Monday, March 30, 2009

Conflict: Responsibilities After the Fire Has Been Put Out

This is Part Five in my series on Conflict (begun March 18). Today I'll offer my thinking on an aspect that is very important, yet one which I've seldom seen written about: what happens after the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air have been appropriately addressed and distortion has diminished—at least temporarily—to manageable levels? It is not enough to just survive conflict; it behooves groups to actively take advantage of the precious (and often hard-earned) clearing that has been created in the group's energy field.

[While I had originally conceived of this as the final installment, it's now occurred to me to add one more, where I'll provide a template for the mandate of a committee devoted to helping members work constructively through interpersonal tensions—for those times when it isn't needed or desirable to do so in plenary. That will be the subject of my next blog.]

Before launching into how I think groups should view everyone's responsibilities in the aftermath of conflict, I want to properly set the stage. Here is a summary of some the points I've been attempting to make in my previous blogs:
o Conflict is inevitable
o Not having a clear understanding about what it is and how to work with it constructively is a bad idea (it leads to chaos, confusion, and serious damage to relationships)
o Sometimes it's better to work the conflict in plenary; sometimes it's not
o Working a conflict in plenary is not likely to go well unless you have agreements in place about how you'll attempt this, and have the skill needed to deliver on your promise
o For those times when conflict needn't be worked in plenary, it's a good idea to provide support
for members—probably in the form of a committee—so they won't have to handle it solely on their own (how to do this well will be the subject of my next blog)

When a group commits to supporting members struggling with interpersonal tensions—which I strongly urge all groups to do—there's a boundary about what this means. It should be limited to conflict
arising in the context of people functioning as group members. Thus, if someone is outraged that you wear purple 3/4 of the time (a color they abhor), you are not necessarily obliged to deal with them about that, unless tasteful fashions or color aesthetics are a group value. I'm not saying you can't try to work it out; I'm only saying you're not required to wrestle with other rmembers' quirks and personal preferences when they fall otuside what the group has agreed it's in the world to do.

(Last month I was working with a group where one member was driven bonkers by another who had the habit of biting his nails in meetings. While the nail biter was apologetic about his nervous practice—and would have preferred to not be doing it—he'd been utterly unsuccessful in breaking himself of the habit, and didn't feel it was his responsibility to take care of the irritated person's irritation. I agreed with him. The triggered person is going to have to sort this out for themselves.)

To be sure, there's delicacy here in knowing the boundary. At what point is a raised voice a right of personal expression and at what point does it cross the line into a form of violence (about which the group has standards)? This ambiguity notwithstanding, my main point is that there are limits to what kinds of conflict the group should be obliged to tackle. There are times when the group can—and should—say "No, you'll have to handle that on your own."

OK, so what about those times when the group says "yes" and devotes group resources to working through the tensions? I believe there is an implicit contract between the group and the individuals receiving support. In exchange for the right that individual members have to be supported and helped through tough times, those same individuals have the responsibility to give back to the group in two ways:

1. Once tensions have been cleared and distortion reduced, the protagonists need to make themselves available to return to a fair and open consideration of the issues that precipitated the conflict. This expressly includes being able to work constructively with opposing views. That is, the group has the right to expect that the stakeholders in the conflict will behave better with each other by virtue of having received group support for working through their tensions. It is not OK for them to continue with a hair-trigger, ready to fire retaliatory salvos whenever they perceive the hint of a slight. This is not spill-your-guts psycho-drama playhouse; it's a group meeting, where people expect to solve problems!

If the group's availability to help members work conflict is going to be productive, it is essential that the struggling folks who are the beneficiaries of this attention learn how to change their behavior (and get off the merry-go-round), rather than learn how to get attention (and keep going around and around). In short, the calmed belligerents need to be available to help the group adress the precipitating issues. That's part of the deal.

2. Further, the individuals receiving support and attention need to move on and not return to the same tensions in similar circumstances. To do so, abuses the group's support. In such instances, the group is not obliged to give them the same attention and support the second time around—unless there are significantly new aspects to the situation.

Thus, in cases of patterned behavior, where the same person(s) is reporting the same dynamic with lots of people, the group has the right to say, at some point, enough is enough: you either have to get over this dynamic—which we're willing to help you do without pathologizing you, but which is otherwise hamstringing the group—or it may no longer make sense for you to continue in the group. It is obviously a heavy thing getting to the point of asking someone to leave the group, and not be taken lightly. And while it should be the option of last resort—after all other remedies have been attempted—it nonetheless has to be an option. It's not reasonable to ask the group to be held captive in emotional purgatory by a person who's repeatedly in the same pattern of distress without any shift after the group has made a good faith effort to work with them on it and helped craft mutually acceptable agreements about what all parties can do differently.

Keep in mind that the group may simply not have the resources or resiliency needed to help the struggling person through their issues, rather than there is "something wrong" with the struggling individual. This doesn't have to be about blame. It may simply be a limit to diversity.

Trap #5 (I've been identifying traps as part of this series on Conflict; the first appeared in my March 21 entry, and the others have followed chronologically): Be leery of a predominant group analysis that idenfiies a single individual or couple as "the problem." It is almost never a one-way street. In my experience as a consultant, about half the groups who hire me to help them through difficulties have a story in which so-and-so is labeled "the problem." However, as a cowboy who's been to a lot of rodeos, I don't buy the story; I insist on seeing for myself. Both because I'm experienced with conflict and because I start with the assumption that everyone wants to be accurately viewed and is not intentionally disruptive, I'd say about 80% of the time (note that I didn't say every time) I can get different and more cooperative behavior out of the "problem" person within 24 hours than the group believes is possible. While this person may well have challenging behaviors that are hard for most folks to live with, and it may not be a good fit having them in the group, the point I'm trying to make is that they aren't unreachable—even though that's typically the group's story about them.

