Storming – managing conflict

Here’s a story first told by Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933), one of the founding mothers of the social work profession. Once upon a time, there were two sisters. They each wanted an orange, but there was only one orange in the house. So they cut the fruit in half and shared it fairly. Right?

Wrong! One sister wanted to squeeze the orange to get a drink of juice. The other was baking a cake and wanted the orange zest (the thin, colored outer layer of the peel). If they had only talked about what each one wanted to do with that orange, they each could have had all she wanted instead of just half.

Conflict is inevitable in human life. Wherever people in groups walk the sane middle path between a loner’s sterile isolation and a slave’s abject submission, wherever people think for themselves and care strongly about what they are doing together, some conflict is normal, and even beneficial. Where there is trust, clear and open communication helps us resolve our conflicts to the good of all. Conflict is as much of an opportunity as it is a danger. 

Constructive and Destructive Aspects of Conflict[1]

Constructive Aspects of Conflict 

  • better ideas are produced 
  • people are forced to look at new approaches 
  • long standing problems surface and can be dealt with 
  • people are challenged to clarify their views 
  • tension stimulates interest and creativity 
  • people have a chance to test their capability 
  • opens up issues of importance, resulting in their clarification 
  • increases the involvement of individuals in issues of importance to them 
  • serves as a release to pent-up emotion, anxiety, and stress 
  • helps build cohesiveness among people by sharing the conflict, and celebrating its settlement, 

most important: we learn more about each other  

Destructive Aspects of Conflict 

  • can defeat or demean people 
  • can create distance between people 
  • climate of distrust and suspicion might develops 
  • people or factions defend their narrow interests 
  • resistance (active or passive) develops where teamwork is needed 
  • causes turnover 
  • diverts focus and energy from more important activities and issues 
  • can destroy morale or reinforces poor self-concepts in the “losing” side.
  • can polarize a group  and interfere with whole-group cohesiveness
  • can deepen differences in values 
  • can lead to destructive behaviors such as name-calling and fighting 

Conflict may be more prevalent in Pagan groups because we are still, for the most part, a first-generation religion. Those of us who came here by choice, often by difficult and wrenching choice, are likely to care passionately about “getting it right.” We are not blase about our religion, nor inclined to compromise our values. This newcomer intensity is what makes our community so vibrant – and so volatile.

Another point: some Pagan paths are newly created, which means we are making basic decisions that will profoundly affect our future. Others are newly revived after centuries of dormancy. Much has changed since these religions were actively practiced. Our ways could not evolve and adapt gradually as technology and society changed over time. So adjustments that would normally have been made in very small, incremental steps, as they were in the Abrahamic religions around us, must now be made in large leaps, again with profound results. Naturally, we have disagreements among us about decisions this critical.

But conflict can also spiral out of control, and become the group’s main activity, draining energy from its original vision and purposes. The voices of quieter members can be drowned out in the uproar, and more sensitive people might actually be driven away by painful stress. So it is essential for Pagans to learn to manage conflict well, to reap its benefits and mitigate its risks.

All newly forming groups, religious or secular, must devise ways of managing internal conflict. Secular professional group workers identify a “storming” phase of group formation. During this period, power relationships within the group are worked out and a group establishes its procedure for handling substantive disagreements and interpersonal conflicts. This is important preparation; the better it is done, the better the group will be able to work through the occasional disagreements that will arise as they work toward their main goals.

With skilled facilitation and the help of the Gods, a group that has been rent by conflict may sometimes be able to revisit the storming phase and find better ways to manage conflict. Groups also briefly revisit the storming phase whenever they integrate new members.

Either way, a better understanding of conflict itself is a great help 

Reasons for conflict

·         Substantive differences of opinion are inevitable in situations where people sincerely and intensely care about what they are doing together. Most often, people engaged in this sort of conflict can offer evidence and reasoning for their opinions. Sometimes, however, a member’s dissent is emotional or even intuitive, rather than intellectual. In groups where members respect and trust one another, such feelings will be heard out and may be accommodated. But dissent without evidence or logic can also be a manipulative ploy, so whoever engages in it too often tends to erode trust.

·         Competitiveness, different interests or desires, especially when people feel there is not enough to go around. There are only so many time slots in a festival schedule, only so many pages in a magazine, so hard choices must sometimes be made – but not always.  Sometimes frank and open communication about what we really want may show us that the limits we thought were there were really just self-imposed illusions. Remember the sisters with the orange.

