Saturday, November 17, 2012

Crossing the Line

Ma'ikwe and I just completed a two-year facilitation training in the Midwest, and I want to share what a pair of the graduating students—Tony Sirna & Alyssa Martin from Dancing Rabbit— did during their last opportunity to do live facilitation under their teachers' umbrella.

The way the training program works, each weekend is hosted by an intentional community that provides free room and board for the class in exchange for outside facilitation on real issues explored in real meetings. (The pedagogical principle here is that students will learn faster facing live bullets, as it has a wonderful effect on focusing one's attention.)

Tony & Alyssa had been assigned to co-facilitate a two-and-a-half hour meeting on the topic of conflict, where they'd distilled the key questions (in consultation with an ad hoc committee from the host group established to shepherd this topic) to the following five questions:

Question #1) When is conflict affecting the group enough that it should be brought as a plenary agenda item?

Question #2) How should the facilitator handle conflict and emotion when it arises in the meeting?

Question #3) When does the group want to seek outside help on a conflict and how will that be handled?

Question #4) Can the group require a member to work on a conflict they're involved in?

Question #5) What happens if a conflict remains unresolved?

While that list was potent enough to keep us plenty busy in the meeting, the community subsequently added four more when they were presented the first five:

Question #6) What is the process and/or protocol for attempting to resolve conflict before it comes to plenary?

Question #7) How shall the community respond when a member goes through conflict resolution, appears to have worked though it, and then rubber bands into the same distress over the same issue?

Question #8) How shall the community respond to situations where resolving conflict appears to require therapy?

Question #9) Do we need to put into place any additional agreements for coping with one member engaging in a personal attack on another member?

Based solely on the first five questions—and the community's desire to talk about conflict while steering clear of getting bogged down in working any specific conflict—Tony & Alyssa knew right away that there was no chance to complete this topic in one session. The challenge was where to start and how to get deep enough. In thinking this through they ginned up, all on their own, a 20-minute version of an exercise called Crossing the Line to ground the conversation before tackling any of the questions.

The basic concept of Crossing the Line is that people carry all manner of background and baggage with us into human interactions, and if those differences are not disclosed or digested it can lead to considerable mischief and misunderstanding about where a response comes from and what it means.
As far as I know this technique was developed as a tool for diversity trainings, to explore issues of racism, privilege, sexism, etc.
Here's how the exercise works: all members of a group are asked to stand on one side of the room and a line is drawn down the middle (we used yarn stretched across the carpet). The group is then given a series of statements meant to elicit information about their background relevant to the subject in question, and offer insights into their feelings about current dynamics in the group related to the subject.

For each statement, people are invited to cross the line if it is true for them. If it is half true, they can equivocate by stepping on or near the line. Once movement has stopped in response to a statement and there has been a moment for the group to digest who is on what side of the line and what that means, the moderator says "thank you" and everyone returns to the original side of the line, ready for the next statement. The entire exercise is done in silence, excepting for the moderator.

The art is in crafting the statements such that important and tender information is shared. The sequence of the questions matters a great deal, as you gently guide the group into ever deeper explorations that are closer to the bone.

Here's the set of 31 statements that Tony & Alyssa concocted for this occasion:

Cross the line if:
o  I grew up in a family where conflict was hidden or stuffed
o  Conflict in my family of origin equated to yelling or raised voices
o  Conflict was handled well in my family
o  Conflict in my family led to physical violence
o  I usually get my way
o  I have a harder time handling conflict with men
o  I have a harder time handling conflict with women
o  It's harder to resolve conflict with people who have different backgrounds than me
o  Conflict is a regular part of my life
o  When encountering conflict my first instinct is to avoid it
o  When encountering conflict my first instinct is to be accommodating
o  When encountering conflict my first instinct is to compete
o  When encountering conflict my first instinct is to engage
o  I've ever had an experience of conflict resolution going well
o  I'm uncomfortable initiating conflict resolution with another person
o  I have the skill and tools needed to resolve conflict well
o  I'm comfortable mediating conflict between others
o  There are skilled folks available for working with conflict if I need them
o  Conflict in the community is having a significant negative impact on my life
o  Conflict in the community is having a significant negative impact on the group
o  I think that the current level of conflict in the group is normal and acceptable
o  Conflict in the community makes me feel afraid
o  I'm considering leaving the community because of conflict
o  The community has the skills needed to engage constructively with conflict
o  I'm afraid that working with conflict will take up too much time and energy
o  I'm afraid to bring up a conflict
o  I'm currently a major player in an unresolved conflict in the community
o  I contribute to problems in the community
o  I favor requiring members to engage in conflicts that affect the community adversely
o  I have an ally in resolving conflict
o  I have seen a conflict that was resolved well in the community

The following noteworthy themes emerged from this exercise:
—There were wide family of origin differences in how conflict was handled (while this was not surprising in and of itself, it was new for the group to slow down and take that in).
—There was general acceptance of conflict being a normal part of community life, and recognition of resources available for dealing with it constructively.
—There was very broad diffusion of answers to the series of statements about a person's first impulse when encountering conflict, that could be illuminating as a complicating factor.
—Two members disclosed for the first time that they were thinking of leaving the community because of unresolved conflicts. Gulp!
—There were strong themes of sadness, tenderness, and hope in the reflections shared afterwards.

What an excellent point of departure for the two hours remaining to explore how the community wants to work with conflict! (At least the group wasn't conflicted about the need for this examination.)

As a teacher I was proud to witness Tony & Alyssa crossing the line into the world of trained facilitators.

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