Once a group starts to indulge itself in so-and-so-is-the-problem thinking, they're well on the way toward becoming a mob, where members who buy this story tend to get lazy and stop looking closely at how they've also been contributing to what's not working. They content themselves with laying it all at the feet of the "problem" person, and before you know it, you're at a virtual lynching. It can get pretty ugly. Don't let this happen to your group! Whenever there's a persistent problem in the group, I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone take a step back and spend a little time searching for responsible parties in the mirror. It can be amazing who'll you'll find there.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Conflict: Rules of Engagement

This is Part Four in a series (begun March 18) about working with conflict in cooperative groups. Today I'll offer my thinking about a constructive way to work with conflict in plenary, once you've decided that's the right thing to do.

I'm presenting here what I've distilled from more than two decades of work as a process consultant. It's a four-step process for working a volatile situation
in the moment (where at least one person is actively upset). The basic concept is to accurately recognize where everybody is at without judgment or blame, and then trying to figure out what you can do to repair damage and re-establish a basis for trust between the protagonists.

I figure if you can get this far, you've turned the corner and it should be possible to once again have the group function at a high level, with minimal distortion. In my next, and final blog in this series, I'll address what everyone's responsibilities are once the group has successfully addressed the conflict.

Step 1. What’s happening emotionally?
• Acknowledge the feelings of everyone who is a major player in the conflict. Stay with it until everyone feels heard (as opposed to agreed with). Hint: you may need to ask each player what feeling heard looks like to them; answers may vary.
• Focus on one person at a time until everyone has had their say. Other things being equal, start with the person in the greatest distress and work toward the person bothered
• Hint: In cases of high distress, the person may feel exceptionally isolated and misunderstood. In these moments, my overwhelming experience has been to focus first on making a connection with them emotionally (never mind that they may be acting like an asshole and totally inappropriate—the time to address that is later). Often, nothing else works, and if the person continues ot feel isolated, you'll never get solid buy-in from them on what follows.
• Summarize the common ground and note the differences. Resist the temptation to try to fix it, or talk anyone into changing their feelings.

Step 2. What’s the story?
• Give each person the chance to tell their version of what happened and what their reaction was. Discourage attempts at solutions at this stage; that comes later.
• As with the prior step, summarize the common ground and note the differences.
Trap #3 (the first was in my March 21 blog; the second in my March 24 entry): Groups often get hung up (or even polarized) by the efforts of protagonists to get group members to take sides and decide who was right. Resist the temptation to determine Truth and seek Relationship instead, emphasizing the ties between protagonists and building a bridge between them. Even if the stories are mutually exlcusive (that is, they both can't be true), believe everybody. It is essential at this point to grok every player's personal reality, so that you can make sense of why they did what they did.
• Hint:
Often a breakthrough occurs when one person can see events through the other person's lens, understanding—perhaps for the first time—how that person's actions can be reasonably explained from their reality, without that person having a bad intent.
• Steps One and Two can often be done simultaneously, where each person shares both their feelings and their story. The only reason I separate them in this process is because it's essential that each person be held emotionally, and many of us will shy away from emotional disclosure if our feet are not held to the fire. If unnamed, or inaccurately described, hard feelings tend to re-emerge later and you'll just have to start over. Better to get it right the first time.

Step 3. What's at stake (why does this matter)?
• Let the answers here be wide open: it could be as grandiose as “world peace” or as mundane as “second helpings on dessert.”
• Sometimes a major element in conflict is a gross misperception of what another wants, and that can be revealed at this stage.
• Again, the answers may not match up and that's OK. The just want to know what everyone's answers are (so that the answers you solicit in the next step are aligned with what others want, if possible).

Step 4. What do you want to do about it?
• While similar to the last question, this is an action statement, and only comes after the prior three questions have been addressed. Now, finally, we are getting to problem solving.
Hint: If the responses here are still coming out with emotional charge then it’s a sure sign that you went through the previous steps too quickly and someone didn’t feel heard or respected; go back and do them again.
• Note that the framework here is what do you want to do, not what you want others to do. It generally works better if each person starts with what they can contribute to forward progress, and build from there. Requests can come later, yet starting with what each protagonist can unilaterally offer is a nice olive branch.
• Unlike Step 3, here you are looking for measurable commitments. Thus, don’t settle for, “To feel better about what we’re each doing for the group.” Insist on something like, "To meet every Wed evening at 7 pm, right before the group meeting, to share what we’ve each done in the prior week to follow through on our commitments and to tell about anything extra we’ve done."
• It is not uncommon for protagnists to go blank when it comes to Step 4. While they may have plenty of ideas about what they want to other person to do, they have no inspirations about what they can offer. A good facilitator will help them here (I do this kind of work a lot and I've always been able to think of something positive that each person can do that is something: a) they are not currently doing; b) that respects what the other person said they wanted; and c) is doable by the person making the comitment—that is, the action does not represent a capitulation, a change in values, or a personality change.)

Note: By making the answers to Step 4 measurable, it gives each protagonist concrete information with which they can contradict negative feelings about the other protagonists (that is, despite a tendency to indulge in bad feelings about the other person, they have the chance to resist going there by reminding themselves that the other person actually did the thing they said they’d do).

