Wednesday, March 18, 2009

When It Comes to Conflict, It’s Always Personal

Ma’ikwe and I have just completed a facilitation training weekend in North Carolina where the teaching focus was on Conflict. Having just been immersed in that particular aspect of group dynamics, I want to devote the next few blogs to some of my thinking about what conflict represents and how to work with it constructively.

In recent years, the phrase “structural conflict” has arisen as a concept in group dynamics, to describe tensions that surface when there’s ambiguity about certain key aspects of what the group stands for and how it conducts business. Employing this rubric, conflict is sometimes sorted into two kinds: “structural” and “interpersonal.”

While I agree wholeheartedly that ambiguous agreements can lead to hell (and plenty of conflict along the way), I don’t find this sorting particularly helpful. First of all, it implies that if a conflict is structural, then perhaps it’s not interpersonal, and I don’t think that’s possible. As far as I’m concerned, if there isn’t at least one person who’s experiencing non-trivial distress, then you don’t have conflict—it’s merely a disagreement. It’s more useful, I think, to view conflict as always having an interpersonal component. What’s more, I’m convinced that recognizing the distress is the most constructive starting point when working with conflict.

Second, while softly or ill-defined agreements may also be a factor in a given conflict (and it’s important to know when that’s the case), there are a number of other possible contributors and I don’t see the value in singling out sloppy agreements for special treatment. Here’s an outline of a half dozen other common contributors to conflict (in addition to interpersonal tensions):

1. Style Clash
While this can occur in many forms—male/female, rational/emotive, kinesthetic/cerebral, active/contemplative—I’m only gong to examine one to make my point: family of origin.

There’s considerable variety in the way people are raised, and it can be a potent challenge navigating cultural differences. For the purposes of illuminating this dynamic, I’m only going to examine two general types: the Northern European style and the Southern European style. While I’m shamelessly stereotyping and everyone won’t fit neatly into my pattern, bear with me. Even though it’s easy to think of counterexamples, the dichotomy is still useful.

For the most part, meeting behavior in the US follows the Northern European model, where one person talks at a time, and people don’t raise their voices unless they’re upset. Contrast that with the Southern European style (which stereotypically includes Jewish, Black, and Hispanic cultures, as well as Italian and Spanish) where people commonly speak on top of each other and with animation. (To better understand the roots of these differences, think of normal dinner table conversation in these cultures.)

With a little reflection, it’s easy to understand how everyday Southern European behavior can be misconstrued by a Northern European. What looks like rudeness and upset to the Northern European might be nothing more than interest and engagement to the Southern European. Conversely, the polite waiting of the Northern European might be misinterpreted as aloofness, boredom, or even ill health by a Southern European.

Without checking out these assumptions, people trying to understand what’s happening between people operating in different modalities can get hopelessly muddled.

2. Relationship to Rules
In a group of any size (probably 10+ is enough) it is a virtual certainty that there will be a range of how people relate to structure in their lives. On one end of the spectrum will be folks who find agreements, and rules to be relaxing. They eliminate ambiguity, provide an objective standard for what constitutes “enough” or “fair share,” and provide a platform for a conversation in the event that there are tensions around people doing what they agreed to do.

On the other end of this spectrum are people who experience rules and explicit expectations as a straight-jacket, as a sign of mistrust, and as an attempt to shoehorn everyone into the same box, quashing diversity. For these folks, rules are the first brick in the foundation of fascism, and to be resisted at every turn.

Once you understand that this spectrum is operative (and normal), you can begin to work explicitly on how best to balance these two polarities whenever the question of norms or agreements surfaces. Absent an understanding of this range, groups repeatedly are crippled by a resistance and suspicion from one side about the other—and issues simply become the latest battleground for the pro-structure/anti-structure tug-of-war.

3. Misunderstandings
Some fraction of the time, there are serious mistakes made in what one person thinks another said, wrote, or did. The person who is upset can build a considerable head of steam up in connection with their upset about what they thought the other person did, and occasionally it can take a long time to discover the mistake. Sometimes, only after considerable damage has taken place.

