Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Trying to Be Less Conflicted About Conflict

Sandhill is heading for some changes. We're expecting a membership inversion this fall, and we've started talking about where we are and where we want to be, which is a compelling conversation.

See Change
While we've enjoyed remarkable stability over the course of our 35-year history, we'll be losing Käthe & Michael Nicosia this October. After seven years with us, they're returning to a piece of property they own in southern Missouri, where they used to live before coming north to join Sandhill in 2002. Käthe's son is builidng a home for them there and it's conveniently located between Käthe's two adult children: Andrew in northern Arkansas, and Molina in central Missouri.

Going the other way,
we're expecting Joe & Trish (a couple in their late 20s) to join us this winter, along with their infant son. So although we're only be four adults and Renay (Gigi's 13-year-old who splits time between Sandhill and her father nearby) come October, we're fully expecting to be six adults and two children by next spring.

Last week, for the first time, the four members who will be the remaining adult core—Stan, Gigi, Apple, and me—met for the first time alone, to dip our collective toes into the water of Galadriel's mirror, peering into Sandhill's past, present, and future.

Knowing that we'll be seeing change, each of us painted a picture of what we wanted Sandhill to look like in five years. Not surprisingly, the responses substantially affirmed much of what we're now doing. We intend to stay the course when it comes to our strong commitment to growing our own organic food. We intend to remain small enough that we're more of an intentional family than a village. Still, there were some important departures from the status quo.

Sea Change
Stan and Apple voiced a clear desire that we return to a deeper level of engagement with one another—harkening back to what we'd created in the mid-90s, when we'd typically explore some modality of personal growth work as part of our annual retreat. In recent years we'd drifted away from working at a deeper level in meetings, and had even held fewer meetings. Much decision-making was handled on the fly over morning coffee, or during dinner on the front porch. Check-ins had gradually become more superficial (often more about agricultural observations than intimate disclosures).

In particular, there was less reliance on the group to create a container in which to resolve interpersonal tensions. Instead, there was more emphasis on being nice (or toughing it out when triggered by something another had done).

C Change
While I had an immediate positive response to Stan & Apple's request for more engagement among the members, Gigi was more cautious. She's been at Sandhill for 15 years and does not look back on the days of greater intensity with fondness. Reasonably enough, Gigi was translating the request for greater engagement as an invitation to work conflicts more regularly in the group, and this didn't excite her. She was thinking of "C" as in "Conflict," and altering our culture to intentionally spend more time in the lion's den did not feel safe.

Over the last decade, by far the prickliest dynamic among the membership has been between Gigi and me. We have substantially different styles, are fairly out there in expressing our views, and have frequently run afoul of each other. Our attempts to express this and sort it out in the group have not commonly gone well, and this informs Gigi's coolness about an invitation to "return to battle." In Gigi's view, we've tried a number of ways to help sort things out constructively and nothing has proven particularly effective. Why do it more?

While I substantially agree with Gigi's assessment of how successful we've been at working conflict in the past (meaning not very good), I have two reasons for being much more optimistic about doing better now: Stan and Apple.

In my experience, a group is much more likely to be successful in engaging with conflict if it has members with the gumption and skill to navigate emotional distress when they are not key stakeholders on the presenting issues. For the last decade, we've rarely had that. Now perhaps we do. And I'm eager to put this in place before Joe & Trish arrive.

[Ironically, working conflict is one of the bread-and-butter aspects of my group process consulting business. My experience in this volatile arena is one of most frequent reasons I get hired to work with groups, and yet this is of almost no value when I'm one of the players in the soup. While I'd know how to work with me, for most of the last 10 years at Sandhill there has been no one sufficiently neutral, skilled, and motivated to manage the dynamics that Gigi and I have manifested. As a result, there's a been a lot of suffering and it's no wonder that Gigi is chary of returning to the crucible.]

I'm buoyed by Stan & Apple's paired request that we shift the community's culture to disclose more with one another. While they're no doubt picturing this as a much richer stew than just devoting more time to working interpersonal tensions, there's also no doubt that they realize that conflict comes with the territory. The fact that they're willing to give is an exciting prospect for me.

1 comment:

Chrys Horn said...

Thanks for these last two posts.
I recognise your withdrawal and reflection process and have been noticing some of the same process in myself - for me I wonder if this might not be a version of a "control freak" pattern - for me at any rate. This is not to imply that reflecting on my own behaviour is not a good idea but, as you have so clearly put it in "this old house," it takes the process away from the relationship. Relationships of any kind are about collaboration. Thinking that I can and should do the reflection in difficult situations forgets the fact that it is a relationship that I am reflecting on, so I cannot ever make it work by working on my own behaviour.