Fourth of a series on five conflict styles, this post showcases the Harmonizing conflict style. With a focus on the relationship, setting aside your own wishes, Harmonizing is not always a good option. But in well-chosen situations, Harmonizing is a great gift to those you live and work with, and potentially you as well. I'll show you a handful of transition phrases to help you shift gracefully into this conflict response.
Harmonizing brings grace, kindness and flexibility into relationships. Longterm partnerships need generous amounts of this other-oriented conflict style to thrive. Without it, endless disputation will wear you out and leave little room for joy.
If you scored high in Harmonizing while taking Style Matters, you already know this stuff. If not, it's never too late to learn!
These are scary times, and it's not just COVID19. Polarization is rooted now in ways not experienced in living memory. Groups live in separate worlds, with their own news, networks, rhetoric, and influencers. Violence, threats of violence, and disregard for democratic processes are commonplace. It is not exaggerating to say that the rule of law and democracy seem to be in danger.
What can we do about it? The causes are many; there will be no single solution. High on the list of essential responses, I believe, must be strategies to improve skills in resolving conflicts and building consensus. But how?
Author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri points out that public institutions today are an inheritance of the 20th century, "the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. They are too ponderous and too distant from ordinary people. Legitimacy depended on control over information: failure and scandal could be dealt with discreetly. Once the digital tsunami swept away the possibility of control, the system lapsed into crisis." (see his dialogue with Yuval Levin here)
Like it or not, there's no going back to the old ways of leading and managing. We must expand the skill set of leaders at all levels.
Does your behavior in conflict change sharply when you get upset? Do you turn suddenly aggressive when surprised or angered? Or, when conflict heats up, does your assertiveness quickly fade, replaced by avoidance or accommodation?
Such patterns may reflect a strong Storm Shift in conflict, a marked change in behavior as stress rises. Stress, anger, or fear trigger a shift in brain functioning, away from rational "upper brain" management, towards control by the instinct-guided "lower brain". This can bring drastic changes in response to conflict.
A Storm Shift is not necessarily bad; it can in fact be good if your automatic responses are skillful and appropriate for the situation triggering them. You want the surgeon who operates on you to react instantly, for example, if your blood pressure drops. You want a quick shift to a different modality, an instant command of the situation, with clear orders to the medical team. No negotiating, no pussyfooting around!
But a big Storm Shift handicaps effective leadership and conflict management if:
Leadership. The first step is clear direction and leadership from leaders. We have to establish a new norm here, and quickly, friends! It must start with those in charge - at whatever social level they exist in - fully embracing the need for masking and sending unambiguous signals in support of it. No hemming and hawing, no “maybe this, maybe that”.
Wearing a mask is inconvenient and uncomfortable. It’s not easy in the best of circumstances to move a population to do this. There's no chance of success if leaders don't lead here, from president on down to the smallest local unit.
It’s counterproductive to view every case of an unmasked person walking through the door as the ultimate battle. Our goal should be to achieve very high levels of masking in a very short period of time, not to compel every dissident to instantly comply in the process of establishing a new norm.
A big angry confrontation with an unmasked person is a bigger threat to health and life of everyone in the environment than allowing a stubborn non-conformist to walk around quietly unmasked. Hyperventilation, shouting, close contact or shoving are inescapably dangerous for all. Screeners need to be trained to act in light of that fact. The goal should be persistently communicating a clear expectation, not acting like police empowered to coerce.
I’ve trained police in conflict resolution skills on four continents. My first love is communities but the years of training brought me to care deeply about police officers as well.
This week's newspapers carry the story of a man shot and killed by police in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Mentally ill, he threatened family members, who called 911 for help. When police arrived, the man ran out the door with a 12 inch knife towards an officer who shot and killed him .
This story takes me back to my own years in Lancaster. In 1989, just a few blocks from yesterday’s death, I too faced an angry man, my neighbor, threatening his wife and anyone trying to help with a knife.
* * * * * *
“Put the knife down, John!” I stood at a careful distance of 15 feet, calling forth the most convincing combination of firmness and kindness in my voice that I could muster.
The problem we saw in tonight's presidential debate is familiar to any mediator: How do you keep angry people from interrupting each other? Chris Wallace demonstrated clearly tonight that good journalists are not necessary good facilitators!
There's actually a fairly simple solution. You have to establish a ground rule at the beginning - no interruptions. And you have to enforce it, not after four, five, or six interruptions, but the very first time it happens.
You need to stop the proceedings cold, right there, turn physically towards the interrupter and speak directly and firmly: "Mr. Trump, our ground rule is no interruptions, and we won't be able to proceed if people don't stick to it. I need your commitment to support the process. Can you give it?" And then you need to wait silently for the interrupter to give it. In 35 years of mediation and facilitation, I've never had a client refuse to do so.
I've trained thousands of mediators and seen that the tendency for most mediators, like Chris Wallace tonight, is the opposite. They ignore interruptions at first, hoping they will go away. But they don't. One interruption will always be followed by more.
