Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fishing for Good Faith

I recently received this inquiry from a fellow process consultant:

If you are facilitating a very stuck conflict, how might you assess whether or not the parties are negotiating in good faith?

Historically it's been easy for me to assume the best of people, and they usually respond well.  However, I am currently working with a polarized situation that has brought this question up. If one party threatens to boycott the next meeting if I don't run the process the way they want (which appears to stack the deck against the other side), or is taking action that might jeopardize the group's ability to carry out its mission, at what point would I reasonably conclude that this party is not negotiating in good faith? Do you have ideas on what a list of criteria might be? I expect to come into more sympathy and understanding as I learn more of this party's viewpoint; nonetheless, the question has been raised for me and I am interested in your take on it.

This is a good question. Let me tackle it in two parts.

I. Reasons to Keep Fishing
In the dynamic above, let's assume that the protagonist has a conclusion that there's nothing to save and it's time to start over. That's not the same as someone trying to monkey wrench for sociopathic entertainment, or acting in pursuit of their "job" as a government infiltrator. So there's room to work on how they got to that conclusion.

The strategy is to find out the analysis that undergirds their position and see if there's room to uncouple the source of their frustration from their dire conclusion. In all likelihood there's a seminal story (or stories) about how an awful, unforgivable thing happened, or there's a persistent pattern of dysfunction (in the eyes of the unhappy) that justifies giving up. For each key event (or pattern, which is essentially an accumulation of similar events) it's possible to unpack what happened, keeping in mind several potentials:

o  The story of the event may not be known widely in the group.
o  The upset (or strongly negative interpretation) associated with the story may not be widely known—even to the other players in the event.
o  There may be widely divergent "facts" about what happened—even to the point where it's impossible that all the stories could be true.
o  It's probable that there will be different spins on how to interpret what happened (how to understand the facts), though not always.
o  Were there attempts to address the upset associated with the stories? If not, why? If so, how did those break down (obviously they didn't work because the negativity persists)?

Answers to the above should provide clues to points of entrée of what's possible in the way of bridging between estranged parties.

It may also be helpful to ask what the disaffected person needs in order to step back from the conclusion that it's too late to turn things around. While this may come out in the form of demands, what you're really looking for is: a) how to get recognition from others about how the event landed for this person, and b) what actions from others will indicate to this person that they're being seriously taken into account (other than acceding to their demands).

Another thing to keep in mind is the tendency of people to develop and sustain pejorative stories about other group members with whom they are consistently beleaguered. While this can look like many things, I want to highlight three particularly pernicious ways this can show up:

o  Assignment of bad intent
When an action is seen as especially egregious, or the pattern particularly odious or disrespectful, it can lead to the aggrieved assuming that the doer was bad on purpose, which severely undercuts trust or the potential for bridging the gulf between parties.

o  Questioning mental health
Sometimes the analysis of another person's actions—and responses to critical feedback about those actions—leads the upset person to conclude that the doer is mentally unwell, and therefore incapable of being a fully engaged responsible member of the group. To be sure, mental health is a real thing, and some people suffer from it, yet beware of amateur diagnosis.

o  Questioning the ability to distinguish personal needs from what's best for the group
It's not uncommon for a disgruntled person to believe that others are acting selfishly while they (alone?) are responding from a higher place. If you encounter this it can be worth exploring whether the unhappy party has tried to find a group basis for the actions they're unhappy about. In my experience, it's not rare to discover that both parties are thinking of the group's welfare, but they're emphasizing different commonly held values. If you can establish that, it can be a substantial boon to deescalation.

On the specific question of the demand that the process go a certain way (that you believe is unfair), ask the advocate for their thinking about why they believe their recommendation is appropriate or sufficiently fair. Similarly, you can ask how boycotting the meeting will be productive, or how the action they propose is in line with the group's mission. 

Do the answers you get suggest sabotage or vindictiveness (which may indicate that things are unsalvageable, or pretty damn close to it), or do they suggest a reasonable approach that takes into account factors unknown to you?

II. Reasons to Cut Bait
If the unhappy person is not willing to discuss matters, or comes across as belligerent or highly armored—especially when talking solely with the facilitator, who is not a stakeholder—it may be too late. Before reaching that conclusion, however, you might check specifically about whether the unhappy person is questioning your neutrality. You might also, before giving up, take a stab at trying to establish what you think they're going through. If you can get it right, even on few clues, there may be a softening that wasn't there before that can brings things back from the brink. 

Additionally, it may be too late if the person repels all attempts to bridge to them or is steadfastly locked into their negative analysis of others in the group. If you can show them that you "get" their experience, which means both the story and how it's landed with them, and they're unwilling to even test for being seen that way by others, then it's probably too late.

If the door is closed to reconciliation, either because the damage is too large, or the relevant parties are too exhausted to keep trying (I've seen both), then you may as well let go of trying to bridge, and start looking for a graceful exit. 

Instead of heading into a meeting that you know will be a disaster, because you've not discovered any opening in their armor (or been able to develop one), and suspect that this person is not approaching matters in good faith, I would shift gears and start working on how it serves that person's interests to keep pressing (rather than calling them on your suspicion of bad faith). 

The angle here is getting the unhappy person to exit the group, rather than trying to destroy it.

Years ago I worked with a small community that was struggling with a member who had been unhappy for a long time, and the group felt paralyzed by this person's negativity. As the group was small (six or seven members as I recall) I interviewed everyone one on one to get their story on what was happening. While I was able to see a way out of the morass that didn't require anyone to leave or be the fall guy, it was clear from my interviews that there was no longer any energy available to work on repairing the relationship. Thus, I shifted my attention to the disgruntled member, asking him how it served him to keep pushing his discordant views on the group. Never mind how it was landing on others; how was it serving him
To be clear, I worked hard to show him that I understood his unhappiness and was not judging him. I was simply emphasizing that he look at what was best for him—instead of punishing others for his unhappiness. After a half a day of laboring with him and letting him think about it, he was able to announce to the group that he'd decided to leave—because that was in his best interest. 

While it saddened me that reconciliation was not an option, as a facilitator you have to play the hand you're dealt, and occasionally the best you can do is a "memberectomy," where no abutments have been dynamited, and no doors have been slammed on the way out.

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