Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Fire Fighting Committee

This is Part Six, and the final installment of my series on Conflict in groups. Today I'll lay out a solid way for groups to create options for not working conflict in plenary.

While there are a number of solid reasons why groups should choose to deconstruct an erupting conflict in plenaries (ref my blog of March 24), I want to focus here on eliminating one of them: because you have no reasonable alternatives. In general, involving the whole group is the most expensive option, and should the one you choose last, when other efforts have failed to get the job done. Here's a decent sequence of escalating steps on the pathway to resolving conflict. While there may be occasions to skip certain steps, this is ordinarily a highly useful guideline:

A. Try to work through it unilaterally (perhaps with help from others, but not by discussing it with the person who has been the trigger).
B. Try to work it out directly with the person who was the trigger.
C. Get informal help from a third person (this could take the form of third party helping you think about how to approach the person directly, or could involve their facilitating a meeting with the triggering person).
D. Ask the Conflict Resolution Committee for help.
E. Ask the whole group for help.

In this blog, I want to narrow the focus to making Option D as robust as possible. Here's a generic mandate for what I'm styling the Conflict Resolution Committee (I've also heard it called Heart Pool, Dispute Group, Reconciliation Team, and Ministry—the important thing is not the name; it's the function):

o Once this committee is brought into a conflict, they will shepherd it until it's resolved.

o They can be asked to be involved by any member or committee. In addition, they can can pro-actively insert themselves into a perceived conflict if it appears a conflict or broken agreement is not being resolved and the impact is sufficient to hamper group functionality (Note: this is a key provision, giving the committee the authority to step in without an invitation from the people in distress. While no one wants this committee to become the "Conflict Police," it is relatively common for stuck people to not ask for help, and if the committee is responsive only and not pro-active, their hands can be tied. Trust me, you don't want that.)

o Whenever they are involved, they will decide what, if anything, it is appropriate to share with the whole group (in summary form) about the work they do with a conflict. On the one hand they are trying to protect the privacy of individuals; on the other they are trying to be as transparent as possible about what's happening in the group. It's a dance.

o This committee is charged with finding the most appropriate third party to facilitate a conflict between conflicted parties. They are expressly not restricted to Dispute Resolution Committee members, or even to group members (keep you eyes on the prize: the important thing is that people in distress get help; not that the help come from within the group).

o This committee will have a budget, both for training people in conflict skills and to hire outside people to facilitate conflict at need.

o This committee will not have authority to impose solutions. They can only suggest.

o If approached to discuss a potential conflict involving them, all group members will be expected to meet with the committee within a reasonable period of time and in good faith to discuss their involvement. This is not an admission of guilt; it is a commitment to be available to discuss any conflicts in which they are named. (
At Ganas in New York City, they call this the "no non-negotiable negativity clause"; it is not OK to refuse to talk.)

o The committee should be comprised of people willing and able to occasionally devote significant chunks of time to resolving conflicts.

How many people does this committee need? While it's a matter of style, I like 3-5. The larger number is nice for maintaining flexibility in the event that one or two are on vacation or otherwise unavailable to help at a given time. You may also want to establish terms for how long members will serve on this committee.

Last, I'm offering a recommendation about how to select members to fill this committee—for which it's essential that there be a high degree of trust. In a lot of groups, committee selection is little more than who raises their hands first. While that kind of slapdash informality may work fine for filling the Refreshments Subcommittee for the Thursday Night Poker Game, it is not going to cut it here. Try this instead:

o Post the job description for the committee and the desired qualities for its members (implied here is that you've created a job description; if you haven't, start there).

o Ask all group members if they are willing to serve, and create a written ballot listing all those who agree to be available.

o In plenary, select an ad hoc Ballot Team from among those members who have opted off the ballot. These people will be the only ones seeing the filled-in ballots and must agree to divulge to no one else how people voted.

o Distribute printed ballots to all members, asking them to mark all those whom they deem acceptable to serve.

o After a set period of time (72 hours?) ballots are due in and the Ballot Team tallies them in private.

o After ranking people by the number of votes received, they privately approach people (starting with the top vote-getter and working their way down the list), asking them one at a time if they are willing to serve. As slots are filled, additional people are asked if they would be willing to serve with others who have already accepted the calling, and vice versa. This process continues until all slots are filled. (Caution: don't skip this step of mutual vetting; it's highly important that there be good rapport among committee members.)

o The Ballot Team announces the composition of the committee (which is not subject to ratification), the ballots are destroyed, and the Ballot Team is dissolved.

• • •
Having a vital committee composed of crackerjack conflict communicators can go a long way toward drawing poison out of difficult exchanges, and helping everyone get more out of what they joined the cooperative group to get in the first place. Give it a try!

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