“Dancing in the Dissonance” – A Conflict Resolution Skills Activity

Designed by Audrey Williams

I. Introduction

The goal of the “Dancing in the Dissonance” activity is to introduce the concept of “dissonance” as a tool to build curiosity and respect for difference in shared meaning-making spaces. The activity draws on narrative and musical tools for conflict resolution to build a better understanding of how people make meaning both individually and as part of a group. By the end of the activity, participants should have a better appreciation for how curiosity, complexity, and difference relate to healthy experiences of conflict.

By working with a pre-selected song to make and share meaning around sonic representations of conflict, participants will have the chance to ponder how meaning making happens on multiple levels, including:

  • on the level of the individual;
  • on the level of the group; and
  • on the level of the message between artist and audience.

This activity can be carried out in settings where participants already know each other as well as in settings where participants are just meeting each other for the first time. This activity involves a pre-class work expectation, and so it should be used in contexts where the facilitator has enough advance connection with participants to send pre-class materials to them.

At each stage, the activity is designed to help participants build greater appreciation for the flexibility and adaptability of meaning while also exercising their curiosity about how people can have different experiences of the same phenomena. Participants will learn how to see dissonance as an invitation to curiosity, and will walk away with an understanding of how to use curiosity to navigate difference in a generative, rather than destructive, way.


II. Conceptual Framework: Narrative and Dissonance in Conflict Resolution

(Resources for the micro-lecture at the start of the activity)

The design of this activity draws from narrative conflict resolution approaches, and thus, facilitators are invited to familiarize themselves with the following conceptual framework and share this information with participants before the activity begins. This material can be adapted into a handout or into a presentation.

NARRATIVE & DISSONANCE FRAMEWORK

Narrative is the way we make meaning by telling stories about ourselves and our communities. Narrative can take many forms, such as conversations between people, school papers and presentations, movies and television shows, newspapers and speeches, social media posts and videos, music, and more.

Understanding narrative is important for understanding conflict, because the stories we tell can be harmful (for example, by excluding people or encouraging hatred) or they can be generative (by building bonds of community and understanding between people).

Narrative Conflict Resolution involves building better stories through complexity, including by:

  • adding more voices to the story;
  • centering voices that have been marginalized or suppressed;
  • creating circular narratives (avoiding linear “A causes B”-type stories);
  • avoiding simplistic and monolithic characterizations (for example, avoiding the use of tropes like “valiant hero” or “dastardly villain”); and
  • creating room for dissonance – for opportunities to be confronted with difference and to develop curiosity about it, rather than finding it threatening.

Dissonance as a metaphor for conflict / conflict resolution ­– Dissonance can build tension, add complexity, and spark curiosity.

  • In music theory, dissonance is the term used to describe sounds that are jarring and lack a pleasing sense of resolution.
  • Consonance describes what we usually think of as sounds that are in harmony with each other.
  • Yet, is dissonance always unpleasant? Should we always strive toward pure harmony?

Consider jazz – This form of music is built around a mix of dissonance and consonance. Consonance is used to create comfort in familiarity, while dissonance is used to spark curiosity and prompt the audience to consider new ways of feeling and perceiving.

FURTHER READING

Cobb, S. (2013). Speaking of violence: The politics and poetics of narrative in conflict resolution. Oxford University Press.

Brenneis, D. (2013). Trading fours: Creativity, analogy, and exchange. American Ethnologist, 40(4), 619–623. [OPEN ACCESS]

Dissonance in Music Explained: Consonance vs. Dissonance. (2021, June 24). MasterClass.


III. Activity Lesson Plan

Goal:

To introduce the concept of “dissonance” as an effective metaphor for building complexity and curiosity around conflict.

Time:

At home work (pre-class): ~10–20 minutes

In-class work: ~45–50 minutes

Suggested breakdown of in-class activity:

  • Micro-lecture on narrative and dissonance in conflict resolution (see the section “II. Conceptual Framework” above): 7 minutes
  • Introduction of activity and procedures: 3 minutes
  • Listening to the song and creating drawings / word maps expressing individual participant meaning: 10 minutes
  • Reviewing each other’s drawings and indicating resonance/dissonance through sticky notes: 5 minutes
  • Discussion of drawings / word maps by each participant: 10 minutes
  • Second placement of resonance/dissonance markers: 3 minutes
  • Facilitator-led discussion on the song’s original message: 2 minutes
  • Final wind-down discussion: 10 minutes

Materials:

  • An electronic recording of the song that has been chosen for the activity
    • Example song: Madde 42 by Büşra Kayıkçı
  • Whiteboards or large sheets of white paper for each participant to have a dedicated space to draw/write and display their work.
  • Markers (dry erase if using whiteboards)
  • Post-it notes (four colors):
    • Two colors for the first round of resonance and dissonance placement
    • Two different colors for the second round of resonance and dissonance placement
  • Handouts:
    • One for explaining the activity (pre-class prep) – See “Resources” section at the end of this post.
    • One with background information about the song (wind-down) – See “Resources” section at the end of this post.

A Note on Song Selection

This activity was initially designed using the song Madde 42 by Büşra Kayıkçı. This song was chosen for multiple reasons. The instrumental nature of the song (no lyrics) means that there is greater opportunity for vastly different interpretations of the conflict in the song, which means that participants will have more opportunity to consider dissonant (rather than resonant) meanings. The song also has a clear conflict that the musician had in mind when creating it.

If you decide to use this song, see the example handout in the “Resources” section of this post for information to use at the end of this activity.

