human needs, rather than requests for specific actions at this time. “Reassurance” is a universal human need. “For you to reassure me” is a specific request.

  • Each participant reflects back what they have heard the other participant needs. The needs are statements of fact. That a person has a universal human need isn’t disputable.

  • Needs may conflict. It is not automatically the responsibility of the other party to meet the needs spoken. Solutions may begin to become apparent at this stage though. We resolve conflict by first developing empathy by understanding each other’s perceptions and feelings and by finding creative solutions in which everyone’s needs are met.

Step 5: Making requests

  • Personal A may have requests of the other person, eg “Would you be willing to…” Requests may attempt to find a way to ensure that needs will not conflict.

  • Person B may agree or say, ‘No, but I could do …’ also with meeting the needs of all in mind. Note that self-sacrificing so that one’s own needs are overly delayed will likely not be sustainable.

  • Person B may have requests, also begining with the word, “Would you be willing to…”

  • Person A may agree or offer a different solution. 

Step 6: Finding resolution

  • Review action points that A and B are taking away.

  • Agree on times for A and B to check in again soon.

  • A and B reflect on how they feel at the end of the process and what they take away from it. Give gratitude as appropriate.

  • Check in with A and B later to make sure the follow up check in between them happens. Some issues may require another cleaning process, if something new has arisen.  

Process TWO

 In case of individual feeling unsafe to go through Clearing Process with other person present this procedure for dealing with cases of harassment, bullying or unwelcome behavior is in place.

 If a complaint of harassment, bullying, ostracism or unwelcome behavior is brought to the attention of the Conflict Resolution Team, prompt action must be taken to investigate the matter and action taken to remedy the complaint.

Anyone who wishes to make a complaint of harassment, bullying or unwelcome behavior is encouraged to first discuss matters with someone who they trust, ideally a Group Coordinator or someone from the Regenerative Culture Group. This is to take some time to get clear on what happened and how to engage with the process, e.g. finding a facilitator to hold the Clearing Process and approaching the other person to see if they will engage with process

If the person feels unable/unsafe to sit in the Clearing then the advocate can approach them on the complainant’s behalf. The complainant does not need to prove they are unsafe. However, complaints should be clear and specific, when brought to Process 2. Counseling may be sought from the Regenerative Culture group in order to clarify complaints.

It may be possible in this way to resolve the issue by getting the individual(s) in question to see how their behavior could be classed as harassment or bullying and to agree to desist from that behavior. Very often people are not aware that their behavior is unwelcome or misunderstood and an informal discussion can lead to greater understanding and agreement that the behavior will cease. Complainants are therefore encouraged to try, if they feel able to do so, to resolve the problem informally by making it clear to the alleged harasser that their actions are unwanted and should not be repeated.

An individual, who is made aware that their behavior is unacceptable, is asked to:

  • Listen carefully to the complaints and the particular concerns raised;

  • Respect the other person’s point of view; everyone has a right to work in an environment free from harassment, ostracism, intimidation, discrimination and social exclusion;

  • Understand and acknowledge that the other person’s reaction/perception to another’s behavior (the impact) is more important than the intention behind the behavior;

  • Agree the aspects of behavior that will change;

  • Review their general conduct/behavior when working with others.

  • Confirm that they actively want to follow respectful and inclusive principles and values. Failure to do so could result in them being asked to discontinue association with the group, regardless of what seniority, authority or responsibility they have attained in the group.

If, between the complainant and the supporting individual the issue seems too complex or serious to handle alone, a meeting of some members of the Conflict Resolution group and those trained in non-violent communication and Peacemaking can be called to look at the details of what has happened and decide on appropriate course of action.

When dealing with a complaint of harassment in this way, 

  • Full details of the incident(s) should be taken in writing from the complainant and their supporting person (if appropriate). Complaints need to be as clear, objectively-worded and specific as possible to enable specific resolution.

  • Full details should be taken from any witnesses/other complainants who come forward and may have witnessed the alleged behavior

  • The alleged harasser should be informed of the complaints against them. They should be invited to a meeting in order that they can comment on the allegations against them. 

  • People’s involvement with the group could be frozen whilst investigations are being made.

  • All parties need to be kept informed of expected timescales for how the situation will be dealt with.

  • All parties should be fully informed of the outcome and any action that may be required.

A decision will be reached collectively by appropriate members of the Conflict Resolution Group, and any appropriate Coordinators as to the best course of action, working with the complainant to ensure they find the course of action acceptable to their sense of safety and peace of mind. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • Making clear to the harasser that they are no longer able to work with the group (in sufficiently serious cases).  