The more straight-forward version of this dynamic is where there’s a misunderstanding of events and people are operating from significantly different realities about what happened. The more subtle version of this is when one person assigns a bad motive to what another did, and hasn’t looked for (or accepted) more benign or well-intentioned possibilities.

Hint: The latter phenomenon—the more volatile of the two—is more commonly found in situations where there’s already a history of tensions between two people and trust is low.

4. Power Dynamics
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic that entails a whole field of work, it is relatively common for members of a group to have a critical spin on the actions of another whom they feel has misused his or her power. If the accused person feels their actions were more benevolent, then a firestorm can ensue.

In essence the powerful person is called out for having used their power for either inappropriate personal benefit or for the benefit of a subgroup at the expense of others. The claim of the powerful person is that they believe they were using their power more for the benefit of all, and they perceive the criticism as an attack on their integrity (or even character assassination). This can get ugly in a hurry.

In general, the powerful person is accused of having abrogated process agreements for the benefit of the few over the many. This kind of accusation tends to carry an additional heaviness due to the subtext of leadership abuse, and a sense of betrayal. If not handled well, this can paralyze a group, with progress on the precipitating issue only one of the casualties.

5. Damage Triggers
Everyone has been hurt in life, and almost all of us carry some of the damage with us into our current realities. This history may or may not be disclosed or understood by the groups we’re a part of today and it’s not at all unusual for someone’s pain to be triggered by current events. It can be highly confusing for others to correctly frame that person’s response to what’s happening without knowledge of the past damage, and how dramatically it can distort one’s response.

Let me give you an extreme example to illuminate my point. Some years ago I was asked to facilitate meetings at a residential community where there had been an internal charge of sexual abuse that was denied. There was no physical evidence to prove what happened and results of a professional investigation (by experts in sexual abuse) were inconclusive. As the group had more than 50 members, I knew going in that it was a statistical certainty that there would be others in the group who had personal experience with abuse and that this would be the lens through which they processed the current dilemma.

I explained this at the outset of the weekend and in the course of our 48 hours together, half a dozen people came forward to disclose—for the first time—their personal stories as survivors of sexual abuse (from incidences that occurred prior to their time together in community). It was powerful and poignant stuff that was important for the community to hear, both for healing and for understanding more fully how each member was responding to the current situation.

6. Fighting for the High Moral Ground
It’s often the case in conflicted dynamics that people react more strongly in a disagreement (to the point of getting emotionally triggered) because they believe they have a unique position as a protector of a group value. When they get accused of being stubborn and selfish, they might respond with “You don’t understand. My concern is rooted in a group value; it’s not just a personal concern” and they hang in there, in part, because they’re defending the group. Many times though, people on the other side of the argument believe the same thing—only they’re defending a different group value. Each thinks he or she has the high moral ground, and a lot of salvos can be exchanged before it becomes clear there’s legitimacy to everyone’s position and no one has the high moral ground. Meanwhile, the disagreement has taken on the flavor of a holy war, greatly complicating attempts to establish détente.

Another common version of this occurs when the dynamic is coupled with any of the other complications named above. It will frequently be the case that Person A is triggered by Person B’s statement or action and Person B will be oblivious to the reaction (and may not be in distress themselves), until they learn of Person A’s response. From Person A’s perspective, Person B started it. From Person B’s perspective, Person A started. Each thinks they’re protecting themselves from the other person being out of control, and we’re off to the races. (It’s scary to observe what kind of raw behaviors a person will rationalize as acceptable in themselves if their analysis is that they were attacked without provocation.)

It can take a while to make clear that each has the same story (“The other person started it”), no one sees themselves as the aggressor, and there is no high moral ground to be had.

• • •
As a final comment, note that these complicating factors can be in play in any combination—the only constant being that interpersonal tension is always in the mix. Note also that all of these complicating factors are on top of whatever the presenting issue is, about which people may disagree even if none of these complications are in play.

While you may feel overwhelmed by how complicated this can get, my intent is to inspire hope. I figure if you know better what to look for and how to illuminate the complications without labeling anyone as bad, you have that much greater chance of effecting a cease fire and offering the protagonists an honorable way to lay down their arms.

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