Saturday, May 30, 2015

Collateral Healing

I was working with a group recently where I was demonstrating how to work with conflict by facilitating the examination of a stuck dynamic between two members (who had volunteered for that purpose). I did this as a fishbowl, where the two protagonists and I pulled chairs into the middle and everyone else sat around in the outer circle observing.

Afterwards, I asked the outer circle (who were not allowed to speak while the demo was in progress) for their reflections. One of the more interesting ones was from a member who observed that many others in the group had either been directly impacted by the unresolved tension between the two in the middle, or otherwise were a player in a parallel tension where it was easy to see something of themselves in what they had just witnessed (there but for the grace of God go I).

The commentator spoke of there being many in the room who had suffered collateral damage as a consequence of the blocked energy between the fishbowl participants. The upside of that was that those same people experienced considerable release by virtue of seeing the energy flowing again between the protagonists, which phenomenon I dubbed "collateral healing," the focus of this essay.

Often enough, people in tension prefer that attempts to address it happen in a controlled environment—by which I mean as few variables (and witnesses) as possible. This is both a function of finding it awkward speaking in front of large numbers, and some degree of embarrassment about how many know the full details of how they behaved. What people often fail to take into account is the way others can be touched positively by their example of walking through the fire to get to the other side.

To be clear, the prime directive when working tension is to give the players whatever you reasonably can, to help them feel safe. Thus, I do not advocate cajoling anyone into working through conflict in plenary if it scares them to death. Rather, I'm asking both individuals and groups to reflect on the collateral good that can come from making that choice when people are willing.

I feel the same way about that as I do about transparency: take it as far as you can stand—all the while recognizing that there are circumstances under which people can't stand very much.

While working out conflict privately (or with the help of a third party) still counts, it is all together a different experience for the group if they witness the relationship damage being repaired, or they hear a report about it. The former becomes a collective memory that is bonding not just for the protagonists, but also for the witnesses with the protagonists. The latter is just a data point.

To be sure, doing this kind of work at all takes courage, and that's doubly so when attempted in group. After all, focusing on conflict does not guarantee a happy ending. Thus, if it blows up—which it sometimes does—there is the risk of spectacular failure. That said, the reverse is also true. Almost nothing has the same potential to heal damage like working conflict successfully to resolution in the group. While I think there needs to be sensitivity about how far people can reasonably be asked to stretch, do not lose sight of the sweet promise of collateral healing.

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