Engaging in conflict

IssueAugust - September 2018
Feature by Ali Tamlit


Based in the large building to the right, the Ulex Project is a residential activist training centre in the Catalonian town of Eroles. Photo: Ulex

Burnout is a topic that is close to my heart. Having experienced a couple of intense periods of burnout and having recently realised that I continue to hold chronic low-level stress, tiredness and anxiety in my body, the question ‘How can we do sustainable activism?’ is one that I am constantly seeking answers to.

Doing activism, resistance work, fighting for better worlds can be a truly joyful and transformative experience. This is especially true for me, when you realise that working with just a few other people you can have an impact on a world that before seemed so monolithic and so controlled by the forces of capitalism, the state, the police and so on. Through taking action, some of that power seems to disappear and we grow stronger.

Yet at the same time, activism can be a duty or an obligation to the cause, and we can fight one another endlessly in ways that only hurt one another. But something about activism makes me keep going on and as adrienne maree brown says, our love for it ‘makes us work tirelessly with broken hearts’.

Looking for some answers to these questions, and for ways to run courses that hold space for others to ask these questions for themselves, were a big part of my decision to go to this course at the Ulex Centre – the new sister project to Eco Dharma – in Catalunya in Spain. Some other reasons for going were to keep developing my facilitation skills and to get a bit of a ‘holiday’ – being a person driven by doing doing doing, sometimes I have to justify time off with going on trainings.…

Anyway, my experience was a lot of things. It was: frustrating, amazing, relaxing, stressful, transformative, tiring, inspiring and more. All jumbled together in 12 days. These reflections are also going to have some of that jumbled character, but at the same time I’ll try to draw out some common threads.

Impolite conflict

Given that conflict, in my experience, is so closely tied to burnout and the breakdown of groups, learning to hold and go through conflict in a transformative way is something I’m really interested in. Conflict and group dynamics were the topic of the third or fourth day on the course and I was looking forward to it.

The days leading up to this I found quite frustrating, partly relating to the content of the course which necessarily went over a lot of the basics of facilitation, but also because something in the group felt superficial. We just weren’t being very real with one another, people were going out of their way to agree and there was very little challenging of each other on even minor things.

“Why did it work when other trainings have got stuck in the conflict?”

During the day, we explored the concept of ‘Mainstreams and Margins’, a popular tool for looking at power dynamics from the US training organisation, Training for Change, and we used examples of issues in our own group to feel into this experience.

One of the examples that got raised was this issue of ‘politeness’ as we named it and the whole group had a chance to express how they felt about it. The issue allowed for the complexities of mainstream dynamics to be thought about – most if not all of us were perpetuating this air of politeness and at the same time many of us were unhappy about it and feeling constrained by it. Through the process of the discussion, people began to model more direct communication, which led to some conflict, but this cleared and afterwards it felt to me like a lot had shifted. We were communicating and interacting in a different, more alive way.

What was it that allowed this to happen? Why did it work when other trainings have got stuck in the conflict or groups that we organise have been stuck in fear of even opening the conversation?

I don’t think there’s a formula for this but I think it had to do with: the space and time to work into the questions and our experiences, feeling trust and being held by the facilitator and each other, a willingness from people to engage in difficult conversations, and the facilitators shifting gears consciously in terms of size of group discussions or whether to stay ‘in the conflict’ or get meta and ask ‘OK, so what’s happening here?’

It’s hard to express what actually happened in words, but it leaves me feeling excited about the possibilities conflicts can have, and I hope to find these possibilities more often in other situations.

Practice sessions

As this course was a training for trainers, there was a big emphasis on trying things out ourselves and each of us was invited to run a session as part of a pair.

This was great for many reasons. Not only did it allow me to experiment and try to address some of the things I think are missing from these kinds of courses – namely a greater focus on structural oppressions and how they show up in our groups and lead to burnout; my co-facilitator and I ran a session on anti-racism and burnout. It also allowed us to participate in each other’s sessions and get a taste of a lot of different ideas and see a variety of different facilitation styles.

This left me with questions around: What makes a good facilitator? Is there a fixed set of styles that ‘work’ as a facilitator or is it more complex than that?


Despite this being a course on sustainable activism, the schedule was intense, and for this reason it was necessary to carve out my own time. This was made easier with the beautiful Pyrenean landscape to walk in, the silent mornings, optional group meditations and the suggestion to have a digital detox (no phone zone). Yet it still required conscious effort and is something that I want to continue to work on back ‘in real life’.

And now I’ve finished this article, I think I’ll go outside.…