Friday, September 19, 2014

Weeding the Garden of Dissent

As a process consultant I regularly field requests to help groups liberate themselves from the swamp of unresolved conflict. While this can be tough stuff and worthy of skilled assistance, it has recently occurred to me that there are many points of "proto-conflict" that occur prior to the blooming of full-blown distress, when the first sprouts of dissent emerge in the group dynamic. If these are handled well, I believe it can avert a world of hurt later on. If not, fasten your seat belt. 

This blog is about recognizing and managing those early moments—it's about weeding the Garden of Dissent.

To be clear, the key problem is not dissent itself (if you endeavor to eliminate that, you'll have another problem; disagreement is the lifeblood of stimulation and growth); it’s the response to dissent that I'm focusing on. There are two points of leverage, both of which are worth cultivating with an eye toward limiting an unwanted harvest of conflict (in the unfortunate case where you let the weeds flourish unchecked).

Let's hold in the spotlight the moment when someone expresses disagreement with another person's idea or viewpoint. For the sake of this examination, let's say that Kelly is disagreeing with something that Jesse has said or written.

Part I: How Dissent is Expressed
There are a number of factors that bear on how this unfolds. As I walk through them, let's suppose that the group has decided to start a car co-op and Jesse favors buying a new Prius, while Kelly thinks it would be better to buy a used Jetta that can run on biodiesel. The new Prius will cost $25,000 and the used Jetta has 50,000 miles on it, is four years old, and costs $10,000. For the sake of simplicity, let's say those are the only two cars under consideration.

A. Kelly's mindfulness as a speaker
The more someone is aware of their audience and the ways that others in the group are open (or closed) to certain ideas and expressions, the better they'll be able to steer clear of known hazards in expressing their views. After all, the point is an exchange of ideas and information; not "winning," or breaking down someone's resistance.

Thus, Kelly might say, "I think it's way better to buy a used Jetta first, because it will save us $15,000 and we're much more likely to be able to recover our money if the car co-op idea fails and we have to sell assets." 

But knowing that Jesse and others in the group have had bad experiences with used cars breaking down and leaving them stranded, Kelly might say instead, "Although the Jetta will be far less money up front, I know that vehicle reliability is a factor in this choice, and Consumer Reports indicates that 2011 Jettas have a great reputation for low maintenance." [Disclaimer: I'm making this up for the sake of my example; I am neither endorsing nor deriding 2011 Jettas!]

B. Kelly's facility in expressing themselves accurately and cleanly (without provocative phrasing)
It's one thing to know what pitfalls to avoid (see the previous point); it's another to be good at stating something concisely, in a way that's easily understood, and with minimal risk of encountering an emotional trip wire for one or more members of the audience.

Thus, Kelly might say, "My household has been running Jettas for 10 years and we love them. I think the Prius fad is overblown and it irks me on principle to lose money to depreciation as soon as you drive a new car off the lot."

Prudence, however, suggests that Kelly might be better off with, "There are a number of things we have to balance in making this decision:
—The Jetta is $15,000 less to buy.
—The Prius can be expected to last longer.
—The Prius will be under warranty for three years; there will be no warranty with the Jetta.
—We expect the Prius to be more trouble-free because it's new.
—A car running on biodiesel is more eco-friendly than a hybrid, because most of the fuel can be produced from renewable resources.
—At 50 mpg and gasoline costing $3.40/gallon, it will take 200,000 miles before we've saved enough on fuel to cover the difference in purchase price, assuming the Jetta gets 28 mpg and biodiesel costs $3.98/gallon. So our decision, in part, depends on how many miles we think we'll drive co-op cars.

I prefer the Jetta both because I think it's more in line with our commitment to being ecologically progressive, and because I don't think we'll run our cars for 200,000 miles."

