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Pagan Paths

Witchcraft Philosophies, Action, Leadership, Humor, Outrage, Awkward Mishaps, Lovable Lessons, and a search for Grace with a clumsy Witch.

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Resolving Conflict: A Shortish Guide

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I'm about to reveal a nasty secret. 

Of all of the people in your Coven, Temple, Grove or otherwise, the High Priest/ess (or whatever other title they use) has the most to learn. Each and every one of their students is a lesson. The more students they have, the more they will learn. Whether it’s Divine synchronicity that puts them in the learning seat or they’ve appointed themselves to the position, the secret code is that the deep reason they got into that place is their own Soul’s craving to learn and grow. They are leading you because they need to learn from you—far more than you need to learn from them. Weird, right? (Now that I’ve outed all of my fellow group leaders, I owe you each a cookie.)

My Priestess Lesson: Conflict Resolution

When a Covener says they need to “Talk to me about something…” I immediately have a private, panicked, shit-fit. I instantly try to guess what the problem is and try to scoop up a solution to hand to them like I'm some sort of resolution drive-thru window.  I do my best to breathe and listen. But once I hear the problem, I’m instantly torn between wanting to cancel everything in my life and focus solely on fixing the problem and run away screaming, “NOTMYCIRCUS! NOTMYCIRCUS! GODS HELP ME THIS IS NOT MY CIRCUS!!!” Spoiler alert: Neither one is effective.  

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Here’s another glimpse into my psyche, and maybe yours, too:

 

 

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I struggle with co-dependency and always have. I need to be needed. I need to fix everything. I believe Spirit led me to lead a Coven in part to teach me to get over that. It’s been a long, ugly journey, which has hurt some and disappointed others and it’s one that I’m still working on. Sometimes, it’s my job to swoop in. Sometimes, it’s not.

The bright side is that I’ve learned a few things on both sides of that frustrating coin that might help you, too. I can't and shouldn't solve everything, but knowing what my responsibility is and isn't as well as how to solve what is my issue is of paramount importance. 

Conflict resolution in Covens is a non-negotiable skill that is all too often underdeveloped. Lack of a plan to address conflict leads to injured feelings and damaged groups. I firmly believe it’s the #1 threat to Pagan groups, far more so than lack of funding or membership.  The existence of conflict is not by itself a symptom of a struggling group. All groups will periodically have conflict. This isn’t pessimism—this is realism.

No matter how much your group members love each other, conflict will happen.

The health of the group can be seen in how the group handles the conflict. If you anticipate conflict with the same sort of understanding and expectation of bad weather, it won’t come as a surprise. 

Define your parameters of involvement before conflict evolves.  

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New leaders commonly make the mistake of trying to solve every little burp. We are so happy to have a group that we do all that we can to make sure they are happy and stick around. This kind of relationship is absolutely unsustainable. Not only will it burn out the leader, it denies the Covener the chance to work on areas of their development that need it. As Shozan Jack Haubner pointed out in this incredible blog, working in a spiritual group forces our blocked-up crap out into the open so we can freely and humbly work on it. Encourage your group members to develop the parameters along with you.

These are the parameters my Coven and I have set regarding my involvement in interpersonal conflict:

1.)  If a Covener has a problem with another Covener, it’s first their responsibility to address it. If they are not having success working through it, they can involve me.

2.)  I will listen, but I may not act. I may offer advice. I may encourage or facilitate a dialog. But it should not be assumed that I am going to fix it. 

3.)  If you bring me a problem, also bring me a suggested solution.

“Who owns the problem?” Sit back and observe before acting

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When I was a young Priestess, I should have paid my High Priestess’s cell phone bill. (Thanks again, Lady Cyn!) I was on the phone with her almost weekly, “Witch A and Witch B are at it again!!! I’m going to put them both on ice forever!!!” Lady Cyn would ask me the same question, “Who owns the problem?”  

Was Witch B really moving Witch A’s cheese? Or is Witch A looking for something to lash out about? Could it be that something else is bothering Witch A and they’re taking it out on Witch B? Could Witch B practice a little more self-awareness? I don’t respond to every complaint one Covener may have about another. But I do pay attention with the complaint in mind. If Witch B seems to be treading on more than one set of ruby slippers, maybe Witch A has a point. It may be time for Witch B to do a self-awareness exercise. Does Witch A seem to have a new problem with a new person weekly? Something deeper may be bothering them and it’s manifesting through their irritation of other Coveners. Time for Witch A to do some journaling.