  • Giving a warning that the harasser will only be able to continue working with the group if their behavior does not revert, at which point they will be asked to leave.         

  • Finding a way for the complainant and harasser to work in different groups where they will have little overlap. The complainant should be given priority in where they want to work.

  • In more serious cases: The group may announce publicly that they are not associated with the person in question or a restraining order may be placed.

  • False accusations of harassment or other inappropriate behavior—found to be false through investigation—may also result in the group distancing from the complainant.

Instances of harassment, bullying and unwelcome behavior are rarely neatly defined, and processes dealing with them will require flexibility. As such, some flexibility from the above procedure is both likely and acceptable (i.e. doesn’t necessarily invalidate the entire process).

Trust... or the art of life amid crisis

I know how to trust.

Really I do. When I was younger, I traveled all over the world, met people who I didn’t share a language with and trusted them with my safety. I told people my story, my life, my vulnerability. I got rejected a lot or found that my story wasn’t important. And still I kept on being “naive.”

My children seem to be trying to train me not to trust. Since they grew out of toddlerhood and got past the stair gates, they have been getting into things, raiding the cupboards for slime-making ingredients, sneaking treats before dinner, hiding their dirty clothes and jumbled toys in the most ingenious places to avoid cleaning their rooms and memorizing my phone password every chance they get. I have learned that part of trust is trusting that kids will try to get sweets. electronics, dangerous chemicals and matches as soon as your back is turned.

Chick bird spring vulnerability trust - CC image via pixabay.jpg

Trust, in reality, means that if I give my first kid money to go to the store and buy bread and an ice cream, there is likely to be an armload of the worst junk food coming. If I give the money to the other kid, the money has a 50 percent chance of being lost on the way to the corner shop, but if it doesn’t get lost, the bread will come back along with a receipt for the devoured ice cream. Or at least the receipt will start the journey home.

But then again either might not happen. Nothing is guaranteed.

After many years break from community life and activism, I have joined an activist group again, this time focused on demanding emergency action on climate change from governments and corporations. It is a decentralized organization and yet one focused on coordinated, efficient and sometimes even risky action. It is also incredibly diverse, spanning the political spectrum and socioeconomic ladder. I sit next to students, psychologists, IT professionals, teachers and fast food employees in meetings. We don’t know each other and in order to accomplish the enormous task before us, we must trust each other.

I have to trust that our fellows will:

  • do what they promised, so that I can do my part in the work without having to wait too long on them,

  • not betray confidences to those that might stand against us,

  • forego temptations to pursue personal agendas that might harm our cause,

  • be honest,

  • care,

  • and not make careless mistakes that may endanger us all.

It is no small thing. I can see why a lot of people say they aren’t “joiners.” I am still more “naive” than most and the initial trust is not that hard for me. I trust that almost all of my fellows are good, conscientious and kind. I also trust that they are overwhelmed and busy. I trust that they will make mistakes and forget important tasks. And I trust that someday one of the few who are not conscientious will turn out to be an informant planted by institutions bent on bringing us down.

I am certain it will happen. But I also know that worrying about it will do little good.

After all this, you’d think I had trust down. But I don’t.

Recently someone in authority within the organization came to my group and asked us to do something that sounds like it could destroy much of the gains we have made over the past weeks. This person did not give details and insisted that authority and the traditions of the organization dictate that we must abide by these decisions.

I am confused. This is supposed to be a decentralized movement. How then, can we find ourselves under direct orders, required to follow instructions without understanding the reasoning? And part of the answer given is that things are bigger than we can see in the international movement. There are urgent actions needed for our goal and like soldiers on the front lines, there are times when we have to take orders as a matter of survival. Our mission to avert climate change is a matter of survival after all.

So, I am in a crisis of trust.

It would be immensely comforting to have a leader I could trust implicitly and automatically. That’s what my fiction is about. If you’ve read the Kyrennei series… well, I wish I had a Jace McCoy. But I don’t. We almost never do in the real world.

The reason Jace McCoy in the story—and his co-leader Dasha, for that matter—is so trusted and has the unswerving loyalty of J. Company is that he has been successful where so many others have failed. He has survived 40 years of guerrilla warfare against an immense foe. His gambles have almost always been right and he is a brilliant strategist and tactician. His people know that.

But they weren’t born knowing it. Each of them went through a process of becoming so loyal, including Aranka Miko. And in the end, he proves that her trust is warranted, no matter the cost to him personally.

