Friday, September 25, 2015

Working Distress: How Many in the Pool at a Time?

I've recently been in dialog with a colleague over the issue of how tightly to control the conversation when unpacking emotional distress.

There are a number of models out there for working constructively with conflict and no agreement about what constitutes a best practice. So this is a live issue. Nonetheless, I have a definite opinion about this particular point.

Over the years I have come to the view that once you're clearly in the territory of working tensions, then it's highly advantageous to limit the focus to the principal players (preferably a dyad, but occasionally a threesome), drilling down on a specific incident that highlights the tensions, and keeping it there until they reach a natural stopping place. In contrast, my counterpart is more open to allowing others to add their reactions to what's happening as this examination progresses. (The idea being that "what's alive in the room" is a shifting thing and that following the energy is often a productive strategy.)

So let's set up a hypothetical. Suppose Taylor and Lupe are on a committee together and they drive each other nuts. Taylor wants to reward individual initiative and minimize red tape. Lupe wants to make sure everyone is on board before proceeding and is often not quick to know their own mind. Taylor feels bogged down by Lupe's pace, and Lupe feels pressure to act faster. Both trigger the other.

Let's further suppose that Adrian (another committee member) tends to see things the same way as Taylor, excepting that it's not so much Lupe's slow pace that's the trigger, as it's Lupe's tentativeness and constant worry that someone may have concerns that have not yet been voiced. As far as Adrian can tell, the committee is never ready to make a decision because of Lupe's what ifs. Deliberate is one thing; glacial is another.

Just to even things out, let's further suppose that Chris (also on the committee) tends to take Lupe's side, but not just because they're equally sensitive to the rights of slow thinkers—they're also bothered by the dynamic of Taylor & Adrian ganging up on Lupe, who is soft spoken and struggles to be heard. Chris cares a lot about fairness.

So now we have a fine mess. While I appreciate that real life tends to be even more complicated than I've laid out, this simplified example is enough to make my points.

Let's examine how this might play out if the committee decides it needs help and asks for an outside facilitator to unpack what's going on. For the sake of this example, let's suppose the committee is in charge of outdoor landscaping of common ground in an intentional community.

Because we have to start somewhere, let's say that Taylor steps forward, wanting to discuss a time this past spring when they proposed bringing goats onto the property to eat the high grass as an alternative to mowing, and Lupe acted to slow things down.

In letting them each state what happened and how it felt, suppose the following came out:

—Taylor's Story
Taylor thought they had an elegant, outside-the-box solution to a perennial problem. It had been hard to find the labor to run a Lawnboy, some residents were irritated by the mower noise, and people felt guilty about the fossil fuel use. Why did Lupe need to be a stick in the mud? It was deflating to have their initiative bogged down in process, and they felt like pulling back from the committee. How could it be in the community's best interest to consistently quash fresh ideas?

—Lupe's Story 
Lupe was worried about the damage that goats might do to the shrubbery, flower beds, and gardens. Plus, the bleating might be every bit as noisome as the lawnmower, and goats might wind up being unwanted guests on people's front porches (maybe that's amusing if it happens to your neighbor, but not so funny on your porch). Although the committee had the authority to make this decision without further input from the community, Lupe felt unsure of proceeding without asking the entire community for comments, because no one had been thinking of goats when they established the mandate for the committee. Lupe felt steamrollered by Taylor. While they knew Taylor would have an adverse reaction, they nonetheless felt it was in the group's best interest to go slow on this.

Now we're at the first fork in the road. Do you keep the focus on Taylor and Lupe, or open it up to Adrian and Chris, who are obviously ready to speak (as both feel they have a dog in this fight)?

My instinct is to keep the focus on the dyad to work through two more questions before opening it up:

a) Why does this matter (what's at stake)?

b) What are you willing to do about it (now that you have been heard and have heard others)?

The prime directive here is effecting whatever repair you can to the relationship; attending to damaged trust. This is not about problem-solving—it's setting the stage for problem solving (which cannot proceed well in the face of the distortion that typically characterizes unresolved distress).

My concern is that if you give the microphone to either Chris or Adrian (never mind others who may also have their hand in the air, hoping to be called on), that the concerns will mushroom out of control. To be clear, this is not a judgment about the tension between Taylor and Lupe being more important; it's just that it isn't completed, and it may be difficult (even impossible) to get back to it once you crack open the lid on Pandora's Box of unresolved tensions.

For one thing, how can you allow Adrian to talk at this point without also allowing Chris to talk, and you can see from the way I salted the example, that each time one of them speaks, the topic is going to get more complicated and multi-threaded—all without anyone being "bad" or off topic.

In my experience, it is far better to complete a few dyads well and end on an up-note, than to get a bunch of tensions out on the table and leave them unresolved. For one thing, it's often the case that people with similar concerns don't need to voice them once they witness a constructive exchange with someone carrying water for them. 

The way I think about it, as a facilitator you are performing an operation on the dyad and once surgery is underway, you don't want your attention drawn elsewhere until the operation is complete. It's a safety thing.

I understand that limiting the focus to a single incident with two people means that you may only be touching a small fraction of the unresolved tensions extant. That's OK. You are not trying to muck out the Augean Stables. Rather you are trying to handle one discrete example well, with the notion that if you do that, then you can do as many more as are needed. The key log is demonstrating that you can turn the corner and create hope. That conflict management is doable—all without assigning blame, asking anyone to change their personality, or making anyone feel bad because they had a negative reaction.

• • •
The second fork in the road that my colleague suggested is at the point where the dyad is addressing the last question in the sequence: What do you want to do about it? What about inviting the rest of the group to comment on the action steps that the dyad agrees to? 

While I can appreciate that this may make sense if you're focusing on a system response to a patterned dynamic, I am concerned that the impulse to go in that direction has more to do with problem solving than relationship repair, and I'm nervous about conflating the two. 

The interesting case is if the dyad is satisfied with what they come up with, and the outer circle (the rest of the group) wants something else. Under what circumstances, if any, would it make sense to not accept an action plan that satisfied the protagonists? I can't think of any if the lens is relationship repair.

That said, I want to soften my response in two respects. First, the outer ring my have constructive suggestions that the protagonists may like, and should then be free to adopt (the idea here is that we don't need to be hung up on where an idea originates; the test is whether it works for the protagonists). However, in this instance the outer ring folks are not so much stakeholders as they are friendly advisers.

Second, I think it's a great idea to ask the outer ring to reflect on what they witnessed after the dyad work has been closed to their satisfaction. Now the "operation" is over and you're wanting to help inculcate good habits in the group by having them reflect on what worked or could be improved upon.

Taken all together, I like to allow only a small number of folks in the distress pool at any given time—preferably only one dyad and a facilitator. If you find that a number of others are having trouble resisting jumping in the water, I suggest assuring them that their turn is coming; just not now.

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