Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Standing in Front of the Runaway Bus

One of the most common reasons I get hired as a process consultant is to help groups navigate the treacherous shoals of conflicted dynamics, where the hurt runs deep and the rocks are shallow.

While I'm occasionally asked to simply work a dynamic between two people, it’s far more typical that I’m asked to ply my craft in the whole group, where the variables are compounded, and the wind can blow from any direction. There are a number of reasons for this:

• Most groups don’t have agreements about how to work with fulminating conflict, and thus—regardless of whether working that particular conflict would be a good use of plenary time—the group wants to have a live demonstration of what that looks like. (Having conflicted parties report back to the group that they met, perhaps with the assistance of a third party, and achieved a breakthrough is not at all the same experience as witnessing the breakthrough.)

• It’s not uncommon that progress on an important issue is held hostage to the conflict, and it’s necessary to work through the conflict (as opposed to around it) to get traction on the problem. In this kind of situation, the group wants to minimize any delays and get to work on the issue as soon as possible.

• Even when a group understands the theory of working constructively with conflict, that doesn’t mean there’s currently sufficient skill among the membership to be able to do it themselves, and they may want a live demonstration, both to inspire hope and to collect data on whether to hire someone (perhaps me) to teach them that skill.

One thing I try to impress upon all groups is that plenary time (meetings of the entire group) is expensive, and you need to be diligent about seeing to it that it’s used wisely. Groups are smart to demand that plenary time be productive. While they aren’t always so smart about how they define “product,”* it’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether it makes sense to unpack a particular conflicted dynamic in plenary—even assuming you know how to do it and have group permission for the attempt.

* Hint: product is much more than just agreements about how to handle a given issue; it can include partial solutions, clarity about next steps, assignment of topics to research, and even decisions about how you will tackle a topic, or feeling better connected with one another.

In general, here is a list of indications that tackling conflict in plenary may be the right call:

o It looks like one or more participants are upset to the point that you're losing their attention for the work at hand.

o The upset appears as part of a chronic pattern that's disrupting the group’s work, and it's not getting better on its own.

o The tension is embedded in the issue the group is discussing, and must be resolved as a prelude to finding a viable solution.

o It appears that the distress is sufficiently distracting to the rest of the group.

o The whole group is needed to hold the energy needed to create sufficient safety or attention to work the conflict (this condition is more likely to apply when prior, non-plenary attempts have failed).

o Enough other people have the same or a parallel dynamic with one or more players in the conflict.

Note: It may be sufficient to name a conflict in the group and then have the participants take the next steps outside of plenary. The key tests are whether the players have gotten enough relief from naming the conflict to return their attention to the regular agenda, or whether resolution is necessary to proceed on the topic at hand.

• • •
I am frequently asked to assess a group's overall health and maturity. For my money, here are three key indicators in the context of how the group handles conflict:
1. Its ability to work conflict constructively in the group.
2. Its discernment around when to work a conflict in plenary and when it’s OK to have that done outside.
3. The degree of active participation from non-belligerents when working a conflict.

For the remainder of this blog I want to focus on this third point.

For the most part, people in US culture have learned to get very quiet when they find themselves in the presence of a conflict that they have not been identified with as a player. It’s not hard to figure out where that behavior comes from. Strong feelings are often linked with aggression and active bystanders tend to get hurt in the crossfire. Naturally enough, people learn to keep their head down to avoid suffering collateral damage.

The important news is that it needn't be that way. If the group has agreements about how they’ll work with conflict, and if the group decides that now is one of those times, then it’s an enormous benefit to have non-belligerents take an active role in safeguarding the process by which the conflict will be unpacked and examined. (It’s got to be superior to expecting the protagonists to work their own way through it.)

While it isn’t hard to explain what a constructive role might look like, it’s hard to do in the dynamic moment, when voices and blood pressure are surging into the red zone. Probably the trickiest moment is when someone’s behavior has clearly crossed the line of what’s considered acceptable. It’s an exceptional group that can concentrate first on building a bridge to over-the-red-line participants, rather than asking them to reflect on and apologize for their inappropriate behavior. Yet that’s exactly what should happen in that moment.

It's a huge plus for a group to have members step forward in the presence of conflict and keep the group to its agreements about how it wants to handle such moments. Protagonists are typically better able to hear a question from a non-belligerent than are from someone they're in conflict with—even if the words and affect are indistinguishable, the non-belligerent will tend to be more trusted and less escalating.

In effect, I'm advocating that non-belligerents find the courage to stand up and wave their arms in front of the runaway bus of erupted conflict. While this is not easy to do, it will get better with practice. And besides, if you don't take this on, and lend a hand to others when they're in the soup, who'll be there for you when the bus stops at your door?

Working conflict in group (and developing a savvy membership that is not afraid of working conflict) will not necessarily reduce the frequency of conflict in your group, but it can substantially improve how you handle those moments, and help ease the fears that those moments will go badly. Interestingly, not being afraid of conflict will go a long way toward manifesting the experience that it doesn't go badly. And that's a goal that's well worth struggling for.

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