In a recent First Nature Foundation playshop called “Conflict as a Path to Collaboration”, one of the participants, we’ll call her Zoe, surfaced an issue she was struggling with: someone in her life was not respecting what she felt to be a simple request of hers, one of very few requests she had made, despite having had repeated conversations about the issue.
To Zoe, it was a constant frustration and made her feel like she her request was being ignored, and that she was being disrespected. She was angry about it. She knew that the particular request, in the bigger scheme of things, was not going to have a critical impact on the welfare, effectiveness, or success of the team, yet it felt like it really mattered. It was important not to discount the anger she felt, as that anger pointed to a strong concern for her: if this small request couldn’t be granted, what did it mean for the future in terms of setting boundaries and expectations? Would other concerns of hers be similarly invalidated and ignored?
Zoe was willing to have the group in the playshop explore this situation together more fully, so that we could understand how to take a conflict situation and play with it toward the goal of a more expansive perspective on what we were experiencing as conflict. We first delved into surfacing the polarities being expressed in the situation, meaning the desire behind the request and its opposite. In this case the polarity was acquiescing to the request versus not doing so. We used this polarity to dig into the motivations for each, as well as the costs of each polarity. This exploration allowed for some eye-opening revelations for the group.
This larger data set began to cause a subtle shift in our conflict stories. An even bigger shift occurred as we then explored our individual conflicts further through pairing up, to both tell our own story of the conflict and then switch roles, to tell the story of the person on the other side of the conflict, their motivations, feelings, and concerns. Everyone came away from this deepened exploration with a new set of understandings in their story of the conflict. For Zoe, the story of being disrespected was beginning to fade, to be replaced with not only a sense of the validity of the concerns on other side of the conflict, but with a growing understanding that this was not the only realm in which respect was being expressed. This allowed Zoe to unhook herself from being so attached to her desired outcome that she could now find other ways to address both the particular situation, and the concerns about being respected in the overall relationship.
We often want to avoid conflict or defuse it as quickly as possible, without exploring it. Unfortunately, that leaves the feelings simmering and the situation unresolved, and causes an exhausting friction for everyone. This unresolved conflict then poisons interactions and compromises the success of outcomes. Using conflict as a path toward collaboration is rich with potential for not only collaboration but also innovation, because when done well it rebuild trust and relationships.