Gently and privately pointing out my HPS observations may never not always be welcome, but it shows that I do care and provides the people in question with the opportunity to grow. It also takes the pressure off me to “fix-it,” giving into which only exacerbates my own issues and denies the Witches in question the opportunity to grow.

Not every problem needs to be solved.

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Maybe you heard second-hand that one of your group members (Bob) was getting irritated by a particularly raucous fellowship session after a very intense ritual. The well-meaning messenger told you, the leader, “Bob thinks we get too loud after rituals.” Is this really a problem? Is it possible that Bob wasn’t really in the mood to party, but doesn’t have a problem with the nature of your group’s fellowship as a whole?

You could tap Bob on the shoulder and ask if he wants to talk about it. Maybe he does, or maybe he just wasn’t feeling the party vibe that day and doesn’t want a lot of attention paid to it. Then again, maybe Bob really doesn’t like rowdy social interactions, period. Would it make sense to ask the group to tone it down for Bob? Maybe. Or maybe Bob might need a gentle reminder that he joined a group that happens to be very social and can get a little loud and it’s not fair to ask a whole group to change for one person? If this sounds like your group, it’s not my place to say what you should do, but there is room for both digging in and fixing it or letting this problem ride out on its own. It may not be a problem that deserves time or attention. 

Sometimes, it IS your problem to solve

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Severe conflict, particularly where extremely harsh words have been used or confidences betrayed DOES require the leader's attention. Not only will you need to get in there and referee the situation, you may even need to bring it to the entire Coven: How can we avoid this sort of situation in the future? 

If you find you do need to step in, here are some things that might work:

Facilitate listening

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Let’s say two of your group members have had a screaming fight. The hurt words aren’t going away by a good night’s sleep and a hug at the next meeting. One exercise is to sit down with the two members and practice a Talking Stick exercise. When one person has the Talking Stick, the other person listens without interruption. Flip a coin to determine who speaks first. Then, each person gets the opportunity to share what hurt them about the other’s actions. Set parameters such as insisting that each party start with “I” statements (such as “I felt hurt when you said the chants I wrote were stupid”) instead of “You” statements (“You crammed those chants in my inbox an hour before ritual and I didn’t have time to learn them”).

The simple act of being heard has enormous implications for healing rifts between people. We perform a Talking Stick at the beginning of each meeting, which helps us learn to hear, not only to wait to speak. Having this practice early will help with listening when the time comes.

Offer an exercise in compassion and/or healing

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Several years ago, I had a Covener “Dotti” who picked fights with other Coveners on a near weekly basis. As soon as I’d hear her our and help her figure out how to navigate one situation, Dotti would find a reason to be upset with someone else. The constant fights were negatively impacting our overall Group Mind and I was spending more time “helping” Dotti than I was planning Magickal curriculum. I realized I wasn’t helping Dotti. I was enabling her and it needed to stop.

I sat down with Dotti in a “one last shot” sort of meeting. She knew the fights were negatively impacting the whole Coven, but she didn’t know how to stop. When we spoke, she confessed that she was desperately afraid that she was unloved and by picking fights with people, she could determine who “really” loved her. Although I had already told her that she was loved and important, I reminded her of it once more, but also saying I would not offer any more reminders. She would need to trust that my word was true or move on. Together we created a ritual in which she wrote down on toilet paper the harmful things she believed about herself: that she was un-loveable, that she didn’t belong, etc. She then flushed the paper down the toilet. Together, we blessed a piece of bread with the things she wanted to feel: Loved, acceptance, etc., and she ate it.  Not only did this help her energetically, it broke our codependent cycle. It was a symbol that now she was responsible for her own feelings and resolutions. She had my love and support, but I would not be her crutch anymore.

I utilize a healing practice when there has been injury. It’s so very, very important that we as leaders remember that someone acts out not to defy us or injure us personally, but they act out because they themselves are injured. After we discuss what the problem was, I provide an exercise to right the situation. A group member walking away with a slap on the wrist and nothing more is likely to lead to more shame than growth. And didn't most of us have enough of that in the religions of our childhood? It takes time and creativity on our parts, but it's necessary in the end.

I could go on and probably will some other time, but I’ve already taken plenty of your screen time! Thank you for reading!

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Tagged in: conflict leadership
Courtney Weber is a Priestess, writer, Tarot Advisor, performer and activist originally from Portland, OR living in New York City. Her writings on Witchcraft have been published in numerous publications, including Spiral Nature and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddess" and "Tarot for One: The Art of Reading For Yourself", both through Weiser Books. She is the producer and designer of "Tarot of the Boroughs" a contemporary Tarot deck composed of original photography set in NYC. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and cats.

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