Consider the story of epidemiologist Alice Stewart, told by entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan.
In the mid-20th century, with x-ray
technology a popular tool for diagnos-
ticians, Stewart determined that using
x-ray technology on pregnant moth-
ers damages fetuses and increases
rates of childhood cancer. Stewart was
so accomplished only because her
assistant, statistician George Kneale,
took it as his raison d’être to try to
prove her wrong at every step and
“actively sought disconfirmation.” Her
productivity was predicated on a con-
When used effectively, energy is a
generative and creative force that can
emerge from conflict situations. Conflict
can creates new identities, experiences,
and levels of excellence. While energy
can destroy as in a natural disaster, it
can also be harnessed as in electricity
on a power grid.
What practical applications exist for these metaphors,
particularly in reference to the connection between conflict
and energy? I have found that there are four components:
hold, sit, adjust, and repeat.
1. Hold conflict and energy together, simultaneously.
The energy in a room is tied to the conflict that is
happening in that room. It is not that the conflict in a
room is separate from the energy in the room. Rather,
they are intrinsically linked—witness the energetic
creativity reflected in the experience of Stewart and
Kneale. Responses to conflict situations must take
into account the danger of conflict and the potential
of energy, without preferential treatment for one over
2. Sit with discomfort. There is tremendous value in
sitting with discomfort, as it pushes introspection and
deep self-reflection. When classroom teachers look
to elicit responses from students, they wait in silence
after asking a question. Silence is uncomfortable, and
requires an adjustment from those experiencing it.
Responses to conflict situations are much the same.
My struggle in sitting with dissonance, exemplified
by the story that opened this article, was a lesson I
needed as a facilitator. High-energy situations are
hard to control and trouble those looking for a sense
of order. No matter the context, conflict and energy
create distress. Rather than avoid or look away from
dissonance, we should sit with such disturbances
when responding to conflict.
3. Adjust to the dynamic between parties after
attending to its nuances. Adjusting continues the trend
of introspection and self-assessment that discomfort
demands. For those working in conflict, adjustment
includes monitoring and changing our body language,
what we say, and what we avoid saying. We must go
where the energy takes us, making small movements
to guide it in productive ways.
4. Repeat. This entire process is cyclical and iterative,
one that reflects the recurring nature of conflict. As
conflict evolves and changes, given its dynamism
and multiple moments of eruption, so should our
responses. Assessment could include informal and
frequent check-ins with conflicting parties, personal
reflections, and notes on a situation’s development.
Continuous assessment allows for an intimate
understanding of conflict and energy as intertwined.
Conflict presents an opportunity for growth that reflects
energy’s value: out of complex conflicts, transformational
and profound experience can emerge. Just as surfers
search for the right wave that offers the most fun, conflict
practitioners should push toward opportunities for growth
that emerge from conflict.
Margaret Heffernan. “Dare to Disagree.” TED. 2012.
John Paul Lederach. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Good Books, 2003.
Alice Stewart et al. “Preliminary Communication: Malignant
Disease in Childhood and Diagnostic Irradiation In- Utero.”
Metaphor is a powerful cognitive instrument
for understanding, especially given the
intricacies of an idea as complex as conflict.