Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Where do you stand in a conflict?

Flicking television stations last night, I caught a snippet of The Simpsons.  The Pastor and his wife were going through a rocky patch.  The Pastor asked his wife why they were always arguing lately.  She replied by saying they weren't arguing - arguing would mean they were speaking to each other.

I often find that one of The Simpsons (usually Lisa) has something to say which supports my work in various organisations.  Recently I was working with a group of leaders in one of Australia's oldest companies.  We were talking about the role of conversation in relationships with their teams and what happens when the conversation is a tough one.

The preparedness to have a difficult conversation implies an investment in the relationship.  If something at the heart of a relationship is wrong, unwillingness or avoidance to talk about it, suggests that the relationship is disposable. The Pastor's wife was almost saying that arguing would be healthier than the absence of talking at all.

One of the things I love most about my work is that I meet so many people every week.  Even though I am leading the learning, I always learn something from them.  Recently, I picked up the idea of "leaning into the conflict".  The person who told me about this said that usually when conflict arises, or there is a hard conversation to had, many people withdraw and won't engage because they don't like conflict.  As a result the conflict often goes on for longer than everyone would like.  He said he liked the idea of "leaning" into conflict because it was a gentle movement, rather than a startling, confrontational one.  How thoughtful!

On reflection, I discover some further ideas that flow from this idea: leaning also requires balance and consciousness about placement of one's body.  Leaning suggests to me a level of flexibility and the ability to shift position.  I love this idea as it provides a physical and visual queue or anchor - useful to hang onto when the adrenalin kicks in when we're in the middle of conflict.

I also have an opposite image for when I'm sitting in the role of mediator in conflict.  As someone who loves to problem solve and negotiate, I have to work consciously to let go of attachment to control of the conversation that occurs in a mediation.  One of the experienced mediators I learnt a lot from suggested I "feel the back of my chair" in those moments when I was tempted to intervene (or perhaps lean into the conflict!).  I now apply this idea when I'm facilitating a group. "Feeling the back of the chair" means leaning out, rather than in, removing oneself from the centre but still being present.

How to reconcile these two ideas? When I am a leader and have responsibility for people, or am in a relationship (any kind of relationship) where something isn't right, I need to decide whether the relationship and the people matter.  If they do, then leaning into the conflict is a helpful queue.  When I'm an outsider and working in the service of other people ( as a facilitator or mediator), then knowing when to feel the back of the chair can create ownership of the problem for the people who are having the problem.

Both of these stances are non-threatening and if done mindfully and genuinely in alignment with thoughts and feelings can have a powerful effect.

When it comes to conflict, where do you stand?


  1. If the battle is my own (meaning I'm not minding someone else's business) I believe its very important to deal with a situation as it happens. The bad effects of an issue festering usually make it worse if left too long.

  2. I agree. The way we deal with it is often the hardest part.
    Although, if everyone did that, I would lose a lot of clients!