C. Kelly's understanding of how their input tends to land in the group
Beyond what is said (the actual point that Kelly intends to make), how things land also depends, in part, and what the group expects to happen. Thus, if the group is used to Kelly saying provocative things (or has a reputation as a Devil's Advocate), their loins may be girded as soon as Kelly has been called on to speak.

Thus, Kelly might say, "How do we know that the new model Prius won't be a lemon? At least with the Jetta we have a known quantity. Further, I don't trust oil company projections that gas prices will only rise gradually; if we're locked into a vehicle that depends on nonrenewable gasoline we'll be susceptible to being fucked in a few years."

If Kelly is aware that this swashbuckling style won't go well, they might say instead, "I think there's risk of mechanical trouble with either a new car or a used car; we'll have to decide which seems less risky. Also, I'd like to look at which vehicle we'd prefer in the event that fuels costs spiral up sharply. Does that change our thinking at all?"

D. Kelly's reactivity in the moment
If Kelly has a non-trivial emotional reaction to Jesse, that's likely to leak into what Kelly says about Jesse's idea. Depending on the group's sophistication in working with reactivity, Kelly could proceed in a couple of ways: a) owning their reaction at the front end of their statement; or b) figuring out some way to work through the reaction before expressing their dissent (this could be going for a walk outside, meditating, talking with a friend—there are many possibilities).

If Kelly plows ahead and speaks from reactivity you might get, "I'm totally opposed to buying the Prius. I think people are seeing it more as a status symbol (it's what hip Green people drive), than as a statement of ecological sustainability. I know the Jetta will cost more to run, but that's OK with me. I want to discourage people from driving so much and eliminate frivolous town trips." [Background: Jesse has two kids who engage in a lot of extracurricular activities at public school, requiring special trips to pick them up after the bus has left.]

If Kelly is aware of the reactivity, the statement might come out this way, "First I want to own that I'm having a reaction to the suggestion that we buy a Prius and it has nothing to do with our group. When I visited my parents last Christmas—in the McMansion suburbs of Chicago—I was shocked to see how many people were driving Priuses. When I asked Mom about it she said it had become trendy in the neighborhood as a painless way for people to show they care about the environment without loss of comfort or performance. 

"Holy shit, I thought, operating a hybrid car is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the lifestyle choices that are truly sustainable, and I want no part of being lumped with suburban greenwashing.

"I care passionately about our car co-op being part of the solution to the challenge of being sustainable, and it's odious to me if all we achieve is being chic. Thus, I want vehicles that are economical to operate, that run on renewable fuel, and that are reliable. Beyond that I want us to be trying hard to make do with fewer trips and doing more multitasking whenever we drive somewhere. Hopefully, having a car co-op will lead to our owning and operating fewer vehicles."

E. The quality of the relationship (resilient or brittle; casual or strong) between Kelly and Jesse
The better connected Kelly is with Jesse, the more likely it is that Kelly's dissent will be heard accurately and responded to constructively, wiht no residual animus. The reverse is also true. If there's a history of charged exchanges between Kelly & Jesse, then it's that much more likely that this exchange will go poorly as well—even to the point where Kelly might think twice about expressing their dissent (is it worth the possibility of a blow-up?).

If Kelly proceeds without taking this into account, they might say, "I am not persuaded by Jesse's advocacy for a Prius. Not enough weight is being given to using renewable fuel, and I don't think we'll ever get our money back from shelling out $15,000 more up front. I think the Prius is being supported mainly because it's seen as sexier than a Jetta."

However, if Kelly were sensitive to the fact that their relationship is not strong, that statement of dissent might be transformed into, "I get it that Jesse prefers the Prius, and understand the viewpoint that there may be a public relations benefit in choosing a vehicle that blatantly contradicts the mistaken idea that sustainable choices are always grim and result in an impoverished life, with people limping along.

"Nonetheless, it's hard for me to choose a car that uses nonrenewable fuel over one that doesn't, and I worry that the much higher sticker price for the Prius is money we'll never get back through fuel efficiency. Isn't conserving dollars part of being a model of sustainability also?"

