Sunday, March 30, 2014

Facilitating Conflict

I recently worked with Heartwood, a cohousing community in Bayfield CO, where I was asked to reach them skills for working with conflict. In addition to presenting theory and a demonstration, they were keenly interested in learning how to facilitate conflict (after all, I was leaving on Monday). Liking what they saw me do Saturday, they asked me to break it down for them Sunday morning—which was a perfectly reasonable request. Here are a dozen concepts to keep in mind:

1. Contact Statements 
This is the ability to offer a Cliff's Notes version of what the person just said, to establish that you have understood the essence of it. Repetition is mostly motivated by people not being sure they've been heard, and effective contact statements can drastically reduce repetition. That said, they're not needed all the time. Here are four reasons it might be the thing to do:

a) The speaker has an unusual way of putting information together or expressing themselves and either you are unsure that you got the meaning right, or that others are. A contact statement can nip misunderstandings in the bud.

b) The speaker went on at length and people may have trouble holding all the points that were made or distilling them from a rambling presentation.

c) The speaker is in distress. To the extent that they feel isolated, a contact statement helps establish that you heard them accurately, thereby contradicting the isolation and helping the person deescalate.

d) The speaker is known to be prone to repetition. A contact statement can be a preemptive strike, undercutting the basis for repletion before it occurs.

2. Free Attention
For most of us it's hard to keep one's focus on what others are saying. There is a tendency to space out, or to have your attention drift to something else, which might be tangentially related to the conversation (but not the current topic) or something of interest to you yet not necessarily related to anyone or anything else in the room. The concept of free attention is being able to discipline yourself to track well what's happening in current conversation. This includes the meaning of the spoken words, the tone of the words, the body language, how the communication is landing with others, what the undercurrents are that have not yet been named, where this conversation seems to be headed and whether you're going to want to go there, etc. There's a lot going on, and you need as much free attention as possible track well.

The bad news is that most of us are weak at this. The good news is that you can train yourself to get better at it.

3. Walk in the Speaker's Moccasins
To the extent possible, when working conflict try to be the speaker and experience what they experienced. This is not parroting or mimicking so much as dreaming into their experience; picturing yourself as them and what that feels like. This is particularly helpful when trying to Get the affect right [see #5 below].

Caution: Are you at risk of losing your sense of self when you empathize? While I don't have this issue, Ma'ikwe (my wife and process partner) does, and is therefore cautious about taking this step very far.

4. Concise Summaries
When giving contact statements or summaries of where we are in the conversation, it's important that you be accurate, yet spare of words. The less air time taken up by the facilitator the better (it is, after all, not about you). The danger is losing momentum or the tenderness of the moment. Even though no one is particularly inspired by long-winded facilitators, concision is often the last skill learned (if learned at all).

5. Get the Affect Right
When trying to connect to people in distress it's essential that your reflection capture the feeling of their experience, not just get the "facts" right. Even when facilitators understand the importance of this step, there is a common tendency to be cautious about leaning into the feelings for fear of: a) triggering escalation in a person already upset; or b) coming across as taking one person's side over another. With respect to the first point, the reverse is true: if you get the affect right—showing up fully in expressing the emotional experience—distressed people feel less isolated and start to deescalate. On the second point, you will not get in trouble (by which I mean compromise your neutrality) if you extend the same strength of connection to other players as well.

Note #1: In the interest of concision and getting the affect right, don't be afraid to use different words than the speaker to get to the essence. If you're off the mark, they'll tell you.

Note #2: In order to reach people accurately on the emotional plane you need to develop sufficient range of expression. In broad terms you have to get big to meet rage, and need to get tender and soft to hold tears. Typically one end of the range is easier for people to access than the other, so you may need to work at developing your weaker end.

6. Be Curious
In general, when dynamics get stuck it follows a sequence something like this:
a) Person X did (or did not) or said (or didn't say) something and Person Y had a negative reaction.
b) Person Y lets Person X know about their reaction and Person X has a reaction to that.
c) Neither felt heard by the other, and feeling heard is a precondition for deescalating.
d) Since each has a story about being aggrieved, each is waiting for the other to make the first conciliatory gesture; when that doesn't happen the dynamic is stalemated (with each convinced it's mainly the other person's fault).

Curiosity is the way out. Thus, in the example above, you can go back to the moment when Person Y had their initial reaction and walk them through it ("OK, you noticed you had a bad reaction to what Person X did, and you couldn't understand why they made that choice. Rather than assuming it was because they were out to get you or didn't give a shit about you, let's find out how they saw it." That is, you can showcase how to get more information before dumping a reaction on someone.

Going the other way, you can walk Person X through their options when Person Y gives them critical feedback. Instead of defending their action, they could start by making sure that they understand why their action landed poorly for Person Y.

7. Be Willing to Follow a Vein
When you're in productive territory it's a good idea to mine all the ore. Here are the things that characterize such moments: 

o  People are sharing crucial things they haven't shared before (at least not with that person)
o  People are getting softer rather than more rigid
o  People are reporting insight, or accepting responsibility for what didn't work
o  People are expressing genuine caring for others
o  The emergence of tears

The flip side of this is knowing when you have a dry hole and it's time to shift the focus elsewhere.

8. Go Where Needed
That may mean staying on topic, or shifting the focus to something more profound. This guidance is about following the juice, and does not mean exploring every instance of awkwardness. Your object is turning a corner, not resolving all instances of unresolved difficult moments.

9. Develop One's Intuition
In addition to developing free attention, good facilitators develop an instinct for where the conversation should go, or what should be named. While instincts are not always insightful or productive (any more than thoughts are), you need courage to facilitate conflict and to be willing to trust your instinct.

Caution: That said, don't fight for your viewpoints. No matter how brilliant you believe your analysis or summary to be, if there isn't buy in from the protagonists, you should back out gracefully.

10. Look for Parallels
In conflict the protagonists almost always feel poorly understood by the other protagonists. If you find ways that the players had similar experiences, similar stories, or care about similar things, then pointing this out is often helpful in deescalating the dynamics—it has the potential to establish a bridge between them that was not visible before.

Hint: Parallels are actually common, and if you're alert to the possibility of their existence you'll be more likely to see them.

11. Keep the Examination Specific and Contained
Quite often, the relationship history between protagonists is complicated, especially if things have been allowed to fester for a while. The examination can easily snowball into something unworkable if you allow the protagonists to expand the consideration to include every incident that has ever gone badly between them.

With this in mind you want to invite the protagonists to select a single dynamic that is representative of what hasn't been working well, with the idea that if we can resolve tensions in conjunction with one incident, then we can subsequently do another and another until no more need to be addressed. Thus, you generally want to keep the players focused on the selected incident and not diffuse the focus by allowing them to introduce the complications of other hurts from other situations.

The one caveat here is that sometimes the protagonists select the wrong incident and the examination makes clear that there is another, deeper incident that is a better focus. In that case it may be wiser to switch to that (a la the point made above in Go Where Needed).

12. Deflect Analysis of Others
While you want a full statement of each person's story and their feelings, you are not interested in their analysis of why the other person did what they did, which is highly likely to be inflammatory and unhelpful. Often, when working conflict your strategy is to honor completely each protagonist's story and their emotional experience, while offering a plausible, alternative explanation that is not damning of the other person(s).

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