If you decide to use a different song in this activity, it is suggested to keep the following in mind:

  • It is best to use a song that doesn’t last longer than 6 minutes, due to the time requirements for the activity.
  • Instrumental songs will challenge meaning making in ways that songs with lyrics might not, though songs with lyrics can still open many opportunities for different interpretations.
  • When choosing a song, consider whether there is information readily available about the original message that the musician(s) intended for the song.
  • Keep in mind your participants’ learning levels and cultural contexts when choosing songs. If the song you have chosen has a message or conflict that deals with potentially traumatic subjects, make sure you are prepared to walk your participants through any heavy emotions that might arise from these subjects.

Pre-Class Work

It is suggested that you send participants some material about the activity and the song chosen for the activity prior to the class period in which the activity is to take place. Participants should be instructed to listen to the song and begin reflecting on the conflicts/tensions within the song at home, and should come to the in-class activity prepared to draw/write. This pre-class work shouldn’t take more than 10 to 20 minutes.

The handout sent to the participants should include information about how the participants can access the song. However, it should not include information about the original message of the song, and participants should be actively discouraged from looking up any additional information about the song, as that information will be revealed at the end of the activity. It is important that participants are given the opportunity to develop their own meaning around the song without being influenced by knowing the intentions of the artist.

(For an example pre-class instructions handout, see the “Resources” section at the bottom of this post.)

In-Class Procedures

Split out the participants into groups of 3–4 people. Throughout the activity (until the final discussion), the participants will work in these small groups.

1. Micro-lecture

Introduce the narrative and dissonance concepts using the material in the “II. Conceptual Framework” section of this post. Participants might benefit from having some of this material in a handout or slide presentation to follow along as you speak.

2. Introduce the activity

Introduce the different activities the participants will be involved in (drawing/writing, placing resonance/dissonance sticky notes, discussing their meanings with each other, and learning about the history of the song at the end). Let the participants know that the purpose of the activity is not to guess the “correct” meaning of the song, but rather to express what conflicts they can hear in the song based on their own subjective experience, and then to build curiosity about how others came to their own understandings of the song.

3. Play the song while participants draw/write

Make sure you have the proper audio set-up for the song to be able to be heard throughout the space where participants are drawing and writing. Make sure each participant has the materials they need to create their drawings and/or word maps. When the song has finished, give participants a minute or two to finish their drawings / word maps. If the song is short enough, consider playing it twice to give more time for writing and drawing.

It is important that participants know that they are not being evaluated on the aesthetic quality of their drawings / word maps. The creative portion of this activity is not meant as a skills demonstration but rather as a method for participants to express the meaning they have made around the song.

4. Resonance/dissonance placement: First round

Make sure each participant has a collection of sticky notes in two different colors. Make one color indicate resonance (e.g., green) and one color indicate dissonance (e.g., blue). Instruct the participants to look at each drawing / word map by the other participants in their group, and let them use the sticky notes to indicate which parts are “resonant” with their own feelings about the song and which parts are “dissonant.” Please note: Participants should not write their name or any other identifying info on their sticky notes. This is to avoid having participants singled out for their decisions regarding resonance/dissonance.

See the following examples of drawings / word maps created by participants of a “Dancing in the Dissonance” activity:

5. Discussion about drawings / word maps

Still in their small groups, have the participants tell each other about their drawing / word map. Have them describe what they were hearing in the song. Give each participant 2–3 minutes to present, and make sure participants are switching so that everyone gets time to talk about their drawing / word map.

6. Resonance/dissonance placement: Second round

Make sure each participant has a collection of sticky notes in two additional colors. These should be different colors than those from the first round, so that they don’t get confused with the first-round sticky notes. Based on what they now know about the other drawings / word maps, have the participants place their second-round resonance/dissonance markers to see if anything has changed from the first round.

7. Share info about the original song

Coming back into the full group, the facilitator should take a few moments to share more detailed information about the history of the song, including the original message that the musician(s) intended. This step is why it is important to choose a song that has an identifiable original message that has been shared by the musician(s). When sharing the info about the song, make sure to note again that the goal of this activity was not to correctly guess the “right” meaning of the song, but rather to show that every single person has different experiences and understandings of the same phenomenon, and those experiences can even differ from the ones originally attended by the musician(s).

8. Final discussion

Now that information has been shared about the song, have the participants discuss their experience with the exercise. Some possible questions to have them consider include:

  • Is it possible to hear a conflict in a song? In what ways is it easy to hear a conflict? In what ways is it difficult to hear a conflict?
  • How is the original message of the song resonant with the meaning they made?
  • How is the original message dissonant from the meaning they made?
  • How has their understanding of the song changed since they created their original drawing? What sparked those changes?
  • Did they feel any discomfort during the activity? How did they handle that discomfort?
  • Did they feel any curiosity during the activity? What sparked that curiosity?
  • How do they feel about dissonance as a metaphor for navigating conflict? Does it feel useful to them?
  • How might they use or remember the metaphor of dissonance in their life beyond this activity?

IV. Resources

The below handouts can be used as is, or they can adapted by the facilitator.

The activity requires two handouts:

  • One for explaining the activity (pre-class prep)
  • One with background information about the song (wind-down)

This activity was developed by Audrey Williams for Dr. Arthur Romano’s “Peace and Conflict Resolution Pedagogy” course at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

About Audrey Williams

Grad student and storyteller exploring how stories, music, and conflict transformation intersect.

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