Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Anaerobic Hazard of Unaddressed Distress

Today I'm starting an Integrative Facilitation training weekend in Oakland (weekend three of eight) and the teaching theme is conflict. It seems an auspicious occasion for making it my writing theme as well.

A significant fraction of my work as a process consultant is working with conflict—by which I mean the condition where there are at least two points of view and at least one person is experiencing non-trivial distress in relation to events. (Disagreements where no one's nose is out of joint are also interesting, but not nearly as tricky to navigate, so I'm concentrating just on the hard part here.)

The stakes are pretty high here. Our mainstream culture—the one nearly all of us grew up in—conditioned us to respond to conflict by fighting, submitting, suppressing, manipulating, or running away. As far as I can tell, this menu essentially goes back to Neanderthal days. One of the cornerstones of cooperative culture is that there has got to be a better way. The good news is that there is, but it's not necessarily easy to get there. The theory is not hard, the challenge is being able to respond differently in the heat of the moment.

This entry will be the opening of a series on the theme of conflict.
Today I'm going to try to make the case for why the cost of not learning to effectively address upset is prohibitively high. I've come to the view that we simply can't afford to not learn to deal constructively with conflict, and I'm going to try to persuade you to my viewpoint.

It's relatively easy to understand why groups hesitate to shine the spotlight of plenary attention on fulminating upset. Why do something that you're not good at and that often leads to people feeling nauseous? People who are upset often behave badly; aren't you just rewarding outrageous behavior be giving it attention?

Here are four reasons why groups need the capacity to be able to walk into the lion's den:

1. Conflict compromises problem solving
As distress rises, so does distortion of information. The greater the distress, the greater the likelihood that the person will mishear what's said or misinterpret what it means. I refer to this as "virtual earwax." In the extreme, nothing will get through accurately. While minor distress only causes minor distortion (and typically doesn't need group attention), everyone has a threshold above which distortion is no longer trivial and it becomes a problem for that person to participate accurately in the conversation. Worse, that person's distress may trigger anxiety in others which distracts them from focused attention on the issue as well, and it is hard to do good work.

This is why plowing ahead (by trying to set conflict aside) often fails to produce usable results.

2. Conflict is a source of information
Some people know things emotionally in ways that are different and perhaps more profound than they know them rationally. Why limit what we have to work with? While I admit that it can be a considerable challenge trying to weigh the apples of thought against the oranges of feelings, are you better of pretending that no one has any citrus?

What I'm advocating here is not being happy that there's upset; rather, it's appreciating that there’s a chance at the information.

3. Conflict is a source of energy
There is energy in emotions; if the group can find a way to welcome that input, it can harness the energy to focus on the issues. In fact, success in working with conflict builds community and connection like nothing else.

Have you ever noticed how many groups tend to run meetings with flat energy? One of the reasons is that they're trying to keep a lid on feelings lest they get out of control. I think it's better to welcome passion into the room, so long as it's on topic and heartfelt. Who said meeting can't be fun?

4. Unattended, conflict erodes trust and masks good feelings
This is a real tragedy. If the group avoids dealing with conflict and the parties are unwilling or unable to work through it unilaterally, then it tends to fester and occupy an ever increasing amount of a person's consciousness, to the point where the tension is evoked pretty much whenever they encounter the person who was the trigger—even when the topic in the moment has nothing to do with the original hurt.

In addition to the tragedy of the ever-renewed irritation (which isn't pleasant for anyone), this dynamic has the additional negative effect of overshadowing any genuine good feelings that used to exist between the antagonists because they have been pushed aside by the festering raw sores. Who can access positive memories when you're picking at scabs?

• • •
In my next entry I'll examine what it means to work with the wild card of emotions—not just in the relative safety of no-comment sharing circles; I'm talking about welcoming on-topic feelings into the heretofore staid world of business meetings.

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