Wednesday, December 7, 2011


When working with conflict one of the surest ways to tell if you're ready to productively turn to problem solving, is by tracking closely the responses between protagonists. If the first word is "but," it's not a good sign.

Often, a conflicted dynamic is characterized by diminished trust and relationship damage. A metaphor I like to use for this situation is a broken bridge. While you may be itching to string new cable and repair the bridge deck, I advise that you first make sure that the piers necessary to support the bridge are sound. The caution here is that it won't make any difference how stout the spanning sections are if one or more foundations are shaky—the whole thing may collapse (again) if the piers is weak. In short, you want strong abutments; not strong "But… " statements.

With this foundational objective in view, I recommend that you slow down enough at the outset that each party has a full opportunity to state their version of what happened and how they felt about about (Caution: don't gloss over the second part), followed by the other parties being able to demonstrate that they got the essence of it by reflecting it back to the original person's satisfaction.

The tricky part here is getting the affect right. In my experience this is more important than being able to parrot the words back. When someone is under tension the emotional component of their reality looms large, and most upset people have finely tuned radar for detecting insincerity or affectation—they can just tell if the reflector is reading them right. When I'm attempting this as a facilitator, I try to be that person. It's not sympathy, it's empathy.

This is Part III of my series on conflict.

Fighting for the Reality Joy Stick
One of the hazards of working with upset people is that they'll often want to sell you on their version of the truth, as if it were the only genuine article in a market flooded with cheap imitations. That is, they'll try to convince the group that they know the Truth, while others are purveying distortions. I try to steadfastly resist this, approaching the exploration of stories and feelings with aikido: rather than resisting, I believe everyone—even when the stories are mutually exclusive!

I figure it's rarely possible to know objective truth anyway (never mind that our system of jurisprudence is based on the concept that courts and legal inquiry will ferret it out), and the prime directive when unpacking conflict is to focus on relationship, rather than truth. While both may have been damaged, relationships will not heal unless there's a willingness to work from the principle that everyone means well and believe that their actions were reasonable from their frame of reference. If, on the other hand, truth is your primary focus, resolution is likely to be achieved at the cost of hardened hearts and exacerbated relationship damage. When you reflect on the fact that relationships and trust are the core of community, pushing for truth comes dear.

There is little to be gained by making one or more players wrong. In my view, it's far more productive to work from the premise that everyone has been proceeding on the basis of their truth. While it's important to know what that is (so that the bridge will be sturdy, it does not help to transform the group into a jury that determines who was Right.

Pursuing that approach to its inevitable conclusion, there may not be anyone left.

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