Parties size up very quickly whether they can get away with ignoring rules or not. If you give them several experiences of squeezing in their interruptions unrebuked, they see that the rule isn't really serious, and the problem gets worse and worse.
What can a facilitator do with an extremely persistent person, who refuses to stop interrupting others in mediating or facilitating? In my last post I stressed the importance of stepping up early in proceedings to establish that groundrules must be kept. Jump on any first violations and then relax a bit later, not the other way around.
Several readers pointed out that in the situation I was referring to, the interrupter would probably not have been restrained by such facilitator efforts. Very possible. So we have to ask, what then?Of course, it is always an option to simply close a fraught session. I am more effective as a facilitator when I am prepared to bring closure gracefully at any time. I will mention closure as a possibility to parties if necessary, for the threat of it often changes their behavior. But I need to mean it and be prepared to smoothly execute it in order for the specter of closure to have real impact on parties.But closure is closure. It is not a tool for changing the dynamics of the meeting we are in. As a facilitator, I am prepared for closure but I want to maximize all possibilities for transforming this into a rule-governed exchange.
There is a powerful tool that facilitators can deploy to great benefit: strategic use of silence. Veteran teachers knew this long ago; the rest of us have to work on it!One use of silence is simply to interject it in exchanges with disputants: "Mr. Interrupter, (silence for 2-3 full seconds, with steady but non-aggressive gaze directed his way), I need to ask you to observe the ground rule that has been established for this debate, not to speak when it is not your turn." And then proceed with the debate.I would try that, but I am not so hopeful that it would have had a great impact here. In this situation I think I would then have followed up by using silence in the following way: "Mr. Interrupter, the terms of this debate include a ground rule not to interrupt when the other person is speaking. It's my duty to you and to those observing to ensure that ground rules are followed. You seem to be having a great deal of difficulty with this. I need to ask you now to recommit to it so that we can continue, and if you cannot, I will be compelled to call a pause in this conversation. Please, take a few seconds in silence and think about this. And then I'd like to hear your reply. "
I would then immediately busy myself with things on my desk for a few seconds - before turning back to the offender with, "Sir, are you ready to proceed with the ground rules as agreed?" I would not allow the offender to ignore the question. If he refuses to give clear assent, I would call a short break to give everyone a chance to calm down. In the break I would try to interact briefly with both sides, and make a decision about whether and how to proceed based on my reading of those conversations.
There's no guarantee this will work, of course, and if an offender refuses to observe ground rules, the facilitator has a duty to end the session. But when we do that, we want to do it in a way that: 1) Conspicuously provides maximum opportunity for the offender to first accept compliance with ground rules and 2) If the meeting must be ended, leaves no ambiguity that it was failure of the participant to observe ground rules that brought the meeting to a close.
You know me as a peace process guy, a conflict resolution trainer, an author of peace training materials. You don’t know this: I love guns.
As far back as I can remember, guns stood in the corner of the pumphouse on the family farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Carrying a 12 gauge shotgun down rows of corn on a chill Saturday morning in October, with our terrier on the prowl and all my teenage senses tuned to the hunt, thrilled me. With the deadly power in my hands I could bring home a pheasant or rabbit if I was quick enough. I felt grownup, part of the world of men.
So in 1993, in a remote training camp in the high veld above Pretoria, on the third day of a course in conflict resolution for police in the new South Africa, when smiling officers came during morning break and asked if I’d like to go out on the firing range, I instantly said yes.
I wasn’t sure what they had in mind. But soon as I jumped into their van after lunch, I knew. A pile of weapons and ammunition sprawled across seats and floor. Three burly police trainers grinned at me knowingly. We were boys in a toy store and my heart was pounding.
We started with rubber bullets, in two varieties. One was a heavy chunk of rubber an inch and a half in diameter and over 3 inches long. I had seen these fired at protesters and witnessed a colleague take a direct hit a year ago as a peace monitor working a chaotic line between police and protesters. She limped into the office the next day with an angry welt on her thigh the size of a saucer. Centered in dark purple was a perfectly round, pure white circle larger than a quarter, exactly the size of the rubber bullets I was now firing.
The Cooperating Style of conflict management is about actively seeking ways for both sides to win everything they want. I assert myself clearly and confidently. You do the same. We work together to find solutions that allow us to both get what we want. I win and so do you - how wonderful!
Or maybe, how ridiculous. A magical conflict style that makes everyone happy? Ha, haa, haaa. We could be forgiven for starting a review of Cooperating with a big laugh. Real life isn't that easy and we all have stories to prove it.
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The passing this week of Archbishop Desmond Tutu brings a flood of memories of an amazing man and a remarkable chapter in history. I was in South Africa from 1989 to 1995 and witnessed him in action on many occasions.
For anyone committed to leading peaceful change in organizations, communities, or nations, there's much to learn from Tutu's life about how to be effective in human transformation.