Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Relationship of Truth to Relationship

Back in the late '90s a friend of mine (Marni Rachmiel) recommended a book to me, Siting in the Fire, by Arnie Mindell. It was one of those moments that happen perhaps half a dozen times in one's life, when you come across the right book at the right time.

Apropos my career as group facilitator, this book examined the dynamics of conflict, especially from a non-rational perspective (Mindell is a psychotherapist) and through the lens of rank and privilege in multicultural settings. The single most powerful concept in the book, for me, was the importance of focusing on Relationship when working conflict, rather than on Truth (I've chosen to capitalize these terms because Mindell does in his book, to underscore their power as prime directives).

This past Sunday I was hired to spend an afternoon with the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia MO to offer my thinking about how to work constructively with conflict, and the interplay of Truth and Relationship figured prominently in my presentation. I had about 40 people in the room, out of a total congregation of around 200.

In his book, Mindell's point was that in a conflicted dynamic there is an overwhelming tendency for protagonists to be focused principally on their Truth, and selling it (or at least exclaiming it) to everyone else—often to the point of losing sight of how the expression of that Truth can come at the expense of Relationship. It's not that people are anti-relationship; it's that their identity or integrity are tied up with their story about what happened and why their actions or positions are reasonable and until that's recognized, it can be damn hard to ask them to care about other people's Truths, or to reflect on how their advocacy for their story (which they perceive as the actual Truth) tends to come across as a steamroller, quashing any story that's different in particulars, or even in emphasis.

I have found this to be a powerful tool in unpacking conflicted dynamics. For one thing, it's important for players to appreciate that there are almost always multiple Truths in play in a conflict, and that it's essential to create room for all of them to be expressed (to the point where the speaker feels understood) as a prelude to problem solving. If the examination devolves into a battle for the Truth, you're in for a long day that's not likely to end productively.

When I'm facilitating conflict, I start be simply aiming to see that everyone gets their story out, which expressly includes naming any strong feelings that accompany it. To be clear, this objective is not necessarily easy, mainly because of conflicting "facts" and emotional volatility (which tends to degrade the concision and cogency of the narrative), but I can usually get there.

At the conclusion of that introductory phase I'll take some time to point out differences and to point out similarities, but I resist the urge to try to sort out what really happened, by assuming that everyone acted with good intentions from their Truth, and that's all we need to grok in order to proceed in good faith to working on the question of where do we go from here.

One of the keys to successfully navigating the introductory storytelling phase is that if a person is incredulous as to why someone said or did a thing, you can be sure that that person doesn't have enough information. What people mostly do in that situation is get incensed and then proceed to assign bad intent to the doer to explain their motivation—which may do a fine job of expressing outrage, but rarely leads to good things. To be clear, I'm not saying that the doer did a wise thing; only that they'll have a story about how they saw things that does not involve evil intent and that it behooves all the players in a conflict to find out what that is (at least if they value Relationship at all).

It's important to point out that I'm not trying to make the case that all truth is relative (in the eye of the beholder) and therefore doesn't matter. Rather, I'm saying that if you want to successfully navigate the fens of conflict that you're far better off relying on Relationship as your lode star, and negotiating Truth. Doing it in the reverse order (insisting on a fight to the death over Truth and then seeing if the Relationship among combatants can survive the battle scars) is very expensive.


watson smith said...
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