Thursday, October 8, 2015

When the Door Is Closed

As a professional facilitator I often work with conflicted dynamics, where two or more people are stuck in the mud.

While I am generally asked to help the protagonists find the way out of the swamp (without loss of dignity, change of personality, or admission of guilt), occasionally I arrive on the scene too late: where one of the players has reached the end of their rope and is no longer willing to invest in any further attempts at resolution. They've tried as hard as they know, experienced too little relief relative to their investment, and are ready to cut bait.

Now what?

While it's possible that one or both will leave the group, most frequently they just steer clear of each other. If the group is large enough, their common friends don't overlap significantly, and they don't share the same areas of expertise, this can work OK. Everyone doesn't have to be best buddies for the group to function well, and a robust group can absorb a few broken pipelines without undo consequences.

The equation changes, however, if there are multiple people who have given up working out tensions with a particular person. To be clear, I am not talking about the dynamic where a member irritates others and a lot of people start sitting somewhere else at dinner or refusing to be on committees or work parties with the person they find unpleasant. 

This happens on an informal level more than you might think with the result that a group will develop a story about so-and-so being "the problem" without necessarily having tried to address it directly. Once the story gets established, the group tends to stop looking at how they might have unwittingly contributed to a system failure and everyone starts laying the blame for the tension wholly at the feet of "the problem" person. Once this happens, it is almost impossible for the labeled person to make changes that will be recognized by the group and the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I share this caution because, as a professional working in the field of group dynamics, about 80% of the time I can get different (more cooperative) behavior out of "the problem" person than the story claims is possible within the first 24 hours. I achieve this simply by not believing the story and remaining open to the possibility that the difficult person has the capacity to behave differently once they've been heard and not treated with contempt.

Note though that I didn't say I get different behavior 100% of the time. Sometimes the story holds. Sometimes the group has done due diligence and put in serious effort to try to resolve the tensions, yet no corner has been turned. What do I mean by due diligence?

o  Making sure that the difficult person has been heard to their satisfaction, so that their experience is being taken into account.
o  A determined effort has been made to inform the difficult person of the specific behaviors and specific incidents that have been problematic.
o  The group has worked hard to explain what changes in behavior have been requested.
o  The person has been given a reasonable chance to shift their behavior after the above has been spelled out.
o  The unacceptable behavior persists in the face of all of the above.

While this dynamic is thankfully rare, it nonetheless occurs. People can be drawn to cooperative living for the right reasons but not have sufficient social skills to be a viable member. 

Once the group's good will and grace have been exhausted, it may reach a stage where it asks the difficult person to leave the group. If the person agrees, that ends it. But they might not agree. Situations that would be intolerable for most people may be acceptable to people with difficult behaviors. Maybe they've had a hard time everywhere they've gone, and would rather stay in a situation where people are generally more civil and less vitriolic.
In any event, if they stay, the menu of options for the difficult person is limited to something like the following:

—Change their behavior (even at the 11th hour)
—Withdraw from active involvement—Engage only through a liaison (if there is a mutually acceptable person willing to serve in that capacity)
—Persist despite the tensions

I've seen all of these attempted. The hardest on the group is the last, where the difficult person is unwilling to shift anything, essentially forcing the group's hand with respect to its standards. While the group will need to be careful to operate legally, the ultimate card that it can play is to withdraw community. While its not quite the same as Amish shunning, it's close:

o  In group meetings the person will not be recognized to speak; their views will not be taken into account.
o  The person will not be invited to participate in common meals.
o  The person will be removed from all committees. 
o  The person will be removed from the group list serve.

While people may still greet the difficult person (not pretend they are dead), the group is purposefully continuing the life of the community without them. 

The basis for taking this extreme action may be something like this:

Members have the right to have their views apropos group issues taken into account, yet that right is paired with the responsibility to take into account and work constructively with the viewpoints of others. Where a member repeatedly fails to demonstrate an ability to meet their responsibilities in this regard and the group has made a good faith effort to point this out to the person and a gross imbalance persists, it can be grounds for an involuntary loss of rights.

As you can imagine, this is a heavy choice that requires the group to act in unison, supporting each other in carrying out an odious task—in all probability it is something no one anticipated having to face. It requires a kind of tough love that forces people to pass judgment on a fellow member. Yuck. There are times when voting someone off the island is the only alternative to everyone drowning.

While it's important that this be difficult to do and done only with great care, it has to be possible.

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