I listened to a recent podcast where Marc Maron interviewed Brené Brown. I liked the way she described the need to “create space where people can take the armor off…where people can be seen…even if they have to put it back on when they go back out in the world”.
If we are to change the cycle of unaddressed conflict in groups, we need to create space where we demonstrate removing our armor and invite our group members to follow suit.
1. Observe Thyself
To create safe space, we need to be aware of what’s going on in the group. And, as Corey and Corey point out in Groups: Process and Practice, this means paying close attention to what’s going on with us. We are the radar in the room.
I often experience disappointment or frustration when I encounter group resistance. When I notice that I’m frustrated, I’ve learned to stop and check-in with the group to learn something about what’s going on with them. It may be something we need to explore together.
Listen to the voice in your head. Once I felt irritated with an argument two group members were having during a support group and I thought to myself “you’ve got to be kidding me”. I immediately judged my inner voice as non-professional and attempted to dismiss it. But it lingered and so I sought consultation regarding the situation. I learned that my gut reaction had signaled me to speak up and redirect group behavior.
You might wonder, do we share our reactions with our groups? I believe that each instance requires discernment. I have shared my concern with a group’s progress and asked what others were thinking and feeling. This led to a conversation that clarified the group’s goals. I have shared my confusion over technical discussions which led to explanations that improved understanding for the whole group. In the instance of the argument noted above, I did not share my reaction but prepared myself to be more directive the next time unhelpful group behavior arose.
Intense reactions call for a cooling off period. Once I felt intense frustration as a member of a workgroup and passionately shared it during a meeting, nearly pleading with the group to change behavior. A variety of reactions from apathy to hostility rebounded. Instead of feeling better, I felt more isolated afterward. Now I sit awhile with intense thoughts and feelings. This allows space for some perspective to develop and improves my ability to decide when and when not to share my reactions.
Paying close attention to our reactions involves us with the group in the present moment. Doing so helps us remove a piece of our armor, maybe the piece that hides our reactions from ourselves and blocks our insight into the group’s process.
2. Facilitate Expression of the Unexpressed
The conflict cycle harbors unexpressed opinions, assumptions, expectations, and experiences. Hidden behind the armor, they retain their power to keep the group in the quagmire. We need to invite group members to express these things. To each other. To themselves. However, it can be risky business if we also invite judgment. We lay aside judgment as we remove the armor. We refrain from judging others. We refrain from judging ourselves. We acknowledge that judging seems hardwired in our brains and do not judge ourselves as bad when we catch ourselves doing it. Sometimes it’s enough just to say, “that’s a judgment”.
Take small steps to practice and build a new norm of genuine expression. I like to lead conversations around each member’s interests. What’s important to them? What expectation do they have as a member of the group? In group situations where tensions have built to a crescendo, I have led conversations about the stakes. What’s at stake for each member? What’s at stake for the group? Common ground typically emerges after individuals have had a chance to be heard and to hear others.
Invite differences to be expressed. I might say something like “is there a different perspective?” or “does someone have a different experience of this?” Allow differences, even opposing opinions, to stand side by side. Working through group conflict involves building understanding, not building a case for or against.
Ask group members to speak for themselves and to refrain from speaking on behalf of, or only about, others. Each member must remove their own armor. As the facilitator, you must be willing to remove yours. You set the safety standard, especially if you hold positional power in the group.
Relax, know it’s OK to make mistakes. We get so fearful of dealing with conflict that we help perpetuate it. Just after graduate school, I attended a law and ethics class for MFT interns. The instructor’s message throughout the class was to relax and use critical thinking to understand the basis for our decisions. To know the why of our chosen actions. He recognized that our graduate programs had instilled in us fear of losing our licenses, which many of us hadn’t even acquired yet, and that fear clogs cerebral cortex bandwidth.
In The Tao of Leadership, Heider states,
When you cannot see what is happening in a group, do not stare harder. Relax and look gently with your inner eye…When you are puzzled by what you see or hear, do not strive to figure things out. Stand back for a moment and become calm. When a person is calm, complex events appear simple.
When I facilitate and notice that I’m tense or worse, hyperventilating, I take a deep breath or two and remind myself to stop striving and relax. This shifts my focus from thoughts about how ill-equipped I am to what I’m sensing in the room. Momentary sensing provides more useful information than hours of intellectual analysis because I’m present with the group, receiving real-time data, and not in my head searching for answers based on past experience.
4. Redirect or Stall End-runs
When a group member comes to you and asks you to solve a problem, take pause. Before responding to their wishes, ask yourself, is this a group issue?
In the conflict cycle, group members experience legitimate frustration. They seek to problem solve outside the group. Sometimes they will come to you, especially if you have just joined the group as a new facilitator. They want someone to provide pain relief. If you respond to their request privately and try to solve the problem for them outside the group, the cycle continues. Indirect communication is one characteristic of unaddressed group conflict.
When a group member approaches me with a request and I believe the request is a group issue, I ask the member if they are willing to bring this up in the group. If they say yes, we talk briefly about how and when they might do that. A plan usually helps to reduce nervousness related to broaching a sensitive subject.
If the group member declines to bring up the issue in the group setting, I might ask, “can you say something about what prevents you from doing so?” Sometimes this helps them work through the block. If not, I might consider raising the subject myself (breaking my own rule about not speaking on behalf of others). I will usually only do so if they agree to be identified as the requestor. If they want to remain anonymous, we explore other options. Protecting anonymity while raising an issue with the group might warrant a conversation about the absence of group safety. I might suggest conversation questions that everyone in the group could answer, as a way for the issue to emerge more naturally in the group setting.
5. Don’t Stay Long with Unsuccessful Attempts
When attempts to constructively work through conflict fail, it’s OK to redirect the group toward the tasks at hand. I might say, “we need to complete certain things here, so let’s move on.” Or, I might turn to the group and ask, “what can we do about this, how can we move forward together?”
The group may not be ready yet to undertake the effort to leave the quagmire. That’s OK. You can only take a group as far as you’re willing to follow them.
All these steps interrelate to help a group remove armor and work through conflict. Venture to address it in the face of fear. Be brave. Because, as Ross et al. write in 7 Core Concepts About Learning in Organizations,
At its essence every organization is a product of how its members think and interact. Thus, the primary leverage for any organizational learning effort lies not in policies, budgets, or organizational charts, but in ourselves.