Thursday, July 22, 2010

... But They Started It

A lot of my work as a process consultant is helping groups get out of the ditch, where there's interpersonal tensions among members and the group is at a loss about how to untangle the mess. Often, though not always, events follow a sequence like this:

Step 1) Person A (let's call them Adrian) says or does a thing that pisses off Person B (let's call them Jesse). It's typically an action that Jesse feels is egregious or a patterned behavior that is consistently inconsiderate or inappropriate. The offending action is viewed as something clearly over the line of acceptable behavior and Jesse feels disrespected.

Step 2) Jesse then responds from their place of hurt or outrage, which is meant either as an expression of their feelings or a quid pro quo push back that they believe Adrian deserves. Typically, Jesse will acknowledge that their response contains some bite (by which I mean, is not all bark), yet their view is that this is no worse than what Adrian has done to them.

Step 3) Not uncommonly, Adrian had not been aware of Jesse's upset (or at least not the full extent of it) and their first inkling is that something is amiss is the sting they experience from Jesse's response. Now Adrian's pissed that Jesse used a biting response to express upset rather than coming to them directly with it. That is, now Adrian feels disrespected, and we're off to the races.

While the above sequence is certainly not a one-size-fits-all description for how every conflict develops, it's nonetheless a story line that adequately describes a numbingly high percentage of them. What's interesting about this pattern is that both Adrian & Jesse have the story that the other person started it, and that somehow this affords them each a free pass to indulge in the escalating steps they've both subsequently taken. (Kind of like finding yourself in a car accident, and then not caring what damage is done by your vehicle once you've convinced yourself that it's the other person's fault—where is the compassion and sensibility in that?)

Amazingly, Adrian & Jesse's internal stories are both that they have been defending themselves from an unfair attack and disrespectful treatment. The good news is that once this has been pointed out, it tends to help calm everyone down (since it's easy to get all parties to agree that being attacked and treated disrespectfully is not what anyone wants to be doing or experiencing).

The key log here is getting Jesse to see the possibility that Adrian didn't intend their actions to be provocative. Essentially, this means getting Jesse to see how Adrian's actions were a reasonable choice from Adrian's perspective. That doesn't mean that Jesse has to like what Adrian did; only that Jesse can see how Adrain's actions can be explained without assigning Jesse bad intent.

Going the other way, you can ask Adrian to understand Jesse's response as having come from a person who was upset and felt attacked—rather than as the actions of a provocateur. If you can get them each to see how the precipitating actions in Steps 1 & 2 are explainable without assuming ill will, that should give you the breakthrough needed to get things unstuck—where you can start to work creatively and productively on how to handle things better in the future.

Of course, when working with groups, conflict doesn't always neatly sort into a nice clean dyad. Often there's a multi-car accident and you have to figure out where to start. Hint: just like an ER nurse, use the principles of triage to work first with the person who appears in the most distress and yet is still responsive to ministrations. Then work you're way around the room until the bleeding stops.

In the end it doesn't matter to me who started it. I want to know who's willing to end it.

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