• • •
If speakers are interested in their opinions being received with an open mind, they'll be motivated to learn how to express them in ways that are minimally triggering. Hint: there's considerable value in first establishing that you've accurately heard the person you're disagreeing with—including why it matters to them—and then expressing your divergent views. People tend to be far more flexible in response to being challenged if they feel they've been fully heard. 

Part II: How Dissent is Received
Now let's take the other side: how Jesse responds to Kelly's dissent. The factors here include:

F. How well Jesse feels their viewpoint was understood by Kelly
It's not unusual for someone's first thought when encountering resistance to be that the dissenter didn't fully understand their idea, or the reasoning that undergirds it. And sometimes that's the case! So it's important to sort misunderstanding from disagreement. If this happens in the context of a group meeting, the facilitator can often lend a hand in sorting this out.

Warning: for some people it's hard to allow for the possibility that someone might dislike their idea on its merits, and for them dissent gets translated into one of two distortions: a) you didn't understand what I said; or b) you dislike me and are taking it out on my idea. When you have such a person in the group, it's all the more important that you can establish early on that this is not about mishearing or vendetta; it's about disagreement. 

G. Jesse's emotional state prior to hearing Kelly's dissent
In addition to the possibility that Kelly is in reaction, Jesse might be in reaction also. Perhaps because of what someone else (not Kelly) said; perhaps because of a fight they had with their partner at breakfast; perhaps because the time is getting squeezed to cover this topic in the meeting and that's upsetting—it could be any number of things. 

However, regardless of how they got triggered, if they are, then that becomes a factor in how well they can accurately hear what Kelly says and are able to put a constructive spin on why. As distress levels rise, so does distortion—even to the point where nothing is getting in. While it's rarely that bad, all parties need to be alert to the possibility of distortion and what to do to bring distress down to the point where the distortion is minor and manageable.

This is the mirror image of point D above, and Jesse has the same options that Kelly had.

H. The personal work Jesse has done (if any) to better understand and manage their reactivity
It will help a lot if Jesse is aware of being in distress and can self-disclose. Of course, reactivity will be less likely if Jesse feels confident that they were heard well when expressing their ideas originally, or if Kelly is able to express their dissent in minimally provocative ways.

Warning: there is a trap here in the group dynamic. If the group advocates that members do personal work to be more emotionally aware, then there can be reaction to the lack of having done that work (and spewing in the group), independent of the quality of the speaker's thinking. If emotional maturity is a standard, then there can be a tendency to be irritated whenever people express upset. If this happens, people will quickly learn to suppress upset (to appear more mature and gain group approbation), and that's the road to hell.

I. The degree of connectedness and trust between Jesse and the group in general
If Jesse feels well-connected in the group then disagreement will not be as threatening to their standing in the group, and trust in the connection will create some leeway to explore differences without Jesse feeling that their credibility and social capital depends on their idea prevailing—which is an association you don't want Jesse to be making.

J. The degree of connectedness and trust between Jesse and Kelly
It also matters how well Jesse feels connected to Kelly, whether there are unresolved tensions from past exchanges, and how confident Jesse is that they can work with Kelly productively. If Jesse has respect for Kelly as a group member that helps. If Jesse finds Kelly's contributions to be half-baked or frivolous, it isn't going to go so well. This point is the flip side of E above.
• • •
In general, you want the lowest possible barrier to dissent being expressed, and the greatest possible attention to relationship between the speaker and recipient. Often, the assumption of good intent can be lost (or at least mislaid) in the heat of the moment. When dissent lands as a threat, you're off to the races unless you can clear that up on the spot.

My hope in composing this monograph is that a deeper understanding of the pitfalls of dissent may lead to managing misunderstandings and reactivity before it develops into conflict and dysfunctional patterns—where it tends to be much more difficult to root out.

Happy harvesting!

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