Conflict and Energy:
A Metaphoric Symbiosis
During a session that I facilitated, one youth
took a little bit of time in gathering their thoughts
- meditative, contemplative, and not quite sure
of what to say. Despite the sensitivity of the
topic we were discussing, I thought the young
person was beating around the bush. Trying to
speed things along, I interrupted: “Stop wasting
my time.” Immediately, something changed in
the atmosphere of the room, and I was put on the
That moment has troubled me for several years. As
a current student of conflict studies, a colleague and
I developed the idea of using metaphor as a way to
understand this phenomenon. Metaphor is a powerful
cognitive instrument for understanding, especially
given the intricacies of an idea as complex as conflict.
While a number of concepts can connect to conflict,
this article considers conflict’s connections to energy—
that which transfers from one state to another, rather
than that which is ethereal or spiritual—and the practical implications of such connections.
About the Author
received his MA in
University. Currently, he is the
Research Fellow for
The Laboratory for
Asif Majid What is conflict? A defining moment for me in thinking about conflict was an experience I had when working for a peace-building organization
that brings together youth from conflict regions, putting them in dialogue
groups to talk about their respective conflicts.
Consider a rainstorm.
Rain does not begin to fall unless
a number of tiny raindrops - a critical mass - have accumulated in a
cloud. Similarly, a raindrop does
not exist unless droplets coalesce.
As the kinetic energy of multiple
droplets causes them to collide,
more and more droplets come
together. As soon as enough droplets unite, rain begins to fall. Critical
mass enables the moment of a
As peace researcher John Paul
Lederach notes in The Little Book
of Conflict Transformation, it is in
similar moments in conflict situa-
tions that “we stop and take notice
that something is not right.” Just
as we can feel an oncoming rain-
storm, so too can we feel a change
in the air when conflict occurs. A
demonstrable and noticeable shift
takes place, one that is contin-
gent on the right conditions and
context. In a rainstorm or thun-
derstorm, the right conditions are
appropriate humidity, gathering
of charged water particles, and a
critical mass. In conflict, the right
conditions often include a complex
mix of structural, interpersonal,
cultural, socioeconomic, and other
factors. The move from latent to
manifest tensions, the moment of
eruption, is present in both conflict
Consider a wave moving across the ocean’s surface.
Energy is dynamic as exemplified by the motion of waves.
When we watch a wave, we are
watching the transfer of energy.
Imagine a surfer riding a wave.
She is always moving and shifting
with the height, length, and veloc-
ity of the wave beneath her. The
surfer adjusts her body accord-
ing to the situation, bending her
knees or standing straight as the
wave changes. Conflict’s fluidity
requires a similar and prerequisite
sense of flexibility.
A surfer’s connection to her board
—the metaphorical toolbox of the
conflict practitioner—is intimate.
Her connection allows her to interact with and read the dynamics of
the wave. The board responds to
her every shift, embodying the
flexibility and nimble attitude that
allows her to thrive in uncomfortable situations.
Conflict and energy are both
dynamic and in a constant state
of flux. Conflict is not an end product. Rather, it is an experience and
process that works itself in and
out of the status quo. This constant change creates a sense of
energy, developing into momentum
that gives conflict a life of its own.
This ongoing change results in an
iterative process of adaptation, evolution, and opportunities for growth.