Friday, September 15, 2017

Conflict, Bullies, and Introverts

A friend of mine recently posted these comments in response to my blog of Nov 16, 2015, What It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict:

Assuming the accuracy of data reporting the relative predominance in cohousing of people who view themselves as introverts, the use of boundary “management” or strengthening/closing in response to bullying (or even just to conflict in general) may be seen more frequently when an introvert feels bullied.  

My thinking is that the initial response called for—engaging or confronting—would require a decision or choice to engage, which the introvert might need to go inside to reflect upon first. Once there, they might determine that inside is safer and less demanding, and not come out again.
Staying in the fire is not easy for anyone, and perhaps even less so when the preferred examination process takes place internally. The decision to return to the fray and engage may be asking introverts to demonstrate a greater degree of courage than they possess, especially when it is not supported by the community.

Let's unpack this, starting with definitions and premises.

o  Almost all groups will contain a mix of extroverts and introverts. For the purpose of this essay I'm defining extroverts as people who are energized by engagement with others; introverts tend to be drained by engagement. Extroverts recharge their batteries by being with others; introverts recover alone. It's not a good or bad thing; it's just different.

o  Plenaries (meetings of the whole) tend to favor extroverts because it's an energizing environment for them. For introverts meetings can be a strain—they often have to pump themselves up to stay focused and engaged, and they're frequently operating outside their comfort zone. 

o  If you add conflict to the mix (emotional distress) the stakes tend to get even higher. While extroverts often raise their energy in the presence of conflict (some even thrive on it), this can be excruciating and feel unsafe for introverts. This tends to make it even harder for introverts to get their oar in the water and keep pulling.

o  Bullying is about acting in a way that's intimidating, making it harder for others to voice their  concerns or interests, or to hang in there when disagreeing with the bully. It is not about the bully's viewpoint; it's about how they express themselves and the ways in which they apply pressure on others to back down or otherwise yield. Bullying succeeds when others believe that exiting the unpleasant dynamic is more important than getting their needs expressed or met.

o  Bullying can show up in a wide range of ways:
raising one's voice
talking fast
getting upset 
denigrating other's viewpoints (if you think this is rare, reflect on the dominant style of current political discourse)
woe-is-me manipulation (let me have my way because I'm a victim and your opposition prolongs or exacerbates my suffering)
threatening unpleasant consequences

o  Bullying may be a conscious, tactical choice, or it may be an unconscious style, so ingrained in a person's personality that they engage in it by default. 

o  Bullies may care how their behavior impacts others or they may not. That said, there is an advantage in cooperative culture in that there is a baseline assumption that the group will do its best work only when all relevant viewpoints are expressed and taken into account. Thus, in a cooperative setting there is a greater chance that a bully will be willing to be willing to work with feedback about how their behavior is making it harder for others to speak. The bully may deny that that they intend to intimidate others, but they may be willing to work on changing their behavior once they know it's having that effect.

• • •
So what can be done about bullying in cooperative groups, taking into account how hard this dynamic can be for introverts? Here are half a dozen suggestions:

1. Talk about it ahead of time
I think it's essential that group's discuss the phenomenon of bullying behavior and how they want to handle it. (Hint #1: It is an an absolute nightmare to postpone this consideration until you're in the moment. You need to do this pre-need. Hint #2: Note how I phrased this—bullying behavior. Object to the behavior; not the person.)

2. Commit to interrupting bullying wherever it's encountered
This will almost certainly mean authorizing facilitators to step in when they believe bullying is occurring—whether the intimidation was intended or not isn't the point. If bullying is allowed to happen unchecked, things will not magically get better.

Note how nuanced this can be. Suppose someone in the group is intimidated by loud voices and feels bullied by a member of the group who is frequently passionate in their statements. How much does the group want to protect the person who feels intimidated and how much does it want to support each member having access to their natural style? Where is the balance point?

3. Have agreements about how you'll work with emotional reactivity and develop the skills to deliver the support you commit to providing
You have to anticipate that when bullying surfaces that some of the time reactivity will be part of the mix. It will be paralyzing if there is no confidence in the group's ability to compassionately and accurately work the moment—be it the bully's distress, other's distress, or both.

4. Introverts and extroverts are going to have to make peace with one another
You cannot expect everyone else to adapt to you. For extroverts this translates into being sensitive to how your style can make life challenging for others. For introverts it means there has to be room at the table for the passionate and the boisterous, just as much as for the quiet and contemplative. You don't have to pretend to be something you're not, yet group culture is a mixed salad, not a homogeneous stew.

5. Offer a mix of formats, making it easier for introverts to contribute or to express distress
Take time to canvass your membership to get a sense of what will help people feel safe and that their contributions are welcome. Don't guess what people want; ask. 

What am I talking about? Small group breakouts, individual writing, talking sticks, and guided visualizations are techniques that offer a more deliberate pace and a less chaotic on-ramp. Intermix them with the up-tempo raucousness of brainstorms and open discussions.

6. Make sure that the right to be heard is joined at the hip to the responsibility to hear and work constructively with the views of others
When bullies are driving an agenda they are all too often insisting on their right, while sidestepping their responsibility. Make sure that that doesn't happen. First help them be heard, then slow things down to make sure that there's air time for other perspectives. After all, introverts are not stupider; they're just quieter.

1 comment:

Stymed said...

What does it mean for a community if you are too late to take Hint #1? Can you still proceed with these measures?