While I don't have illusions about people coming out of this holding hands and singing Kumbaya, they should be able to better function together and the tension should be significantly reduced. The point of this proces is to be authentic and constructive, and is based on the assumtpions that everyone means well, prefers not to be in colflict, does not mean to be triggering distress in others, and wants every member's voice to be fully taken into account on group issues.

Trap #4: I'll conclude this blog with a major word of caution. Don't attempt a process like I've described above without sufficient facilitative skill to pull it off. Even if you thoroughly understand the theory, that doesn't guarantee you can handle the dynamics of fuliminating upset. I know process trainers who can teach this stuff, but can't do it. It's great for a group to commit to working with conflict—I'm all for it—but it can be downright dangerous to make that commitment without the capacity to do it well. It gives the illusion of safety, and that can be doubly problematic if it goes poorly: not only will the conflict remain unhealed, but trust in the group itself will be eroded.

Best I think, is to make a commitment to develop the facilitative capacity within the group and to also keep in mind the occasional need for outside help. This means a commitment of time and money. You need the time to do the training and learn the craft; and the money to fund the training and to occasioanlly hire an outside firefighter (which, among others, is what I am)—for those times when you're in over your head with the complexity or volatility of the dynamic, or there's no neutrality to be had within the group.

For my money, one of the surest measures of a group's maturity is not how much they can handle on their own; it's how accurately they know what they can handle themselves and when they need help. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to working with conflict.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

When Groups Should Address Conflict in Plenary

This is Part Three in a series on conflict in groups that was begun March 18. Today I'll address: when groups should address conflict in plenary (meetings of the whole group), and how far to take it.

On the question of when to call the group's attention to conflict, the essential litmus test is when it's perceived that one or more people in the group are upset to the point where they're experiencing non-trivial distortion of what's happening and what's being said. That is, they're no longer able to hear accurately and it's getting in the way of the group's ability to function well.

Obviously this is a judgment call, and people may disagree as to whether the line of non-trivial distortion has been crossed. My advice is to take a person's word for it. Usually it becomes clear relatively quickly whether that person was accurate in their self-assessment or not. (That is, if you sense that a person has become upset and they deny that it's getting in the way of their participation, if you let it go and return to the regularly scheduled conversation, it will generally become obvious within minutes whether they self-diagnosed accurately or not.)

Trap #2 (the first one is listed in the previous blog): Be careful of assessing another person's behavior based on what it would mean if you were behaving that way. Their frame of reference may be entirely different. Referring to what I wrote March 18 under the heading "Style Clash," someone with a Northern European style (that is, a calm speaker who doesn't interrupt others) may easily misinterpret the emotional distress level of someone with a Southern European style who naturally speaks passionately and on top of others.

Once you've named a conflict, I think it's worthwhile to examine it at least as far as naming accurately what the feelings are and what the story is, to the distressed person's satisfaction. Everyone who's a player in the conflict should get a turn at this, starting with the person perceived to be most upset and working toward whomever is least triggered. The keys to doing this well are:

—Making the first connection with an upset person on the emotional level. Remember, by definition, conflict involves emotional distress. The upset person will tend to feel isolated and your #1 job in trying to work with them is to interrupt that isolation and show them that you "get" their essential experience—which has nothing to do with agreeing with their position or their upset.

—Demonstrating to each person both that you've heard their story (complete with feelings) accurately and that you've "gotten" their affect. Warning: If the words are right but the energy is wrong, the upset person may not trust that they've been fully held, and the feeling of isolation may persist.

—Being as neutral as possible in the listening. In addition to not taking sides in the conflict, this means not having a judgment that a person is emotionally volatile. The more matter-of-factly that you can respond to emotionality, the less tense the environment will be in which the confict is unpacked. (A lot of what is hard about working with conflict is that non-belligerents also get tense when conflict erupts, because experience has taught them that bad things can happen in those moments—not only do not they not care to witness that, there's likely some fear that it might happen to them. By reducing the group's baseline anxiety about working with conflict, everything will go better.) Understand though, that this is not a recommendation to be blasé or casual about working with conflict. Take it seriously, but hold it lightly.

—Not getting hung up on inconsistencies in different protagonist's stories. Two people may agree that they were in the same place at the same time and have completely different stories about what happened. In this phase of working with conflict, believe everyone—even if the different realities are mutually incompatible! The priority here is Relationship, not Truth. And all you need to be believe is that each person's story is their truth.

Having gotten this far, you face a choice point. Should you work the conflict further, or set it aside (perhaps because the distortion has already been reduced sufficiently to return to the regular agenda topic by virtue of just telling the stories and being heard; perhaps because the protagonists are OK with further work being done in another setting)?

Here's a checklist of reasons to keep working in plenary:

o The upset appears as part of a chronic pattern that's disrupting group work, and it's not getting better on its own.

o The tension is embedded in the issue currently being discussed and must be resolved as a prelude to finding a solution that will work and can be implementated with solid buy-in.

o It appears that the distress is sufficiently distracting to the rest of the group.

o The whole group is needed to create sufficient safety or attention to work the conflict (this typically happens after other attempts have failed).

o Enough other people have the same or a parallel issue with one or more players in the conflict.

