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Communicating Through Conflict

By Lex Kohler, Farm Fellow

Communication is “the imparting or exchanging of information.” People communicate in different ways; some cultures have language that requires what is known as “high context,” or implicit communication. Others are “low context” and require more explicit communication. On Allegheny Farm the 2022-2023 cohort is made of entirely Americans who have grown up in a mostly low context culture. This mode of communication is great for establishing group expectations, and processes on our farm. It is lacking when it comes to interpersonal relations that require a high degree of context. After all, it is difficult to fully understand a person's point of view without understanding their life story, which led them to believe what they believe and value what they value. For me, the most difficult aspect of life on the mountain thus far has been this high context communication, both in terms of understanding others and understanding myself.

As a cohort we share a somewhat comparable value system around food: we value healthy, accessible, local food. However, owing to our different experiences in life, the beliefs that inform our value system are sometimes very different. It is safe to assume similar differences in our values/beliefs beyond food. Communicating these differences in a constructive way has been a learning curve for all of us. In the past few weeks, we have had two workshops focusing on communication and conflict. In some ways, these workshops have been divisive, but in other ways, have been uniting. One workshop framed conflict as a “renewable energy,” a concept that for many of us who self-describe as “conflict-avoidant,” was eye-opening. In this framework, conflict is not the culmination of thoughts and feelings that result in an argument; instead, conflict is the process of communicating one's thoughts and feelings while holding space for differing opinions. It is a cycle that never ends. This may seem daunting, but I have found that it is a beautiful aspect of communicating. When attempted with an open heart, this process can lead to compassion and understanding, despite inherent differences.

The tricky thing about compassion is maintaining the “window of tolerance” (another buzz phrase we learned in one of our workshops); this allows one to not feel personally attacked by a difference of opinion. On the contrary, having a wide open window of tolerance allows a difference in opinion to be a beginning to a conversation rather than an ending. The window of tolerance is fueled by past experiences and current feelings, and is different for everyone. In recent weeks our cohort has explicitly communicated (low context) individual boundaries that help us understand how open (or closed) our individual windows of tolerance are at a given time. We have had conflict where individuals felt personally attacked by another individual or the group at large; however, approaching the situation with empathy (facilitated by an open window of tolerance) has allowed various individuals in our cohort to step-up in conflict situations and work to understand where others are coming from. Differences in opinion will not always be resolved, but we are learning every day that these differences are more beautiful than threatening. Differences can be an impetus for compassion, furthering the opening of individual windows of tolerance.

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