Tuesday, March 24, 2009

When Groups Should Address Conflict in Plenary

This is Part Three in a series on conflict in groups that was begun March 18. Today I'll address: when groups should address conflict in plenary (meetings of the whole group), and how far to take it.

On the question of when to call the group's attention to conflict, the essential litmus test is when it's perceived that one or more people in the group are upset to the point where they're experiencing non-trivial distortion of what's happening and what's being said. That is, they're no longer able to hear accurately and it's getting in the way of the group's ability to function well.

Obviously this is a judgment call, and people may disagree as to whether the line of non-trivial distortion has been crossed. My advice is to take a person's word for it. Usually it becomes clear relatively quickly whether that person was accurate in their self-assessment or not. (That is, if you sense that a person has become upset and they deny that it's getting in the way of their participation, if you let it go and return to the regularly scheduled conversation, it will generally become obvious within minutes whether they self-diagnosed accurately or not.)

Trap #2 (the first one is listed in the previous blog): Be careful of assessing another person's behavior based on what it would mean if you were behaving that way. Their frame of reference may be entirely different. Referring to what I wrote March 18 under the heading "Style Clash," someone with a Northern European style (that is, a calm speaker who doesn't interrupt others) may easily misinterpret the emotional distress level of someone with a Southern European style who naturally speaks passionately and on top of others.

Once you've named a conflict, I think it's worthwhile to examine it at least as far as naming accurately what the feelings are and what the story is, to the distressed person's satisfaction. Everyone who's a player in the conflict should get a turn at this, starting with the person perceived to be most upset and working toward whomever is least triggered. The keys to doing this well are:

—Making the first connection with an upset person on the emotional level. Remember, by definition, conflict involves emotional distress. The upset person will tend to feel isolated and your #1 job in trying to work with them is to interrupt that isolation and show them that you "get" their essential experience—which has nothing to do with agreeing with their position or their upset.

—Demonstrating to each person both that you've heard their story (complete with feelings) accurately and that you've "gotten" their affect. Warning: If the words are right but the energy is wrong, the upset person may not trust that they've been fully held, and the feeling of isolation may persist.

—Being as neutral as possible in the listening. In addition to not taking sides in the conflict, this means not having a judgment that a person is emotionally volatile. The more matter-of-factly that you can respond to emotionality, the less tense the environment will be in which the confict is unpacked. (A lot of what is hard about working with conflict is that non-belligerents also get tense when conflict erupts, because experience has taught them that bad things can happen in those moments—not only do not they not care to witness that, there's likely some fear that it might happen to them. By reducing the group's baseline anxiety about working with conflict, everything will go better.) Understand though, that this is not a recommendation to be blasé or casual about working with conflict. Take it seriously, but hold it lightly.

—Not getting hung up on inconsistencies in different protagonist's stories. Two people may agree that they were in the same place at the same time and have completely different stories about what happened. In this phase of working with conflict, believe everyone—even if the different realities are mutually incompatible! The priority here is Relationship, not Truth. And all you need to be believe is that each person's story is their truth.

Having gotten this far, you face a choice point. Should you work the conflict further, or set it aside (perhaps because the distortion has already been reduced sufficiently to return to the regular agenda topic by virtue of just telling the stories and being heard; perhaps because the protagonists are OK with further work being done in another setting)?

Here's a checklist of reasons to keep working in plenary:

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

o The tension is embedded in the issue currently being discussed and must be resolved as a prelude to finding a solution that will work and can be implementated with solid buy-in.

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

o The whole group is needed to create sufficient safety or attention to work the conflict (this typically happens after other attempts have failed).

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

Whole group time is very valuable and choices about how to use it should be made wisely. While there's no doubt that working conflict can take a serious amount of that valuable time, sometimes you can't afford not to.

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