Whole group time is very valuable and choices about how to use it should be made wisely. While there's no doubt that working conflict can take a serious amount of that valuable time, sometimes you can't afford not to.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Conflict: Ignoring It Doesn't Work

Continuing with my series exploring Conflict in cooperative* groups (launched with my March 18 posting), I'm going to outline the remainder of this series. In the next fortnight I'm going to lay out:

1. Why groups need an agreement about addressing conflict (even though most don't).

2. When groups should address it and how far to take it in plenary (meetings of the whole group).

3. How to work with it constructively.

4. Everybody's responsibilities once the protagonists have been given group support to work through their upset.

* While everything I have to say applies equally to groups which don't self-identify as "cooperative," I am focusing on the cooperative segment because I can count on their baseline willingness to question competitive and adversarial dynamics, and I am therefore expecting this segment to lead the way in developing a meeting culture that is simultaneously more humane and more productive.

Further, I am assuming that the groups I am talking about have made no commitment to be therapeutic; I am assuming only that the group knows why it exists and that members are part of it because of their interest and support for the group's purpose.
• • •
Naturally enough, today I'll tackle the first topic on the list.

I'll start with a definition, to set a context for my thinking. I define conflict as the dynamic where at least two people have different views and at least one of them is experiencing non-trivial distress. (While it's common for people to apply the term "conflict" to situations where significant upset may not be a factor, the most interesting cases are where emotional volatility is in play. So that's where I'm focusing my comments.)

For all groups doing anything serious in the world and lasting for any length of time (groups that have an ongoing purpose, rather than ones that meet only once or twice to accomplish a single function and then disband), conflict is inevitable. That is, at least some of the time there will occur moments when two members disagree about something that they feel strongly about and there will be tension. My basic point in this blog is that it's a good idea for groups to have an idea about what to do in that moment, rather than than to simply pray and hope for the best.

Trap #1: Many people use a group's frequency of conflict as a barometer of its health: less conflict = greater health. I think this is bad thinking. For my money, the presence of conflict may mean nothing more than that the group is wrestling with tough issues and that the members care a lot about the outcome of those conversations. (Show me a group that reports no conflict, and I'll show you a group that's in denial, not doing serious work, or not paying attention.) The fact that strong emotions have emerged as part of the conversation may be a complication (I'll give you my thinking on that in a subsequent blog), yet it doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem, or that the group is unhealthy. The aspect of conflict that does relate to group health is how well it deals with conflict, not how frequently it gets the opportunity to experience it. 

This is important because one of the reasons groups tend to handle conflict poorly is that there is considerable anxiety (and perhaps embarrassment or discouragement) about the fact that conflict has erupted, independent of the conflict itself. And that's an unfavorable environment in which to work the conflict constructively. Part of my objective in illuminating the dynamics and potentialities of conflict is to try to get people to be hopeful and more relaxed in the presence of conflict, so that it will be much more possible to have positive experiences with it.

For the most part, people (and the groups they create) tend to avoid conflict, and that goes a long way toward explaining why most groups don't have any understanding about what to do when it occurs. It works like this: 
—Conflict (by definition) gets you into emotional volatility. 
—Absent any understanding about how to work emotionally (remember, this is not therapy), there may be no defined boundaries around safety or acceptable behavior in the dynamic moment. 
—Most of us have plenty of direct personal experiences with strong feelings being linked with aggressive, manipulative, and perhaps abusive behavior, and have thus learned that upset is often associated with damage (to relationships and to the group) and with deeply flawed decisions (where the group tends to either ignore or placate the upset person, either of which tends to leave some portion of the group demonstrably unhappy).
—Uncertain about their ability to handle conflict well, most groups try (unsuccessfully) to legislate it out of plenary by expecting members to contribute rationally in meetings—while this may not be a written expectation, it is a de facto cultural norm—and to work out their upsets in another context, rather than bringing them into the room. Most groups actively discourage the expression of conflict in meetings (while disagreement is allowed, the expression of strong feelings is either not supported, or is met with a very mixed response).

To be clear, I'm all in favor of people doing whatever they can to recognize their upsets and to do whatever they can to work through them outside of plenary—by themselves, by working directly with the other person(s), or with the help of third parties. However, it's flat out naive to think that that will handle all situations. At least some of the time, conflict will erupt in plenary, and it's too expensive (group time is highly valuable) to not have an idea about how to navigate that dynamic. What's more, you can't reasonably discuss the process by which you'll examine the conflict once you're in it. You have to have that in place and agreed upon beforehand.

If you're not convinced of this last piece (having the process in place before you're in the moment), think about what's happening for the upset person in the heat of the moment. Distress is linked with distortion (ability to hear and frame things accurately) and there is a concomitant tendency to feel isolated, misunderstood, and vulnerable. It is extremely uphill to attempt, in the moment of their distress, to ask the upset person to make decisions about the process by which their distress will examined. It is much better to have something in place ahead of time, so that when the upset person challenges you with, "Why are you asking me these questions about how I feel?", you can respond, "Because we've agreed as a group to do this whenever we perceive a member to be experiencing serious distress."

While I freely acknowledge that most people's experience with fulminating conflict is not positive, if groups develop the capacity and confidence needed to manage the dangerous aspects, there are also some highly valuable positives to be had. I'll name four:

a) By helping the upset person work through their distress (at least to the point where the distortion is reduced to acceptable levels), you've made it possible for them to be a constructively contributing participant in the problem solving phase of the groups' consideration of the issue(s) at hand. 

b) Further, as a better-connected participant, the upset person is more likely to buy in to the group's decision about what to do. This buy-in is much more in question if the group moves forward on the issue while the person remains upset.

c) Strong feelings, if harnessed (rather than running wild), can be a source of energy that can be used to both help solve the problem and to energize the group about the work it's doing ("Hey, we're tackling tough issues, listening to whatever people have to say on the topic, making hard choices, and feeling better connected in the process. We're hot shit!")

d) Feelings can be a source of information. For some people, they may have more profound insights into the issue through their feelings than their thinking, and it's crippling to ask everyone to translate everything into thinking as a pre-condition for its being acceptable input. People are incredibly complex beings and "knowing" comes in many forms: rational, emotional, intuitive, spiritual, and kinesthetic (to name five). Why limit your palette? The more ways you can allow members to share their "knowing," the more information you'll have to work with, the more members will feel welcome at meetings, and the more solid the foundation for your decisions.

I'll conclude with one more reason for groups to talk about and come to an agreement about how to handle conflict: ignoring it doesn't work. While I'll admit that some portion of the time, people will find a way to work through upsets on their own, without group assistance, this surely doesn't work all the time. It is highly dangerous for groups to allow unaddressed, unresolved conflicts to fester in the corners. It leads to isolation, it erodes trust, it undercuts group cohesion, and it breeds factions. In short, it leads to war. And if cooperative groups aren't addressing that, what the hell are we doing?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

When It Comes to Conflict, It’s Always Personal

Ma’ikwe and I have just completed a facilitation training weekend in North Carolina where the teaching focus was on Conflict. Having just been immersed in that particular aspect of group dynamics, I want to devote the next few blogs to some of my thinking about what conflict represents and how to work with it constructively.

In recent years, the phrase “structural conflict” has arisen as a concept in group dynamics, to describe tensions that surface when there’s ambiguity about certain key aspects of what the group stands for and how it conducts business. Employing this rubric, conflict is sometimes sorted into two kinds: “structural” and “interpersonal.”

While I agree wholeheartedly that ambiguous agreements can lead to hell (and plenty of conflict along the way), I don’t find this sorting particularly helpful. First of all, it implies that if a conflict is structural, then perhaps it’s not interpersonal, and I don’t think that’s possible. As far as I’m concerned, if there isn’t at least one person who’s experiencing non-trivial distress, then you don’t have conflict—it’s merely a disagreement. It’s more useful, I think, to view conflict as always having an interpersonal component. What’s more, I’m convinced that recognizing the distress is the most constructive starting point when working with conflict.

Second, while softly or ill-defined agreements may also be a factor in a given conflict (and it’s important to know when that’s the case), there are a number of other possible contributors and I don’t see the value in singling out sloppy agreements for special treatment. Here’s an outline of a half dozen other common contributors to conflict (in addition to interpersonal tensions):

1. Style Clash
While this can occur in many forms—male/female, rational/emotive, kinesthetic/cerebral, active/contemplative—I’m only gong to examine one to make my point: family of origin.

There’s considerable variety in the way people are raised, and it can be a potent challenge navigating cultural differences. For the purposes of illuminating this dynamic, I’m only going to examine two general types: the Northern European style and the Southern European style. While I’m shamelessly stereotyping and everyone won’t fit neatly into my pattern, bear with me. Even though it’s easy to think of counterexamples, the dichotomy is still useful.

For the most part, meeting behavior in the US follows the Northern European model, where one person talks at a time, and people don’t raise their voices unless they’re upset. Contrast that with the Southern European style (which stereotypically includes Jewish, Black, and Hispanic cultures, as well as Italian and Spanish) where people commonly speak on top of each other and with animation. (To better understand the roots of these differences, think of normal dinner table conversation in these cultures.)

With a little reflection, it’s easy to understand how everyday Southern European behavior can be misconstrued by a Northern European. What looks like rudeness and upset to the Northern European might be nothing more than interest and engagement to the Southern European. Conversely, the polite waiting of the Northern European might be misinterpreted as aloofness, boredom, or even ill health by a Southern European.

Without checking out these assumptions, people trying to understand what’s happening between people operating in different modalities can get hopelessly muddled.

2. Relationship to Rules
In a group of any size (probably 10+ is enough) it is a virtual certainty that there will be a range of how people relate to structure in their lives. On one end of the spectrum will be folks who find agreements, and rules to be relaxing. They eliminate ambiguity, provide an objective standard for what constitutes “enough” or “fair share,” and provide a platform for a conversation in the event that there are tensions around people doing what they agreed to do.

On the other end of this spectrum are people who experience rules and explicit expectations as a straight-jacket, as a sign of mistrust, and as an attempt to shoehorn everyone into the same box, quashing diversity. For these folks, rules are the first brick in the foundation of fascism, and to be resisted at every turn.

Once you understand that this spectrum is operative (and normal), you can begin to work explicitly on how best to balance these two polarities whenever the question of norms or agreements surfaces. Absent an understanding of this range, groups repeatedly are crippled by a resistance and suspicion from one side about the other—and issues simply become the latest battleground for the pro-structure/anti-structure tug-of-war.

3. Misunderstandings
Some fraction of the time, there are serious mistakes made in what one person thinks another said, wrote, or did. The person who is upset can build a considerable head of steam up in connection with their upset about what they thought the other person did, and occasionally it can take a long time to discover the mistake. Sometimes, only after considerable damage has taken place.

The more straight-forward version of this dynamic is where there’s a misunderstanding of events and people are operating from significantly different realities about what happened. The more subtle version of this is when one person assigns a bad motive to what another did, and hasn’t looked for (or accepted) more benign or well-intentioned possibilities.

Hint: The latter phenomenon—the more volatile of the two—is more commonly found in situations where there’s already a history of tensions between two people and trust is low.

4. Power Dynamics
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic that entails a whole field of work, it is relatively common for members of a group to have a critical spin on the actions of another whom they feel has misused his or her power. If the accused person feels their actions were more benevolent, then a firestorm can ensue.

In essence the powerful person is called out for having used their power for either inappropriate personal benefit or for the benefit of a subgroup at the expense of others. The claim of the powerful person is that they believe they were using their power more for the benefit of all, and they perceive the criticism as an attack on their integrity (or even character assassination). This can get ugly in a hurry.

In general, the powerful person is accused of having abrogated process agreements for the benefit of the few over the many. This kind of accusation tends to carry an additional heaviness due to the subtext of leadership abuse, and a sense of betrayal. If not handled well, this can paralyze a group, with progress on the precipitating issue only one of the casualties.

5. Damage Triggers
Everyone has been hurt in life, and almost all of us carry some of the damage with us into our current realities. This history may or may not be disclosed or understood by the groups we’re a part of today and it’s not at all unusual for someone’s pain to be triggered by current events. It can be highly confusing for others to correctly frame that person’s response to what’s happening without knowledge of the past damage, and how dramatically it can distort one’s response.

Let me give you an extreme example to illuminate my point. Some years ago I was asked to facilitate meetings at a residential community where there had been an internal charge of sexual abuse that was denied. There was no physical evidence to prove what happened and results of a professional investigation (by experts in sexual abuse) were inconclusive. As the group had more than 50 members, I knew going in that it was a statistical certainty that there would be others in the group who had personal experience with abuse and that this would be the lens through which they processed the current dilemma.

I explained this at the outset of the weekend and in the course of our 48 hours together, half a dozen people came forward to disclose—for the first time—their personal stories as survivors of sexual abuse (from incidences that occurred prior to their time together in community). It was powerful and poignant stuff that was important for the community to hear, both for healing and for understanding more fully how each member was responding to the current situation.

6. Fighting for the High Moral Ground
It’s often the case in conflicted dynamics that people react more strongly in a disagreement (to the point of getting emotionally triggered) because they believe they have a unique position as a protector of a group value. When they get accused of being stubborn and selfish, they might respond with “You don’t understand. My concern is rooted in a group value; it’s not just a personal concern” and they hang in there, in part, because they’re defending the group. Many times though, people on the other side of the argument believe the same thing—only they’re defending a different group value. Each thinks he or she has the high moral ground, and a lot of salvos can be exchanged before it becomes clear there’s legitimacy to everyone’s position and no one has the high moral ground. Meanwhile, the disagreement has taken on the flavor of a holy war, greatly complicating attempts to establish détente.

Another common version of this occurs when the dynamic is coupled with any of the other complications named above. It will frequently be the case that Person A is triggered by Person B’s statement or action and Person B will be oblivious to the reaction (and may not be in distress themselves), until they learn of Person A’s response. From Person A’s perspective, Person B started it. From Person B’s perspective, Person A started. Each thinks they’re protecting themselves from the other person being out of control, and we’re off to the races. (It’s scary to observe what kind of raw behaviors a person will rationalize as acceptable in themselves if their analysis is that they were attacked without provocation.)

It can take a while to make clear that each has the same story (“The other person started it”), no one sees themselves as the aggressor, and there is no high moral ground to be had.

• • •
As a final comment, note that these complicating factors can be in play in any combination—the only constant being that interpersonal tension is always in the mix. Note also that all of these complicating factors are on top of whatever the presenting issue is, about which people may disagree even if none of these complications are in play.

While you may feel overwhelmed by how complicated this can get, my intent is to inspire hope. I figure if you know better what to look for and how to illuminate the complications without labeling anyone as bad, you have that much greater chance of effecting a cease fire and offering the protagonists an honorable way to lay down their arms.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Standing in Front of the Runaway Bus

One of the most common reasons I get hired as a process consultant is to help groups navigate the treacherous shoals of conflicted dynamics, where the hurt runs deep and the rocks are shallow.

While I'm occasionally asked to simply work a dynamic between two people, it’s far more typical that I’m asked to ply my craft in the whole group, where the variables are compounded, and the wind can blow from any direction. There are a number of reasons for this:

• Most groups don’t have agreements about how to work with fulminating conflict, and thus—regardless of whether working that particular conflict would be a good use of plenary time—the group wants to have a live demonstration of what that looks like. (Having conflicted parties report back to the group that they met, perhaps with the assistance of a third party, and achieved a breakthrough is not at all the same experience as witnessing the breakthrough.)

• It’s not uncommon that progress on an important issue is held hostage to the conflict, and it’s necessary to work through the conflict (as opposed to around it) to get traction on the problem. In this kind of situation, the group wants to minimize any delays and get to work on the issue as soon as possible.

• Even when a group understands the theory of working constructively with conflict, that doesn’t mean there’s currently sufficient skill among the membership to be able to do it themselves, and they may want a live demonstration, both to inspire hope and to collect data on whether to hire someone (perhaps me) to teach them that skill.

One thing I try to impress upon all groups is that plenary time (meetings of the entire group) is expensive, and you need to be diligent about seeing to it that it’s used wisely. Groups are smart to demand that plenary time be productive. While they aren’t always so smart about how they define “product,”* it’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether it makes sense to unpack a particular conflicted dynamic in plenary—even assuming you know how to do it and have group permission for the attempt.

* Hint: product is much more than just agreements about how to handle a given issue; it can include partial solutions, clarity about next steps, assignment of topics to research, and even decisions about how you will tackle a topic, or feeling better connected with one another.

In general, here is a list of indications that tackling conflict in plenary may be the right call:

o It looks like one or more participants are upset to the point that you're losing their attention for the work at hand.

o The upset appears as part of a chronic pattern that's disrupting the group’s work, and it's not getting better on its own.

o The tension is embedded in the issue the group is discussing, and must be resolved as a prelude to finding a viable solution.

o It appears that the distress is sufficiently distracting to the rest of the group.

o The whole group is needed to hold the energy needed to create sufficient safety or attention to work the conflict (this condition is more likely to apply when prior, non-plenary attempts have failed).

o Enough other people have the same or a parallel dynamic with one or more players in the conflict.

Note: It may be sufficient to name a conflict in the group and then have the participants take the next steps outside of plenary. The key tests are whether the players have gotten enough relief from naming the conflict to return their attention to the regular agenda, or whether resolution is necessary to proceed on the topic at hand.

• • •
I am frequently asked to assess a group's overall health and maturity. For my money, here are three key indicators in the context of how the group handles conflict:
1. Its ability to work conflict constructively in the group.
2. Its discernment around when to work a conflict in plenary and when it’s OK to have that done outside.
3. The degree of active participation from non-belligerents when working a conflict.

For the remainder of this blog I want to focus on this third point.

For the most part, people in US culture have learned to get very quiet when they find themselves in the presence of a conflict that they have not been identified with as a player. It’s not hard to figure out where that behavior comes from. Strong feelings are often linked with aggression and active bystanders tend to get hurt in the crossfire. Naturally enough, people learn to keep their head down to avoid suffering collateral damage.

The important news is that it needn't be that way. If the group has agreements about how they’ll work with conflict, and if the group decides that now is one of those times, then it’s an enormous benefit to have non-belligerents take an active role in safeguarding the process by which the conflict will be unpacked and examined. (It’s got to be superior to expecting the protagonists to work their own way through it.)

While it isn’t hard to explain what a constructive role might look like, it’s hard to do in the dynamic moment, when voices and blood pressure are surging into the red zone. Probably the trickiest moment is when someone’s behavior has clearly crossed the line of what’s considered acceptable. It’s an exceptional group that can concentrate first on building a bridge to over-the-red-line participants, rather than asking them to reflect on and apologize for their inappropriate behavior. Yet that’s exactly what should happen in that moment.

It's a huge plus for a group to have members step forward in the presence of conflict and keep the group to its agreements about how it wants to handle such moments. Protagonists are typically better able to hear a question from a non-belligerent than are from someone they're in conflict with—even if the words and affect are indistinguishable, the non-belligerent will tend to be more trusted and less escalating.

In effect, I'm advocating that non-belligerents find the courage to stand up and wave their arms in front of the runaway bus of erupted conflict. While this is not easy to do, it will get better with practice. And besides, if you don't take this on, and lend a hand to others when they're in the soup, who'll be there for you when the bus stops at your door?

Working conflict in group (and developing a savvy membership that is not afraid of working conflict) will not necessarily reduce the frequency of conflict in your group, but it can substantially improve how you handle those moments, and help ease the fears that those moments will go badly. Interestingly, not being afraid of conflict will go a long way toward manifesting the experience that it doesn't go badly. And that's a goal that's well worth struggling for.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Stripless in Las Vegas

I'm just concluding a week-long visit with my son (Ceilee), daughter-in-law (Tosca), granddaughter (Taivyn), ex-partner and Ceilee's mother (Annie), and our granddog (Zeus, a four-year-old pit bull with the sweetest disposition I've ever encountered in a canine).

This evening I'll take an Amtrak bus to Kingman AZ, where I'll rendezvous with the eastbound Southwest Chief, marking the start of a three-day train ride that will get me to Carrboro NC and the third weekend of an eight-part series of facilitation training with my wife, Ma'ikwe. In addition to the excitement and anticipation that I always feel for training weekends, I will be reuniting with Ma'ikwe when train #6 chugs into Albuquerque around noon tomorrow, ending a three-week separation. I've missed her a lot and am glad we have three days together before we're on stage in the Tarheel State.

Knowing that we'd appreicate some privacy after our three-week separation, I've cashed in credits (I use an Amtrak credit card, which earns train miles in the same way that airline cards earn plane miles) to upgrade to sleeping car accommodations. Thus, the long train ride affords us ample opportunity for other activities than just mapping out role plays, games of Scrabble, and looking out the window.

Ceilee has been in Las Vegas for two years now, and I've visited him here a half dozen times. While we usually go to the Strip at least once a visit, this time we didn't. It's hard to think about Las Vegas without immediately conjuring an image of the Strip—America's most demonstrative tribute to Baal, the false god of materialism and excess. Think of it as cancer as an art form.

To be fair, I enjoy walking the Strip
occasionally (for which there is never an off season, or even a bad time of day). I can appreciate immersing myself in urban madness from time to time, and the Strip is an attraction for me in much the same way as Chinatown in Manhattan, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, Pike Street Market in Seattle, Bourbon St in New Orleans, or even the River Walk in San Antonio. Looking is free and, in the case of Las Vegas, I never tire of the syncopated water fountain shows in front of the Bellagio. This time, however, we never got around to it. While it's not the reason most people flock to Sin City, Annie and I coordinated cross-country travel simply for family time.

Excepting a dinner out, a game of twilight golf, and a hiking excursion to the snow-covered slopes of nearby Mt Charleston, we stayed home. Annie & I got to practice being grandparents, taking both Taivyn and Zeus out for a walk every day, and providing Tosca reliable childcare when she went to weekday aerobics class or doctor appointments. We watched some television, played some games, and grilled in the backyard. There was plenty of time for conversation, and adjusting to the rhythms of my son's family.

While Ceilee & Tosca are leading a more traditional life (that looks more like the one my parents led) than the one Annie & I created at Sandhill, it's their choice, and we've come this week to celebrate relationships, not to judge them.

It's been a great week.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Getting a Handle on Things

Today is Day Two of a week-long visit in Las Vegas with my son, Ceilee, my daughter-in-law, Tosca, my granddaughter, Taivyn, and my ex-partner and dear friend, Annie (who's also Ceilee's mother). Taivyn has now crossed the 10-month mark and this is the fourth visit to see her that I've been able to finagle since she emerged into the world last April 20. Notably, it is the first time that Annie and I have been with our grandchild simultaneously, and it is already being great fun for both of us.

As someone who's on the road half the time
(as a group process consultant, as a community networker, and now as a doting grandparent), I often benefit from the hospitality of others. Often I stay with friends; sometimes I stay with clients. When I'm at a friend's (and I'm not totally absorbed with a client), if I'm there more than a day or two I try to figure out a way to repay their kindness by giving something in return. While this is most commonly my taking them out to eat, or a gift of Sandhill honey or sorghum, on occasion people will allow me to tackle a home improvement project—especially if they know me pretty well.

As a homesteader on a farm that values self-sufficiency, I've learned basic carpentry, electrical wiring, plumbing, chain saw work, and an assortment of other DIY skills. My son, of course, knows that. And while Ceilee enjoys that kind of stuff himself (after all, he grew up on the same farm where I learned these skills), he's got a regular 9-5 M-F job and doesn't have much time available for home puttering once relaxation, cooking, eating, and quality time with his wife and daughter (not necessarily in that order) have been subtracted from his limited number of waking hours at home. All of which is to say, Ceilee had a list of projects waiting for my arrival. I flew into McCarran Sunday night, and had a screwdriver in my hand by 8 am Monday morning.

• • •
As a professional facilitator, it's important for me to figure out what's happening during a meeting. On the surface level, that means tracking the conversation and where it seems to be heading. Beneath that, I'm also expected to be able to get a handle on the interpersonal dynamics in the group and how the patterns there tend to complicate consideration of the issues.

Take last weekend. I was working with a group that was wrestling with the issue of how to fairly revalue the houses on their property. Although the group owns all the homes, member equity in the community (which they have a right to receive as a cash payment if and when they leave) is tied to the value assigned to the house that each member lives in. Originally, that value was tied to what it cost to build the house, adjusted annually by a COLA (cost of living adjustment). However, when the group recently looked at the possibility of building a new home (to accommodate additional members), they discovered, to their chagrin, that the cost of new construction was vastly higher than the book value of their existing homes. Perhaps double. Part of it was not selecting a good enough COLA; part of it was that construction costs have been rising faster than inflation.

As all members are expected to contribute equity to the community in relation to their housing, this reality created a great awakwardness. Under their existing agreements, if a new member moved into a house already built, they would simply asume the equity position of the former resident—which, for purposes of this explanation, might be $150,000. However, if the new person build a new home (instead of moving into an existing one), then their equity contribution would essentially equal the cost of construction, or $300,000. Double the price for a home of the same size and quality.

While this higher value would be returned to them if they left the community, it created a much higher financial bar for them to join, and the community wanted to address the issue of affordability both on grounds of fairness and diversity (hard to attract the younger members needed to effect an intergenerational mix if the buy-in costs were so high). There was dynamic tension between wanting the equity value of houses to rise—so that leaving members would receive a payout large enough that they had reasonable options for finding comparable housing elsewhere—and wanting equity values to be suppressed, so that cost was not a prohibitive barrier to joining the community.

While the issues were complex and not everyone found working with numbers equally comfortable (remember the range of enthusiasm in your fourth grade math class?), the waters were made even muddier by unresolved tensions among key members of the community Finance Committee, all of whom were long-term members of the community. In addtion to different philosophies and different ways of looking at the world (all of which fell within the normal range of what I see in cooperative groups, yet which are no less simple to navigate for being common), these folks also had very different communicaton styles and tended to find one another irritating.

We spent about 10 hours of plenary time grappling with this topic over the weekend. While we made steady progress laying out the background and identifying the values and factors that a good solution needed to balance, we really didn't turn the energetic corner on this topic (and get into that softer, more cretaive space where creative soltuions best germinate) until we were able to flush out a fuller statement of the tensions among Finance Committee members. The bad news was that this didn't occur until the 9th hour of the conversation. The good news is that it occurred at all, and proposals are no longer being held hostage to the unresoled interpersonal dynamics.

So this was a pretty good example of how I'm expected to get a handle on things, to help the group get unstuck. It's all in a weekend's work.
• • •
Imagine my amusement when I discovered what home improvement project headed the list that Ceilee and Tosca had generated for my visit: to install handles on all the cabinet doors and drawers in their new house (there are about 50). I guess getting a handle on things is what I do during weekdays, too.