Monday, November 16, 2015

What It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict

About half the time, when I get hired as a cooperative group consultant, I'm asked to work one or more embedded conflicts—things that have been festering for a while and the group doesn't know what to do with them. Sometimes I know that going in, and sometimes I don't. The group may be hiring me to look at something else yet the conflict intrudes into the conversation and then we're off to the races. While it's better when I know ahead of time, conflict goes with the territory, and I'm no longer surprised when it pops up. I just deal with it.

I have a reputation for this, and it's often an element of why I'm hired: either to help a group extract itself from deep mud, or to demonstrate why it's valuable to learn that skill, or both.

Even though all groups experience conflict (by which I mean non-trivial distress in response to something another group member is perceived to have said or done), only a small fraction of groups have sufficiently invested in developing their internal capacity to handle it in the flow of everyday life. Here are the steps I think it takes to get there:

1. Recognizing that conflict is going to occur and learning not to pathologize it. In other words, moving away from the mistaken notion that the incidence of conflict is a metric of the group's health (low conflict=health). Groups need to develop an understanding that conflict is naturally occurring, and the main challenge is working with it well; not trying to extinguish it.

2. Accepting the necessity of the group providing support for people who struggle to find their way through conflict on their own. While I think it's a great idea that groups encourage members to learn to be less reactive and develop their ability to work through their own distress (Nonviolent Communication, for example, can be good for this), it's naive to think that everyone will get good enough at this to never need assistance.

3. Identifying one or more methods for engaging constructively with conflict. There are a number of decent ways to productively approach conflict, but it is not enough to have only a general agreement that there will be help—you have to spell out what methodologies are on the menu, so the would-be user can have an inkling of what will be asked of them. Expecting people in distress to step forward to be black box guinea pigs is not a good plan.

4. Developing the capacity to consistently deliver positive results with the methods selected. Beyond agreeing on how support will be extended to members, the team needs to demonstrate that it can deliver in the clutch. This goes beyond being able to explain the theory of support; you need to show that you can manage the dynamic moment. For the most part the acid test is functioning in the presence of fulminating rage—though for others, rampant tears may be the litmus test.

5. Orienting all members to the availability of support and how to access it. It won't work if the team is hiding its light under a bushel. It has to actively make clear to members what the team offers, how support works, and how it can be invoked.

Beyond that, there are a few forks in the road that you need ot be aware of when setting this up.

Key Question A: Is the support group authorized to be pro-active? Must it wait for conflicted parties to agree to ask for assistance, or can it initiate inquires on its own judgment, or at the request of third parties?
Best answer: All too often, conflict resolution teams are underused (see my blog of Nov 24, 2014: Why Conflict Resolution Committees Are Like Maytag Repairmen). In part because people are reluctant to ask for help (or to admit that they need it); in part because there is a lack of confidence in the skill of the committee; in part because we come out of a culture that considers it meddling to insert yourself into other people's tensions. In recognition of that, it can make a big difference if the committee is authorized to initiate inquiries when there's the appearance that dynamics are stuck and starting to leak into group business. The bottom line here is getting out of the mud, and it's painful to watch stubborn people tolerate longstanding feuds because they're too proud to ask for assistance.

Note: Authorizing the team to be pro-active will not work unless there is a concomitant agreement that all members will to make a good faith effort to resolve tensions if they are named as a player in a conflict—regardless of whether they think they are.

Key Question B: What are the standards for transparency, in tension with confidentiality?

Best answer: Lean toward transparency as far as you can. Learn to describe distress even-handedly in minutes and reports, and then let all group members know the outline of what happened: what the tension was about and what the resolution was, including any agreements about how things will be different going forward. The flow of information is directly related to trust in the whole group. Thus, while it may be unintentional, a consequence of keeping information confidential is that trust is eroded. This is not what you want.

If you keep information confidential for fear that it will be misused, you are helping to create the environment  where that very thing will happen.

Note: I am not advocating that transparency be rammed down people's throats. I think it's best to allow protagonists to set their own limits about what is shared with others. That said, I'm encouraging groups to purposefully work toward an atmosphere of wide sharing within the group, with the clear expectation that individuals will use appropriate discretion when it comes to sharing beyond the group.

Key Question C: How are new members made aware of what the committee does and how to access it? If you are relying on osmosis, that's not a very good answer.

Best answer: Conflict teams should take it upon themselves to help create the culture in which they can thrive. This means regularly educating members (both new and old) about how to be better communicators, how to employ the methodologies for working conflict that the group adopts, and how the committee can help.

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