conflict resolution 101

i have been thinking a lot about conflict resolution in small and intimate spaces like families, or networks, or organizations.

i don’t quite know how to do it in families 🙂 but in networks or organizations, i have some basic tools i’ve been using that i wanted to share.

post-righteous disclaimer: as with all tools i share, i learned as much from completely f&*%ing it up as i did from moments of doing it well.

in most organizations i work with these days, it’s my first order of business – how do we make decisions, and how do we handle conflict?

i’ve seen what happens when we aren’t clear on these things, the implosions and pain and unnecessary confusion and inability to advance. now i approach these as foundational building blocks.

it’s important to know what kind of person you are. are you conflict averse, avoiding conflict at all costs? are you a conflict fiend, searching for drama in every interaction? are you one of the lucky ones who sees healthy conflict as part of living on a planet with other people?

it’s good to have some sense of yourself before you start. and its good to have a sense of how those you are working with deal with conflict. if folks don’t know, or can’t express it clearly, don’t worry – this will emerge over time.

see it as a learning process, and pay attention to what you learn.

agree to a process, early on, and use it.

here is the very basic conflict resolution process i use and suggest to others:

1) direct communication between the folks in conflict if at all possible.

this means no gossip, and no building up a case against someone. when an issue arises, address it one on one as soon as you can. don’t let it linger.

consider if a private conversation will work better than calling it out in front of a group. most people go on defense in front of others, but might be open if approached directly and privately.

my general commitment to not gossiping about people has allowed me to really track when i have a critique, vs negativity that takes away from time i could spend on improving my own [insert-the-self-critique].

2) if you cannot find peace through communicating directly, bring in a mediator or two whom both sides are open to working with.

you know you haven’t found peace if your mind or heart get stuck in a loop of resentment about someone (or something that someone keeps doing)…or working together feels like traversing a field of landmines each day.

both sides being open to the mediator is imperative for the resolution to work – if there is a sense of imbalance, let both sides identify mediators, and let the mediators plan how to reach resolution. there are wonderful folks in the world who mediate, some who do it professionally and many who don’t – think of folks who are discreet and grounding for you.

3) once a mediator has helped find resolution, determine who needs to know about it.

if the root of the conflict is interpersonal, then the resolution should be something that can simply end between the two people…unless a larger group has had to deal with the dynamics, in which case share a brief report back of agreements and changes they can expect to see from the two as they transform beyond the conflict. the transparency lets everyone know that conflict is normal part of group process, and can be resolved.

4) if a resolution can’t be reached between the two people in conflict through mediation, don’t give up.

there are a few things to consider:

– is the dynamic between these folks rooted in larger unanswered questions or a lack of alignment in the organization? name it, put them out of their misery. don’t make them carry the key tension of the organization as their own burdens.

– if the root of the conflict is related to the values, practices, or programs of the organization, then an organizational process is necessary – it may actually be a reshaping of the organization or network that’s in order.

– know the difference between issues that can be resolved with a conflict resolution and issues that need a much deeper healing process. conflict resolution can’t take the place of personal therapy, or group healing around shared trauma…its really about dealing with conflict in an ongoing way, from a position of health. trying to do a small process in place of a necessary large one will just create a more explosive dynamic in the long run.

this simple process is the best thing i’ve been able to come up with, because it requires everyone to play a part in holding it. i am really interested in hearing other processes that work.

mostly, i am really excited to have people understand that conflict is how groups grow – and having a good process will keep you evolving.