Okay, that’s fantasy fiction. But that is why I wrote it. As dark as the Kyrennei series seems on some levels, it is actually a comforting fantasy to many. It is about the hope that we could have such trust among us in crisis.

And today there is no doubt that we are in a crisis of survival. I remember reading about the greenhouse effect in third grade science class in 1985. And now climate change is at the door and very little has been done since I was a kid to avert the looming disaster. Reports coming from scientists are increasingly desperate and our daily lives are being affected in ever increasing ways.

So, we need people willing to take risks and go into a massive struggle. We may not have a Jace McCoy but we do almost have a J. Company. There is one group that has achieved significant real results in forcing governments to take urgent action and that is the growing international movement of Extinction Rebellion. The structure and principles of this organization have been tried… maybe not for forty years, but they have been tested and have come through better than any of the many other organizations that have attempted this task. There is even a real-world sixteen-year-old prophetic voice of hope, just as in the my fantasy.

And yet I know that people are terribly imperfect. What I see right in front of me is a community movement poised at a fragile moment in new country and a leader with a heavy-hand and a plan that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t appear to follow the Extinction Rebellion model faithfully. And I am asked to believe that this leader is the genuine article. But I’ve only been with them for a few weeks.

Trust does not come easy this time, not even for me.

The morning after all this cames down I ventured outside to take a break from the messages online that bring troubling news. It’s chilly and bright with a stiff wind dropping the last of the blackberry blossoms.

And there in the duck house I found a miracle that I only thought might possibly occur. Baby chicks.

You see I have big black hens of the Australorp breed and I love them for many reasons. They’re hardy, have good homing instincts and they lay a lot of beautiful, large eggs with pale shells that come in handy for spring painting as well as eating. But they have one problematic breed characteristic. They are bad mothers. Apparently some people don’t think so, but my hens have shown absolutely no interest in sitting on their eggs in three years.

So, early this spring when one of the Indian Runner ducks that guard my vegetable garden against slugs started brooding and sitting on eggs, I replaced her eggs with the Australorp eggs. I have no male ducks, so she wouldn’t be able to have any ducklings, no matter how hard she sat on her duck eggs.

It was a fly-by-night experiment and I didn’t really think it would work. I also miscalculated how soon to expect the chicks and so I was completely unprepared for their appearance. The duck pen had not been secured and the chicks scattered out through the large holes in the wire fence into the empty lot next door. The adoptive mother duck could not follow them and she was frantic, calling them and flapping her wings, but the chicks ignored her.

I went out and waded through the knee high patch of giant nettles to herd the chicks back into the pen. Then I spent the next two hours shoring up the pen and catching stray chicks, which I could hear but couldn’t see because I’m ninety percent blind.

It would have been comic had anyone been watching me gingerly chase baby chicks around the yard while being careful not to step on those that stopped and curled into little gray balls. Oh yes, Australorp chicks are not handily yellow. They’re gray.

When I finally had everything that peeped contained, I peeked inside the coop. One of the chicks had fallen into the large water dish meant for adult ducks and was struggling to get out. The mother duck, thinking she had a duckling on her hand, was watching fondly, apparently assuming it was time for him to learn to swim.

I reached in to help the poor little chick out of the water but the mother duck struck at my hand with the speed and force of a rattlesnake. I jerked my hand back with a yelp of pain. I talked to her soothingly but continued to watch the chick, which was not drowning but should not be in cold water at all. Finally I made another attempt and earned a nasty bruise for my trouble.

Despite all my help in rounding up her adopted babies the mother duck was nowhere close to trusting me.

But my faith in the powers of life and mother nature was somewhat restored, even so. I could now ponder my own situation a bit more philosophically.

In some ways, I am like the mother duck. I have found something I passionately believe in and I have young, timid volunteers lining up with desperate hope in their voices. And anyone who looks like they might threaten that is libel to get bruised. I’m not particularly in the mood to take chances.

The tough little Australorp chick managed to get him or her own self out of the water dish and snuggle back into the mother’s warm feathers. He was still alive the next day.

I rigged up a small water feeder for the baby chicks in hopes that they would stay out of the adult water dish and made sure they had chick food. Each day I visit them several times, because the mother duck tends to accidentally upset the baby water container.

She doesn’t seem to be putting the chicks into the water as she might with ducklings. She’s keeping them warm and protected from the cold spring wind. And now she only hisses at me when I reach in to change the water and food containers.

Trust comes hard in these times. But I still believe in it, at least in theory.