Monday, March 30, 2009

Conflict: Responsibilities After the Fire Has Been Put Out

This is Part Five in my series on Conflict (begun March 18). Today I'll offer my thinking on an aspect that is very important, yet one which I've seldom seen written about: what happens after the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air have been appropriately addressed and distortion has diminished—at least temporarily—to manageable levels? It is not enough to just survive conflict; it behooves groups to actively take advantage of the precious (and often hard-earned) clearing that has been created in the group's energy field.

[While I had originally conceived of this as the final installment, it's now occurred to me to add one more, where I'll provide a template for the mandate of a committee devoted to helping members work constructively through interpersonal tensions—for those times when it isn't needed or desirable to do so in plenary. That will be the subject of my next blog.]

Before launching into how I think groups should view everyone's responsibilities in the aftermath of conflict, I want to properly set the stage. Here is a summary of some the points I've been attempting to make in my previous blogs:
o Conflict is inevitable
o Not having a clear understanding about what it is and how to work with it constructively is a bad idea (it leads to chaos, confusion, and serious damage to relationships)
o Sometimes it's better to work the conflict in plenary; sometimes it's not
o Working a conflict in plenary is not likely to go well unless you have agreements in place about how you'll attempt this, and have the skill needed to deliver on your promise
o For those times when conflict needn't be worked in plenary, it's a good idea to provide support
for members—probably in the form of a committee—so they won't have to handle it solely on their own (how to do this well will be the subject of my next blog)

When a group commits to supporting members struggling with interpersonal tensions—which I strongly urge all groups to do—there's a boundary about what this means. It should be limited to conflict
arising in the context of people functioning as group members. Thus, if someone is outraged that you wear purple 3/4 of the time (a color they abhor), you are not necessarily obliged to deal with them about that, unless tasteful fashions or color aesthetics are a group value. I'm not saying you can't try to work it out; I'm only saying you're not required to wrestle with other rmembers' quirks and personal preferences when they fall otuside what the group has agreed it's in the world to do.

(Last month I was working with a group where one member was driven bonkers by another who had the habit of biting his nails in meetings. While the nail biter was apologetic about his nervous practice—and would have preferred to not be doing it—he'd been utterly unsuccessful in breaking himself of the habit, and didn't feel it was his responsibility to take care of the irritated person's irritation. I agreed with him. The triggered person is going to have to sort this out for themselves.)

To be sure, there's delicacy here in knowing the boundary. At what point is a raised voice a right of personal expression and at what point does it cross the line into a form of violence (about which the group has standards)? This ambiguity notwithstanding, my main point is that there are limits to what kinds of conflict the group should be obliged to tackle. There are times when the group can—and should—say "No, you'll have to handle that on your own."

OK, so what about those times when the group says "yes" and devotes group resources to working through the tensions? I believe there is an implicit contract between the group and the individuals receiving support. In exchange for the right that individual members have to be supported and helped through tough times, those same individuals have the responsibility to give back to the group in two ways:

1. Once tensions have been cleared and distortion reduced, the protagonists need to make themselves available to return to a fair and open consideration of the issues that precipitated the conflict. This expressly includes being able to work constructively with opposing views. That is, the group has the right to expect that the stakeholders in the conflict will behave better with each other by virtue of having received group support for working through their tensions. It is not OK for them to continue with a hair-trigger, ready to fire retaliatory salvos whenever they perceive the hint of a slight. This is not spill-your-guts psycho-drama playhouse; it's a group meeting, where people expect to solve problems!

If the group's availability to help members work conflict is going to be productive, it is essential that the struggling folks who are the beneficiaries of this attention learn how to change their behavior (and get off the merry-go-round), rather than learn how to get attention (and keep going around and around). In short, the calmed belligerents need to be available to help the group adress the precipitating issues. That's part of the deal.

2. Further, the individuals receiving support and attention need to move on and not return to the same tensions in similar circumstances. To do so, abuses the group's support. In such instances, the group is not obliged to give them the same attention and support the second time around—unless there are significantly new aspects to the situation.

Thus, in cases of patterned behavior, where the same person(s) is reporting the same dynamic with lots of people, the group has the right to say, at some point, enough is enough: you either have to get over this dynamic—which we're willing to help you do without pathologizing you, but which is otherwise hamstringing the group—or it may no longer make sense for you to continue in the group. It is obviously a heavy thing getting to the point of asking someone to leave the group, and not be taken lightly. And while it should be the option of last resort—after all other remedies have been attempted—it nonetheless has to be an option. It's not reasonable to ask the group to be held captive in emotional purgatory by a person who's repeatedly in the same pattern of distress without any shift after the group has made a good faith effort to work with them on it and helped craft mutually acceptable agreements about what all parties can do differently.

Keep in mind that the group may simply not have the resources or resiliency needed to help the struggling person through their issues, rather than there is "something wrong" with the struggling individual. This doesn't have to be about blame. It may simply be a limit to diversity.

Trap #5 (I've been identifying traps as part of this series on Conflict; the first appeared in my March 21 entry, and the others have followed chronologically): Be leery of a predominant group analysis that idenfiies a single individual or couple as "the problem." It is almost never a one-way street. In my experience as a consultant, about half the groups who hire me to help them through difficulties have a story in which so-and-so is labeled "the problem." However, as a cowboy who's been to a lot of rodeos, I don't buy the story; I insist on seeing for myself. Both because I'm experienced with conflict and because I start with the assumption that everyone wants to be accurately viewed and is not intentionally disruptive, I'd say about 80% of the time (note that I didn't say every time) I can get different and more cooperative behavior out of the "problem" person within 24 hours than the group believes is possible. While this person may well have challenging behaviors that are hard for most folks to live with, and it may not be a good fit having them in the group, the point I'm trying to make is that they aren't unreachable—even though that's typically the group's story about them.

Once a group starts to indulge itself in so-and-so-is-the-problem thinking, they're well on the way toward becoming a mob, where members who buy this story tend to get lazy and stop looking closely at how they've also been contributing to what's not working. They content themselves with laying it all at the feet of the "problem" person, and before you know it, you're at a virtual lynching. It can get pretty ugly. Don't let this happen to your group! Whenever there's a persistent problem in the group, I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone take a step back and spend a little time searching for responsible parties in the mirror. It can be amazing who'll you'll find there.

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