Friday, March 27, 2009

Conflict: Rules of Engagement

This is Part Four in a series (begun March 18) about working with conflict in cooperative groups. Today I'll offer my thinking about a constructive way to work with conflict in plenary, once you've decided that's the right thing to do.

I'm presenting here what I've distilled from more than two decades of work as a process consultant. It's a four-step process for working a volatile situation
in the moment (where at least one person is actively upset). The basic concept is to accurately recognize where everybody is at without judgment or blame, and then trying to figure out what you can do to repair damage and re-establish a basis for trust between the protagonists.

I figure if you can get this far, you've turned the corner and it should be possible to once again have the group function at a high level, with minimal distortion. In my next, and final blog in this series, I'll address what everyone's responsibilities are once the group has successfully addressed the conflict.

Step 1. What’s happening emotionally?
• Acknowledge the feelings of everyone who is a major player in the conflict. Stay with it until everyone feels heard (as opposed to agreed with). Hint: you may need to ask each player what feeling heard looks like to them; answers may vary.
• Focus on one person at a time until everyone has had their say. Other things being equal, start with the person in the greatest distress and work toward the person bothered
• Hint: In cases of high distress, the person may feel exceptionally isolated and misunderstood. In these moments, my overwhelming experience has been to focus first on making a connection with them emotionally (never mind that they may be acting like an asshole and totally inappropriate—the time to address that is later). Often, nothing else works, and if the person continues ot feel isolated, you'll never get solid buy-in from them on what follows.
• Summarize the common ground and note the differences. Resist the temptation to try to fix it, or talk anyone into changing their feelings.

Step 2. What’s the story?
• Give each person the chance to tell their version of what happened and what their reaction was. Discourage attempts at solutions at this stage; that comes later.
• As with the prior step, summarize the common ground and note the differences.
Trap #3 (the first was in my March 21 blog; the second in my March 24 entry): Groups often get hung up (or even polarized) by the efforts of protagonists to get group members to take sides and decide who was right. Resist the temptation to determine Truth and seek Relationship instead, emphasizing the ties between protagonists and building a bridge between them. Even if the stories are mutually exlcusive (that is, they both can't be true), believe everybody. It is essential at this point to grok every player's personal reality, so that you can make sense of why they did what they did.
• Hint:
Often a breakthrough occurs when one person can see events through the other person's lens, understanding—perhaps for the first time—how that person's actions can be reasonably explained from their reality, without that person having a bad intent.
• Steps One and Two can often be done simultaneously, where each person shares both their feelings and their story. The only reason I separate them in this process is because it's essential that each person be held emotionally, and many of us will shy away from emotional disclosure if our feet are not held to the fire. If unnamed, or inaccurately described, hard feelings tend to re-emerge later and you'll just have to start over. Better to get it right the first time.

Step 3. What's at stake (why does this matter)?
• Let the answers here be wide open: it could be as grandiose as “world peace” or as mundane as “second helpings on dessert.”
• Sometimes a major element in conflict is a gross misperception of what another wants, and that can be revealed at this stage.
• Again, the answers may not match up and that's OK. The just want to know what everyone's answers are (so that the answers you solicit in the next step are aligned with what others want, if possible).

Step 4. What do you want to do about it?
• While similar to the last question, this is an action statement, and only comes after the prior three questions have been addressed. Now, finally, we are getting to problem solving.
Hint: If the responses here are still coming out with emotional charge then it’s a sure sign that you went through the previous steps too quickly and someone didn’t feel heard or respected; go back and do them again.
• Note that the framework here is what do you want to do, not what you want others to do. It generally works better if each person starts with what they can contribute to forward progress, and build from there. Requests can come later, yet starting with what each protagonist can unilaterally offer is a nice olive branch.
• Unlike Step 3, here you are looking for measurable commitments. Thus, don’t settle for, “To feel better about what we’re each doing for the group.” Insist on something like, "To meet every Wed evening at 7 pm, right before the group meeting, to share what we’ve each done in the prior week to follow through on our commitments and to tell about anything extra we’ve done."
• It is not uncommon for protagnists to go blank when it comes to Step 4. While they may have plenty of ideas about what they want to other person to do, they have no inspirations about what they can offer. A good facilitator will help them here (I do this kind of work a lot and I've always been able to think of something positive that each person can do that is something: a) they are not currently doing; b) that respects what the other person said they wanted; and c) is doable by the person making the comitment—that is, the action does not represent a capitulation, a change in values, or a personality change.)

Note: By making the answers to Step 4 measurable, it gives each protagonist concrete information with which they can contradict negative feelings about the other protagonists (that is, despite a tendency to indulge in bad feelings about the other person, they have the chance to resist going there by reminding themselves that the other person actually did the thing they said they’d do).

While I don't have illusions about people coming out of this holding hands and singing Kumbaya, they should be able to better function together and the tension should be significantly reduced. The point of this proces is to be authentic and constructive, and is based on the assumtpions that everyone means well, prefers not to be in colflict, does not mean to be triggering distress in others, and wants every member's voice to be fully taken into account on group issues.

Trap #4: I'll conclude this blog with a major word of caution. Don't attempt a process like I've described above without sufficient facilitative skill to pull it off. Even if you thoroughly understand the theory, that doesn't guarantee you can handle the dynamics of fuliminating upset. I know process trainers who can teach this stuff, but can't do it. It's great for a group to commit to working with conflict—I'm all for it—but it can be downright dangerous to make that commitment without the capacity to do it well. It gives the illusion of safety, and that can be doubly problematic if it goes poorly: not only will the conflict remain unhealed, but trust in the group itself will be eroded.

Best I think, is to make a commitment to develop the facilitative capacity within the group and to also keep in mind the occasional need for outside help. This means a commitment of time and money. You need the time to do the training and learn the craft; and the money to fund the training and to occasioanlly hire an outside firefighter (which, among others, is what I am)—for those times when you're in over your head with the complexity or volatility of the dynamic, or there's no neutrality to be had within the group.

For my money, one of the surest measures of a group's maturity is not how much they can handle on their own; it's how accurately they know what they can handle themselves and when they need help. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to working with conflict.

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