·         Transferential issues are old issues from earlier times in members’ lives that are now being transferred onto current interactions within the group. (this is sometimes also called “projection,” but transference is actually only one type of projection.)  So a member who had a hard time in the past with a parent, schoolteacher, or other authority figure may get angry with the group leader, but the anger seems disproportionate or unrelated to the current concerns. Or somebody who had difficulties with siblings or playmates may compete with group-mates for the approval and attention of the leader, or for influence within the group. The more a group functions as a family of choice, the more transferential issues are likely to come up.

·         Personality problems. Some people seem to habitually initiate conflict, as though that is the only way they know how to feel important or to get attention. The book Antagonists in the Church, by Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk, which describes these behavior patterns, has become very popular in the Pagan community, and with excellent reason. (Here's a really good, Pagan-oriented summary of Haugk's ideas)  [However I recommend that people who read Antagonists also read Groupthink by Irving L. Janis, which is about how peer pressure can silence dissent and lead to bad collective decisions. (Here's a summary of that) Good group process avoids both of these extremes.

Group leaders, especially beginning group leaders who are insecure in their position, may be tempted to dismiss any member’s concerns or disagreements as “their problem,” arising from transferential issues or antagonistic tendencies.  But even broken clocks are right twice a day, and sometimes the Emperor really is naked! It’s far wiser to keep an open mind, and to consider each complaint on its own merits. The feedback from your group is a big part of what keeps you growing even as you lead. Assuming that you already know everything you need to know about yourself, your group, and your Path, is the way to stagnation and eventual deterioration for both leader and group.

Faced with a serious disagreement within your group, it might be wise also to seek the counsel of your own elders and/or of other group leaders whom you respect.

If you suspect that transference or personality problems are at least partially driving the dissent, some of your choices are:
  •  gently confront the person if you feel they are ready to grow into better ways of interacting.
  • ignore them in the hope that denying them the attention they seek will discourage the dysfunctional behavior. (If you choose this tactic, I advise you to make sure you also give them lots of positive attention for the good things they do in the group.)
  • ask them to leave, and risk frightening or alienating other group members. Warning: the person you dismissed will probably try to contest your authority by complaining about your decision to other group members, and may attack your reputation in the wider Pagan community.
  • placate them, reinforce their bad behavior, and eventually destroy your group. 

On the other hand, if the disagreement seems substantive, here are a range of methods for handling it.

Five Basic Methods for Resolving Conflict[2] 


how it works

when to use it

when not to use it

or withdrawal

person tries to solve problem 
by denying its existence -
results in win/lose

issue is relatively unimportant;
timing is wrong; cooling-off
period is needed; short term use

issue is important;
issue will not
disappear, but build

suppression or 
smoothing over

differences are played down;
surface harmony is emphasized;


issue is relatively unimportant;
preservation of the relationship
is primary; timing is wrong;
cooling-off period is needed

issue is important;
members are ready and willing to work on the issue,

continued suppression will lead to resentment and possible sabotage.

or dominance

decision by majority rule or by
person in authority;


when this method has been
agreed upon in advance,
process is seen as fair;
authority is respected and trusted

losers feel unheard 
ignored, disrespected, and/or resentful.

or negotiation

each party gives up something
in order to meet halfway.
results in win/lose if "middle of
the road position ignores the
real diversity of needs or viewpoints

all parties have enough
leeway to give; they trust and
respect each other;
resources are limited

issues of deeply-held principle rather than 
material interests;
parties are not fully 
committed to the relationship

Collaboration, consensus

abilities, values and expertise of all are recognized; each party's
position is clear, but the emphasis is on group solution.

results in win/win for all

there is enough time available
to complete the process;
parties are committed to
relationship and process;
and skilled in use of process

when time, abilities, 
commitment and/or
trust are not present


The best method for resolving a conflict and making a decision depends on three factors: 

·        The specific situation. It’s foolish to spend 45 minutes deliberating on whether to break for lunch at 12:00 or 12:30. Deciding on whether to admit a new member, or planning the next year’s program, deserve more thought, care, and time.

·        The  purpose of your group. For example, every well-run class is a benevolent dictatorship, with the teacher setting the curriculum and correcting and evaluating the students’ work. If the teacher does not know more about the subject, there is no point in studying with her or him. Task groups, on the other hand, where different members have different relevant specialties, work best with more collaborative methods that feature diffused power.

·        Most important, our choice of how we will settle any significant differences must be congruent with our values and vision. 

Pagans like to think that it’s always best to handle conflicts and make important decisions through consensus process. Sometimes it is: when there are no real differences in values, needs or desires, no urgency, unlimited time and energy, and extraordinary trust among the people concerned. 

Any decision making method can be corrupted, of course, but proponents of consensus argue that even the fairest democratic voting process leaves the minority feeling defeated.

Well, maybe so. My own experience, however, is that when my viewpoint loses in a fair election, I am free to continue to advocate for what I believe, hope to persuade people, and look forward to the next election. In consensus-based organizations, in contrast, I’ve found a great deal of pressure for dissenters to be silent, or to accept the dominant opinion. The emotional blackmail and attempted brainwashing that marks corrupt consensus process is far more hurtful than the natural disappointment people feel after losing a fair election. 

to learn more about conflict resolution, read:

  • Avruch, Kenneth, et. al., eds. Conflict Resolution: Cross-Cultural Perspectives Westport, CT: Praeger, 1991
  • Coover, Virginia, et. al. Resource Manual for a Living Revolution Philadelphia: New Society, 1985
    (especially part 2: "Working in Groups" pp. 43-99.)
  • Fisher, Roger and William Ury Getting to Yes NY: Penguin, 1981
  • Gastil, John Democracy in Small Groups Philadelphia: New Society, 1993
  • Kaner, Sam, et. al. Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making Philadelphia: New Society, 1996

or visit: 


Not all animals are equal, not ever, no matter how much we might like to think they are. All human groups are, among other things, webs of power relationships. Denying the existence of power differentials in our groups only drives those differentials underground, and covert power is far more likely to become corrupt power. Acknowledged power, in contrast, is subject to situational checks and balances.

Power is the relative capacity to influence what will happen (the outcome) and how it will happen (the process). Authority indicates the ways in which that capacity is granted, legitimated or validated.

     We can identify several different kinds of power and authority, deriving from different sources, applicable to different goals, working by different rules and interacting together in fascinating complexity.

1. Personal power: The capacities that we develop within ourselves may also win for us the respect of others, and with that comes greater influence within the group and the wider community. For our purposes, there are two main sources of personal power: They are inherent in the person. They may be ignored or discounted, but cannot be taken away.

  • Expertise:  Knowledge is power. We defer to people whom we perceive to have extraordinary knowledge or skill.

  • Spirituality: Some people seem to have a clearer conscious connection to the Gods than others. They are valued for the insight, wisdom and compassion they bring to the group, and for their ethical clarity.

2. Designated leadership derives its authority from the perceptions of other people, who grant leadership status based on a person’s recognized abilities and achievements.

·        Positional Authority is inherent in a role or an office rather than an individual. When the office-holder changes, positional power transfers to the new incumbent. For example, I am the second chair of the Pastoral Counseling program at Cherry Hill Seminary. I took the position after my predecessor stepped down. If the Seminary thrives, someone else will head the program after me.

·        Formal Authority, in contrast, belongs to the person rather than the role. Degree systems, in Wicca or in the secular academic world, are good examples. A person who has earned a degree may forfeit it through gross misbehavior, but not through simple disuse. 

3. Emergent leadership develops naturally from within a self-generated group, when one member seems to have markedly more talent, knowledge, or skill than others. The group can acknowledge and celebrate the emergence of a leader from within itself. When they do so, the emergent leadership develops into positional authority, or even into personal power. Emergent leadership might also be suppressed, stifling the potential leader and robbing the group of that person's talents. Or it can continue to operate unacknowledged, under the table, as covert leadership.

4. Shared (or decentralized) leadership: Situations where decisions are made collaboratively (shared) or by the person recognized as being most expert on a particular question (decentralized). Groups that work this way often still have a facilitator or coordinator who keeps the focus and steers decisions to the member best able to handle them. Again, it is healthier if this coordinating function is aboveboard.

Interestingly, self-generated groups start out as non-hierarchical collectives, but may soon develop emergent leadership. Lineage based groups, in contrast, begin with clearly designated leaders, but as they mature they move towards more collective decision making. In terms of power sharing, a traditional Wicca coven of elders will look very much like a newly formed, self-generated group. So perhaps the secret is that authority is most easily shared when the members are roughly equal in experience, expertise and spirituality, whether they are all elders or all beginners. When new seekers are admitted to an ongoing group, the elder-to-younger relationship naturally reappears.

Once a group has determined how it will manage conflict and make decisions, and how it will apportion power, it’s time to establish some other sorts of ground rules for the group’s work.


[1] from an unattributed handout in my old grad school notebook

[2] adapted from an unattributed handout in my grad school notebook

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by Judy Harrow, HPs, Proteus Coven
© 2006, by Judy Harrow

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