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Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict

Melody Stanford Martin
Broadleaf Books, 300 pages

How does one deal with conflict in a healthy way? Despite many books on the subject, Americans seem to be getting worse at resolving conflict. The polarization in our nation makes it difficult for conversations to happen across the political aisle. “Brave Talk” by Melody Stanford Martin reframes conflict as an impasse that may not have a resolution. The goal of engaging such an impasse is to form resilient relationships that are founded upon deep and genuine connection. Resilient relationships shape strong communities and societies.

In an approachable yet nuanced way, Stanford Martin helps readers understand impasse, engage impasse and transform impasse. Key to her argument is the assertion that shutting down those with whom we disagree is an ineffective strategy for transforming conflict. Rather, we must begin with a recognition of another’s humanity and life story. When we engage with people at the level of their story, and therefore at the level of their values, we build a mutuality upon which real disagreement can occur.

It may appear that Stanford Martin is making an argument for civility in conflict. She is quick to point out that civility is a mask that domination wears. She includes this discussion of civility in her chapter on the role of power in conflict. Rather than use the word “privilege,” she uses the word “domination” to describe someone who has power and refuses to share it. The answer to domination is to share power. She is adamant, however, that one cannot overcome domination with domination. Shaming, trolling or being condescending to the one with whom you disagree is a way of using domination, and it will not build resilient relationships.

I appreciated Stanford Martin’s nuanced approach to the role of power in transforming conflict. Still, I wonder how her argument will fall on the ears of those historically vulnerable to the domination of others. Is it incumbent on people of color to gently point out when white people make racist comments online? No! They have every right to be openly angry about the racism they encounter, even if that anger brings up feelings of shame in the commenter. Then again, Stanford Martin is trying to engage people at the level of relationship. She is quick to point out that when someone refuses to stop using domination in conflict, they are not worth having a resilient relationship with.

“Brave Talk” is holistic, building on knowledge gleaned from seemingly different worlds, such as psychology and rhetoric. Stanford Martin breaks down big concepts like emotional regulation and logical fallacies in an easy-to-understand way. She concludes with five practices of resilient relationships, all of which build upon the knowledge she introduced in previous chapters: showing up for each other; seeing and being seen; sharing power; disagreeing well; and taking a break.

“Brave Talk” is a worthwhile read for anyone wrestling with how to engage conflict in a way that strengthens relationships. As a conflict avoidant person, I found her book inspiring and empowering, and I intend to try out the skills
she introduced.