Saturday, March 21, 2009

Conflict: Ignoring It Doesn't Work

Continuing with my series exploring Conflict in cooperative* groups (launched with my March 18 posting), I'm going to outline the remainder of this series. In the next fortnight I'm going to lay out:

1. Why groups need an agreement about addressing conflict (even though most don't).

2. When groups should address it and how far to take it in plenary (meetings of the whole group).

3. How to work with it constructively.

4. Everybody's responsibilities once the protagonists have been given group support to work through their upset.

* While everything I have to say applies equally to groups which don't self-identify as "cooperative," I am focusing on the cooperative segment because I can count on their baseline willingness to question competitive and adversarial dynamics, and I am therefore expecting this segment to lead the way in developing a meeting culture that is simultaneously more humane and more productive.

Further, I am assuming that the groups I am talking about have made no commitment to be therapeutic; I am assuming only that the group knows why it exists and that members are part of it because of their interest and support for the group's purpose.
• • •
Naturally enough, today I'll tackle the first topic on the list.

I'll start with a definition, to set a context for my thinking. I define conflict as the dynamic where at least two people have different views and at least one of them is experiencing non-trivial distress. (While it's common for people to apply the term "conflict" to situations where significant upset may not be a factor, the most interesting cases are where emotional volatility is in play. So that's where I'm focusing my comments.)

For all groups doing anything serious in the world and lasting for any length of time (groups that have an ongoing purpose, rather than ones that meet only once or twice to accomplish a single function and then disband), conflict is inevitable. That is, at least some of the time there will occur moments when two members disagree about something that they feel strongly about and there will be tension. My basic point in this blog is that it's a good idea for groups to have an idea about what to do in that moment, rather than than to simply pray and hope for the best.

Trap #1: Many people use a group's frequency of conflict as a barometer of its health: less conflict = greater health. I think this is bad thinking. For my money, the presence of conflict may mean nothing more than that the group is wrestling with tough issues and that the members care a lot about the outcome of those conversations. (Show me a group that reports no conflict, and I'll show you a group that's in denial, not doing serious work, or not paying attention.) The fact that strong emotions have emerged as part of the conversation may be a complication (I'll give you my thinking on that in a subsequent blog), yet it doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem, or that the group is unhealthy. The aspect of conflict that does relate to group health is how well it deals with conflict, not how frequently it gets the opportunity to experience it. 

This is important because one of the reasons groups tend to handle conflict poorly is that there is considerable anxiety (and perhaps embarrassment or discouragement) about the fact that conflict has erupted, independent of the conflict itself. And that's an unfavorable environment in which to work the conflict constructively. Part of my objective in illuminating the dynamics and potentialities of conflict is to try to get people to be hopeful and more relaxed in the presence of conflict, so that it will be much more possible to have positive experiences with it.

For the most part, people (and the groups they create) tend to avoid conflict, and that goes a long way toward explaining why most groups don't have any understanding about what to do when it occurs. It works like this: 
—Conflict (by definition) gets you into emotional volatility. 
—Absent any understanding about how to work emotionally (remember, this is not therapy), there may be no defined boundaries around safety or acceptable behavior in the dynamic moment. 
—Most of us have plenty of direct personal experiences with strong feelings being linked with aggressive, manipulative, and perhaps abusive behavior, and have thus learned that upset is often associated with damage (to relationships and to the group) and with deeply flawed decisions (where the group tends to either ignore or placate the upset person, either of which tends to leave some portion of the group demonstrably unhappy).
—Uncertain about their ability to handle conflict well, most groups try (unsuccessfully) to legislate it out of plenary by expecting members to contribute rationally in meetings—while this may not be a written expectation, it is a de facto cultural norm—and to work out their upsets in another context, rather than bringing them into the room. Most groups actively discourage the expression of conflict in meetings (while disagreement is allowed, the expression of strong feelings is either not supported, or is met with a very mixed response).

To be clear, I'm all in favor of people doing whatever they can to recognize their upsets and to do whatever they can to work through them outside of plenary—by themselves, by working directly with the other person(s), or with the help of third parties. However, it's flat out naive to think that that will handle all situations. At least some of the time, conflict will erupt in plenary, and it's too expensive (group time is highly valuable) to not have an idea about how to navigate that dynamic. What's more, you can't reasonably discuss the process by which you'll examine the conflict once you're in it. You have to have that in place and agreed upon beforehand.

If you're not convinced of this last piece (having the process in place before you're in the moment), think about what's happening for the upset person in the heat of the moment. Distress is linked with distortion (ability to hear and frame things accurately) and there is a concomitant tendency to feel isolated, misunderstood, and vulnerable. It is extremely uphill to attempt, in the moment of their distress, to ask the upset person to make decisions about the process by which their distress will examined. It is much better to have something in place ahead of time, so that when the upset person challenges you with, "Why are you asking me these questions about how I feel?", you can respond, "Because we've agreed as a group to do this whenever we perceive a member to be experiencing serious distress."

While I freely acknowledge that most people's experience with fulminating conflict is not positive, if groups develop the capacity and confidence needed to manage the dangerous aspects, there are also some highly valuable positives to be had. I'll name four:

a) By helping the upset person work through their distress (at least to the point where the distortion is reduced to acceptable levels), you've made it possible for them to be a constructively contributing participant in the problem solving phase of the groups' consideration of the issue(s) at hand. 

b) Further, as a better-connected participant, the upset person is more likely to buy in to the group's decision about what to do. This buy-in is much more in question if the group moves forward on the issue while the person remains upset.

c) Strong feelings, if harnessed (rather than running wild), can be a source of energy that can be used to both help solve the problem and to energize the group about the work it's doing ("Hey, we're tackling tough issues, listening to whatever people have to say on the topic, making hard choices, and feeling better connected in the process. We're hot shit!")

d) Feelings can be a source of information. For some people, they may have more profound insights into the issue through their feelings than their thinking, and it's crippling to ask everyone to translate everything into thinking as a pre-condition for its being acceptable input. People are incredibly complex beings and "knowing" comes in many forms: rational, emotional, intuitive, spiritual, and kinesthetic (to name five). Why limit your palette? The more ways you can allow members to share their "knowing," the more information you'll have to work with, the more members will feel welcome at meetings, and the more solid the foundation for your decisions.

I'll conclude with one more reason for groups to talk about and come to an agreement about how to handle conflict: ignoring it doesn't work. While I'll admit that some portion of the time, people will find a way to work through upsets on their own, without group assistance, this surely doesn't work all the time. It is highly dangerous for groups to allow unaddressed, unresolved conflicts to fester in the corners. It leads to isolation, it erodes trust, it undercuts group cohesion, and it breeds factions. In short, it leads to war. And if cooperative groups aren't addressing that, what the hell are we doing?


Unknown said...

You might find Frances Moore Lappe's development of the art of "creative conflict" quite supportive. It is developed in her book "Getting a Grip". The book is her search for genuine democracy and develops the concept of Living Democracy. Some of the concepts developed there could probably be adapted to intentional communities.

Laird Schaub said...

Thanks John. It happens that we have a copy of "Getting a Grip" at the community and I read what Lappé has to say about conflict. Lappé writes strongly about how people have choices in the face of conflict (even attack) and can choose to respond with caring rather than retaliation. That's certainly powerful and positive, and I support what she says. Unfortunately though, Lappé does not discuss working emotionally at all and I find that link absolutely crucial to making connections to people in distress, and de-escalating tensions. Clear and compassionate thinking is not enough.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Laird,
I'm so glad you're doing this series on conflict. I've got a couple of facilitation gigs coming up so it's particularly timely for me...
Happy Spring!