Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Healthy Side of Conflict

I REMEMBER WELL A MEETING WHERE A COUPLE of board members engaged in a passionate exchange that left some of us around the table lamely floating compromises and the rest of us merely spectating. While it was a tough discussion (and tough to sit through), it remained "gloves-on" and civil. It was just tough, but in the long run, I think necessary.

A few months later, this same board convened by phone, and with some new members on board. The topic that had caused the previously heated discussion, was now dealt with calmly and strategically. The meeting concluded with a plan of action to move us forward.

A group dynamics expert would be able to pick apart what worked and why in a hot minute. Here's my non-expert take:

At the first meeting, the topic hadn't been discussed previously as thoroughly
by that particular group of board members. The focus of the discussion was on recapping past actions and evaluating whether the "right" decisions were made. There were some board members new to the conversation and they had lots of questions, which put veterans of the issue on the defensive. Lesson: new voices in an old conversation will have a lot of questions about what's gone on before. New voices also bring new perspectives to past actions. As a group, how far do you backtrack through decision-making and to what end?

The second meeting had new voices, too, but the focus of the discussion this time around was moving forward, not looking back. The discussion required problem-solving skills, not butt-covering ones (personally, I see these two skills as completely different, don't you?). The new voices came with new approaches that happened to help move the discussion forward really well. Did being on the phone instead of face-to-face help or hinder? Most people will agree that face-to-face is usually better, but in this instance it didn't seem to matter much.
Lesson: even though there was some summarizing of the issue for the new folks, the emphasis this time was on moving forward and the board members were ready for it. Framing difficult issues prior to discussion is really important.

I think the second conversation also worked better for the folks who'd been at both meetings precisely because a difficult, air-clearing conversation had already been had.

Last night I watched the first installment of PBS's new documentary,
This Emotional Life. One of the group dynamics experts noted that conflict is inevitable when groups of people come together, whether it's a group of friends or a board of directors. If the group tries to sweep conflict under the rug -- ignore it or smooth it over -- the chances are very good that it will reappear more intensively at a later time, so best to deal with conflict right away when it's small and manageable.

Addressing conflict in a healthy way is one way groups grow. It can deepen relationships and commitment, also.

I don't know if my board example did much right in handling this particular conflict -- it was really the first time this board had experienced conflict in a very long time. But, I think the group regrouped in a positive way that gives me a sense of confidence for their future discussions.

Stay tuned.

Photo:
Struggle (Chess I) from Shyald

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