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Let’s stop managing conflicts

A 4 step process to invite positive confrontation in the workplace and life.

“We, Portuguese people, tend to avoid confrontation so we end up having a lot of conflicts”. 

This sentence stroke me some years ago when I was participating in a training on “soft skills” in Lisbon and thinking about the importance of having a conflict resolution process in my own company in order to improve effectiveness and contribute to a culture of trust and collaboration. Besides the generalization about Portuguese people, this sentence really resonated with me, for so many times I’ve seen myself and many other avoiding a difficult conversation or not dealing with a problem or tension in a certain moment in time only to be found in the center of a conflict, weeks, months or even years later.

I was one of the co-founders and COO of a gourmet IT company that had grown from 5 to almost 30 people, we were trying to scale without loosing agility and I envisioned an organisation where people could autonomously solve their own tensions without having to resort to a manager or “boss”.

By the time it was becoming clear for me that what I was really looking for was a process to invite confrontation and not to a process to manage conflicts.

I had just read Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations book and was engaged in the Discourse online platform where I came across a post by Monia Ben Larbi describing the “simple” process she used at her company.

A challenging “simple” 4 step process

“The rule is that if you are irritated, you"

1) listen to yourself and become clear within you
2) if not resolved, talk to the other person
3) if not resolved, ask someone to mediate
4) if not resolved, ask someone to decide”

And although so simply described, this 4 step gem uncovers some of the most challenging questions we face when interacting and collaborating. Just try it!

There are many positive impacts on co-creating, agreeing and putting in place similar agreements and processes like this in teams and organizations, as they cultivate an internal locus of control and a culture of trust.

In fact, the process is driven by the person who owns the “problem”, focus on what s/he can control and makes an invites for self-reflection in the first place.

Becoming clear before talking to the other person is useful to avoid an unconscious response when we’re triggered by something. In my own experience it is also really useful to write it down and use an objective, rather than evaluative, form.

Talking to the other person in the second step fosters a culture of trust: you know no one’s talking behind your back, at least before talking with you first! This helps turning criticism into growth, for both the person who felt the tension and the person to whom s/he spoke with.

The last parts of the process – asking someone to mediate or decide – also helps people learn to seek support, ask for help and become more empathetic with peers. On the final step you may be surprised and find out that it’s not clear who or whom should take a decision. This will create a great opportunity to clarify roles and responsibilities and even to rethink and improve the decision making process.

Coming back to my former company and my experience with this process, I cannot express how impressed and deeply touched I was when the conflict affected the co-founders (me included) and I saw our own employees mediating us until we found an agreement…

There are many tools and practices that can be useful to become more effective at each of the steps. Below I share some of the ones I’ve tried and found immensely useful: Focusing, Nonviolent Communication (NVC), The Loop of Understanding and Sociocracy 3.0 (S3).

And you, what practices and tools do you know and consider useful in this context? Please comment and share.

Focusing — Listen to yourself and become clear within you

What is really at stake here? What is triggering this tension? What is happening and needed?

Focusing is a psychotherapeutic process developed by psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. It can be used in any kind of therapeutic situation, including peer-to-peer sessions or applying it alone with oneself, without the need of a psychotherapist.

Focusing can, among other things:
– Be used to become clear on what one feels or wants
– To obtain new insights about one’s situation
– And to stimulate change or healing of the situation.

I can say that focusing has really changed my life. It is an impressive transformation tool. The awareness it brings, and the way it facilitates the connection with my deepest needs, has helped me to face and take the most challenging decisions in my life.

Links and Bibliography:

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) — Talk to the other person

Nonviolent Communication (abbreviated NVC) is a communication process developed by Marshall Rosenberg. It focuses on three aspects of communication:

  • Self-empathy (defined as a deep and compassionate awareness of one’s own inner experience)
  • Empathy (defined as listening to another with deep compassion)
  • And honest self-expression (defined as expressing oneself authentically in a way that is likely to inspire compassion in others).

When I was at my first NVC training, my first thought was “I wish I knew this before! How can this not be part of the official curriculum in high schools and universities?”. I learned so much on that first training, including becoming aware and naming dozens of emotions and needs. My previous vocabulary on emotions was made of two words: “OK” and “stressed”.

Following this initial excitement there was a period of disappointment, as in the beginning it feels somehow “artificial” and from time to time, close friends and family found my new way of communicating awkward.

With practice it just becomes more and more natural and effective, in the sense that you massively increase the probability of being heard and have your needs met when talking to another person.

Links and Bibliography:

The Loop of Understanding — Ask Someone to mediate

Looping is a technique that helps focus the dialogue and develop understanding throughout the mediation, developed by Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein.

There are four steps to the mediator’s loop:

1. Understand each party
2. Express that understanding
3. Seek confirmation from the parties that they feel understood by the mediator
4. Receive that confirmation.

This last step is crucial.

Originally created in the context of legal conflict, the Loop of Understanding is really powerful and useful in any context where conflict can arise.

I’ve experienced the process either as a mediator or as one of the conflicting parties, and can assure that it is impressively effective. Of course it’s not a magic wand and will not work if one of the parties is lying or has an hidden agenda that s/he will not disclose.

Links and Bibliography:

Sociocracy 3.0 (S3) — Decide and much more…

Sociocracy 3.0 (or S3) is a practical guide for evolving agile and resilient organizations at any scale created by James Priest and Bernhard Bockelbrink in 2014.

It offers an extensive collection of general guidelines and practices (more than 70 patterns) that have proven to be useful for improving organizational performance, alignment, and well-being. It’s freely available under a Creative Commons licence.

S3 is not something specific to communication or conflict management. In fact, S3 patterns can support many dimensions in an organization and contribute to personal, group and organizational development.

They cover many different areas such as work coordination, establishing and evolving agreements, effective meetings, making decisions, defining and selecting people for roles, co-creating proposals, structuring the organization and the flow of information and influence, adapting the patterns to the organization’s context, etc.

In the context of the subject of this article, and based in my own experience and observation I can assert that practicing S3 patterns contributes to a mindset that is people positive, complexity aware and promotes self-awareness and positive and respectful confrontation. Just try it.

Links and Bibliography:

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