Saturday, June 23, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Redirecting Competition

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Redirecting Competition.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition
V. Bridging disparate views
VI. Harvesting partial product
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
One of the core challenges with consensus is committing to culture change. With rare exception, people who have made the choice to live in intentional communities—or to be part of cooperatives of any stripe—have been raised in a competitive culture that's adversarial and hierarchic. Just because we've got it in our heads that it's a good idea to move toward cooperation does not mean we'll behave that way when there's disagreement and the stakes are high. 

In fact, as a group process consultant for 25 years I'd say that the single most common dynamic that I'm hired to help groups work through is the tension that arises from members behaving uncooperatively when they don't see eye to eye on core topics. To be fair, this is hard to do. Unlearning deep conditioning is not for the feint of heart, and it is a rare bird indeed that welcomes critical reflections about their ruffled feather behavior in the heat of a cock fight. (Even though it was supposed to be a compassionate and dispassionate exchange of ideas, it turned into a passionate and tense exchange of salvos).

While it's all well and good to aim for cooperation, what are your options when competition emerges from the cave of our reptilian brains and seizes control of the energy in the room? How do you manage the monsters and get back to where you meant to be?

In my experience it's helpful to see people in competitive mode as under strain. While their behavior may be experienced as aggressive, manipulative, or otherwise unpleasant and/or disrespectful, it's more constructive if you can imagine them as fighting for air space rather than fighting to dominate. An image I rely on a lot (especially if emotions are running high) is that the upset combative person is drowning, and in that dynamic nothing matters to them more than getting oxygen. In the extreme that person does not care a whit what damage they inflict on others in pursuit of getting air, and civility is (at least temporarily) lost as a consideration. They not even be aware of what they're doing.

While it's certainly not always like that, it can be, and you need to be prepared for that possibility. Never mind how they got so triggered, they are. While it could be less wild and urgent than I've described, let's assume it is for the purpose of handling the most extreme case. (I figure if you can deal successfully with 500-pound gorillas then negotiating with gibbons and chimps will be a walk in the park.)

There are two main approaches to authentically deescalating this dynamic, and the order in which you employ them is important.

First, you need to build a bridge to the gorilla's emotional state (rather than commenting on the gorilla's destructive behavior). This means being able to reflect back to the upset person what they're feeling and what it's tied to (somebody said or did something, or someone didn't say or do something, that triggered this response—make sure that's understood). When doing this, it's important that you are able to give a summary that the upset person recognizes as accurate. 

Caution: It's typically inadequate to simply say, "I understand how you feel and what your reaction is about." It is not enough to have a sympathetic look on your face, you have to be able to give them phrasing they recognize and you need to be able to do this with an affect that comes across as matching. 

When done well, the distress should immediately start to diminish (everyone likes being accurately heard). This contradicts the tendency for the upset person to feel isolated and misunderstood (or uncared for), and is the essential starting point for redirecting competitive energy.

Second, go on to explore why this matters to the person (the upset is a sure sign that the stakes are high) and then make an attempt to bridge between this person's personal desires (which are certainly in play) and group values or norms. The point here is to legitimize why this person's point of view should be taken into account. In effect, you are trying to guarantee them air space—so they will no longer need to fight for air to breathe.

As an example, I had a conversation last week with a woman who wanted my reflections about a longstanding upset she has had with her fellow community members over what she considered were niggardly and fear-based rules that sharply limited visitor access to community facilities. Note that these rules applied only to strangers, not to members' personal guests. The woman (a friend) was focusing on her desire that the community be a gracious host that welcomed people exploring community life. It was embarrassing to her that the community was being so inner-focused and small-minded. This dynamic was tying her in knots and she wanted my thoughts about how she might untie them.

I started by giving her back a summary of what she felt and why it mattered, thereby establishing that I was holding her accurately and validating the relevance of her concerns as a group issue—by which I mean, that the community's public image and its commitment to helping to promote community living were reasonable group values, not just her personal agenda.

Having established that rapport, I then proceeded to imagine what the feelings and underlying concerns were for the people on the other side, even though none were present for this conversation. As background, the community is located in a dense urban area and has had some history with break-ins and theft. My speculation was that the people advocating strict rules for visitors were focusing on community values as well—just different ones than my friend. My grope was that they were concerned principally with safety and a sense of home and hearth. It was a primary concern for them that their whole property—not just their apartments—be a safe place where they didn't need to be on guard, something rare in their urban setting.

When put that way, my friend could see it, and her knots immediately started to loosen. She wasn't, after all, anti-safe or anti-home; she was pro-hospitality and pro-outreach. 

While there is yet an important and not necessarily easy conversation to have about how to appropriately balance the values of safety, home, hospitality, and outreach, that conversation cannot proceed well until the players have first figured out how to not see the dynamic as a battle, where those with different views are the enemy, blocking your access to oxygen.

Hopefully, this exchange will lead to there being more breathing and more cooperative energy for the balancing conversation—while the monkey brains can play outdoors. 

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