Monday, November 1, 2010

Stubbing My Toe on the Landing

One of the risks in opening up a conflict for the purpose of making things better is that sometimes it makes things worse.

That happened to me recently while I was working with a group that was focusing on the topic of work participation—defining what kinds of labor satisfy the expectation that every member will contribution to the development and well being of the community. This is a complex topic (it's the issue that I'm most frequently asked to help groups with), and experience has taught me that if there's unresolved tensions among the players (in relationship to the topic), then we won't get good hearing and good problem solving until we've first cleared the air.

While I have a defined approach for accomplishing that—with which I've had considerable success—it doesn't work with everyone and it doesn't work every time. [
For an in-depth explanation of how I advocate working with conflict, see my five-blog series starting March 18, 2009.]

Friday night, during the time we'd designated for unpacking unresolved conflicts, one member of the group called out another for shirking.
Let's call the accuser Adrian and the accused Jesse. In Adrian's view, Jesse rarely showed up for Work Days, often talked more than he contributed when he did show up, and mainly focused his contributions to the garden, which was Jesse's hobby and not something that everyone in the group felt was a priority.

After Adrian spoke and felt complete, Jesse had a chance to respond. Jesse reported that there was no new information in Adrian's frustrations—that it had all been said before. Jesse felt fine about what contributions he'd been making to the community, and complained that Adrian was always looking over his shoulder, trying to find fault. Clearly, their perspectives on Jesse's contributions varied widely. When asked if they want to explore this further in plenary, they both declined, preferring to meet one-on-one at a later time. They both said they didn't need further attention on this dynamic in order to hear well and work cleanly with the plenary topic of participation.

Taking them at their word, we helped set up a meeting for the coming week, at which a mutually agreeable third party would facilitate.

Nothing more was said about this until the closing evaluation Sunday, at which Jesse witnessed how awful he felt about what had happened with Adrian Friday night. Even though Adrian felt much better (having gotten the distress out in the open), Jesse felt worse.

When Jesse said he didn't need anything more Friday night, we were interpreting that as "I'm OK and I know what to do to try to repair relationship with Adrian." In reality, we learned two days later that what he meant was, "This is excruciating and I want it to end." While Jesse didn't appear to be in untenable pain Friday night, that's what he reported on Sunday. Oops. Never mind that Adrian felt better; Jesse didn't.

When asked, Jesse didn't have any recommendations about what would have preferred, and the group was left to ponder how to better work with conflict that emerges in plenary. Upon reflection, my sense is that we didn't do a good job of establishing to Jesse's satisfaction what was going on for him. That is, what were his feelings and what was his story about what had happened (in relation to what Adrian complained about). Instead, he just felt embarrassed and exposed in front of the group. Examination without connection reinforces isolation. The key is learning what connection or validation means to each individual. It's not good enough that I thought Jesse had been heard; the standard is whether Jesse felt heard. In retrospect, we went too fast, and I should have stepped in (I was coaching the community's facilitators and not running the meeting myself) and ensured that this step had been completed. My bad.

• • •
While I always hope that the response to my work will be positive, there's a lot to be learned from stubbing my toe. In this case, I believe I need to be more deliberate in modeling and teaching how to establish connection when people are in distress. Without that bridge, all subsequent work with distressed individuals will be at risk for not landing well.

1 comment:

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