Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Taking Your Dog Out of the Fight

Recently I was doing phone interviews with members of a forming community that had hired me to help them work through conflicted dynamics. The phone calls were an attempt to establish background and connection leading up to a couple days of live work together. Toward the end of one particular call—with a man I'll call Chris, who was in deep mud with some others in the group—Chris confessed that he was thinking seriously about leaving the community and questioned its viability. I asked him if his mind was made up or if there was any hope for the possibility that the damage could be repaired and that his community dream could be salvaged.

Chris reported that the door was yet ajar, though he was deeply skeptical of the community's revival. In return he asked me how I was going to approach the two days of group meetings, based on all the phone interviews. I told him I'd be coming with the starting idea that the community could work and that no one needed to leave. While I might be persuaded by events to change my view, I'd begin with the notion that the hurts could be healed and that the reasons why people were originally inspired to attempt the community still obtained.

Chris did not like my response. Worried that my attitude was prejudiced against his position, he questioned me closely about my thinking. I explained that there were several reasons for my approach:

1. I didn't have a dog in this fight
That is, I was not a stakeholder and didn't need the outcome to go in any particular direction. While I was open to the possibility of dissolution—and was perfectly willing to have the question of viability on the table—I would not be trying to steer things toward a particular goal (aside from authenticity and inclusiveness). Thus, my attitude was not about advocacy for a particular conclusion; it was about what I felt wold be most fruitful. (It is one thing to end a group relationship in recognition of how badly you've been frustrated and hurt; it's altogether another to end it after you've made a good faith effort to attempt other members' reasonable suggestions about how to reconcile and found that it wasn't enough to continue. The former tends to promote bitter feelings; the latter tends to promote better feelings.)

2. You tend to find what you're looking for
My years of group work have convinced me that people are profoundly influenced by expectations. If you go into a meeting expecting divisiveness, you're already 90% along the road toward manifesting it. Thus, for reconciliation to have a chance, it's extremely helpful to believe it's possible. As a professional facilitator who has learned to look for bridges between people who are standing in different places, I regularly find them. It's about that simple.

Caution: I am not talking about magical thinking where people "white light" critical differences or pretend to like each other until it's true. The bridge work I attempt only succeeds when all parties freely acknowledge its existence, its fairness, and its traffic-worthiness. This requires that each person is accurately seen and that their reality, their good intentions and their integrity have been validated (keeping in mind that reality, intentions, and integrity vary person to person).

3. The assumption that the dream that inspired the community is still valid, and that the investment of time, money, and energy into manifesting the community has value
While sometimes a fragile thing, a forming community is nonetheless a precious thing, and thus worth watering in times of drought. While there's no doubt that the seedling can wither beyond recovery—and soldiering on is little more than throwing good resources after bad—you want to make sure that the cause is hopeless before pulling the plug on the grow light.

Hint: While groups often focus on whether they have the skills to build community (assuming you have a good idea about what they are), you also must have sufficient availability and motivation. If you're missing any of these three key aspects among your membership, it's likely to be a fatal flaw. In fact, of the three, deficient skills is perhaps the easiest obstacle to overcome (as sufficiently motivated people with ample time can move mountains with teaspoons, and can often learn whatever skills they lack—providing only that they know: a) what they don't know; and b) the need to know it).

4. Few groups know how to work constructively through conflict
A lot of my consulting work is helping groups out of the ditches they've gotten into, and back onto the road of effectiveness. As there are few examples of vibrant cooperative groups who weather conflict well, it's easy to understand the miasma of despair that descends on groups once they're mired in non-trivial distress.

If you make decisions about viability before resolving conflict, it's relatively easy to give up on a project that could still succeed (after all, where would hope come from if you've never seen groups work through conflict well?). If you ultimately do decide to lay down a community, you'll sleep a lot better at night if you first clean the wounds and start the healing process, and make the decision from a place of wholeness, rather than brokenness.

• • •
Weeks later, at the end of my time with the forming group, I was rewarded with this evaluative comment from Chris:

"I came into these meetings feeling deeply conflicted with a number of people, and concerned that Laird's optimism might obscure a clean look at the community's viability. I leave these two days feeling fully heard, and inspired by Laird's repeated demonstration of how to approach conflict by focusing on relationships, and inviting each of us to take our dog out of the fight."

No comments: