Getting Less Conflicted About Conflict

In the last week, a colleague sent me the link for a TEDx talk entitled: Conflict: Use it, Don't Defuse It. The two presenters, CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke, are professional facilitators and they do a good job of laying out their main premise: that conflict is inherently neither good nor bad, yet most people (and most groups) avoid it (or try to contain it) to their detriment.

They claim—and I agree—that conflict is a source of energy and information, and if you can learn to approach it with vulnerability and curiosity you can get amazing results. In the video they share some powerful stories about their personal and professional lives where these lessons were brought home to them.

Unfortunately, Cris & Susan don't take it quite far enough. While making a case for the benefit to be derived from stepping away from defensiveness and combativeness, they do not make clear how someone can make that choice—especially in the heat of the moment.

Over my years as a process consultant and facilitator, I've learned that the point of entrée is working with the belligerents emotionally, where you're able to bring to the surface an accurate summary of what each player is feeling and what those feelings mean. It is crucial that this be accomplished with minimal judgment and maximal empathy, so that the person feels heard and understood (note that I didn't say that they feel agreed with, which may or may not happen).

Often, as the facilitator, I will demonstrate what I'm looking for before asking the other conflicted party to take a turn, simply because this request may be too difficult until they, themselves, have been heard. While it's important that the hearing and reaching out ultimately happen across the lines of the conflict, it is often useful for the facilitator to prime the pump—after which they gracefully exit the dynamic, leaving the belligerents to proceed on their own.

The key here is whether authentic hearing and sharing are happening. If so, the facilitator can step back. If not, then the facilitator steps in.

While conflict comes in all shapes and sizes, the most interesting forms (read volatile and intractable) involve at least one party being in active non-trivial distress. As such, once you're clear that there is a significant emotional component in play, then I think it's helpful to keep the focus on the feelings until they have been adequately identified and understood. This expressly means setting aside content (the action or behavior that triggered the conflict) until that's been accomplished.

To be sure, people will tend to squirm when you do this (because arguing over content is more familiar and is deemed safer), but it can be done. If you don't, then the unresolved tension tends to distort the information and cripples the problem solving. In short, attempts at problem solving without acknowledging feelings just don't work. Somehow, a bridge needs to be built between two conflicted people (it may be more than two, but any conflict can be broken down into a collection of pairs) or you won't get any constructive traffic between them. Further, it has been my experience that that bridge needs to have emotional girders or it will be brittle and insufficiently resilient.

While it's possible for the belligerents to have done sufficient personal work to be able to understand this dynamic and to unilaterally step back from the fight and reorient with vulnerability and curiosity (as Cris & Susan advocate), don't count on it. It takes an exceptional person to pause mid-salvo, lay down their ammunition, and ask their upset counterpart for more information. I've seen it happen, but not very often.

Better, I think, is developing a group agreement (and the group's capacity) about how you'd like to proceed and then authorizing the group's facilitators to step in and guide the process, reminding people firmly, but gently how they intend to act when conflict surfaces.

I realize that I'm asking a lot. For the most part, facilitators are expected to manage the content of meetings, making sure that the group stays on topic, listens well, and moves productively toward resolution of group issues. By adding responsibilities directly related to conflict, I am significantly expanding what's expected of facilitators—I am asking them to manage energy as well as content, and to work with people emotionally as well as rationally. This is a big jump and won't land well for everyone. Even if you like my thinking about conflict, you need to seriously consider whether you have facilitators who can answer the bell (or be trained to).