MizInfo’s Top 3 Tips for Using Conflict Creatively
How can organizations and communities turn “so icky I want to puke” into “productive”? A few ideas during National Mediation Month.
Not many of us are transparent, brave or politically-naive enough to answer the question, “How’s it going?” with MizInformation’s recent response:
“Actually, my organization is going through a boatload of change. It’s wrenching. Half our board/clients/staff/volunteers and/or funders are fleeing while the other half pretends not to notice. Thanks for asking, because I feel like it’s all my fault, but more likely it’s due to fundamental structural problems exacerbated by external events. And you?”
We all face a new environment. From neighborhood associations to national movements, business, government and nonprofits: We’re all wondering how to adapt to sometimes-painful change. It can feel personal. Other times we feel buffeted by trends we can’t control. How do we help our organizations and communities through tough situations?
This matters to me. It hits close to home. Here in Bellingham, I’m helping my organization through a radical restructuring that is both helped and hindered by funding sources, personalities and power. At the same time, in a different area of my life, I’m facilitating a complicated conversation in San Francisco between an international social justice organization’s Executive Director and 20 volunteer leaders from all over the Western US. In a nutshell: During dramatic organizational change, significant folks felt left behind.
This is some of the most important stuff community builders do: Creatively and productively help groups work through conflict. I’m no expert, so I’ve come to rely upon a couple of ideas from people who are smarter and more interesting than me. Here’s their 3 Tips for Using Conflict Creatively:
1: Learn how conflict works. I got this tip from Rachel Who-Rocks-My-World Myers, over at the Whatcom Literacy Council. As a low-cost, high-impact staff development project, they read Crucial Conversations and discussed it weekly. Like a book group, but at work. I offered the same opportunity to my board and staff, giving them each a book for a New Year’s gift this year. It opened the door to some amazing discussions — and better yet, shared vocabulary — about how to recognize when conversations turn tense, and practical tools for talking when the stakes are high. Many of the tools are drawn from “interest-based” or “principle-based negotiation,” ideas-turned-tools in the equally indispensable Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In and The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. Mediator and facilitator extraordinaire Mary Dumas first turned me onto these resources, and I go back to them again and again. Check out her “Engaged Citizens” book group for other great reads.
2. Practice working with conflict. OK, so maybe it’s just be me. I like to read about something before doing. Seriously, I had to read all about how to snowboard before ever hitting the slopes. But then, at some point I need some experience, actual face-plants in the snow to learn from my mistakes. That’s where kick-ass groups like the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center come in. Centers all over the country offer affordable workshops on conflict resolution, and the WDRC’s Professional Mediation training is probably the best professional development training I’ve experienced. Practicing interest-based negotiation tools in a safe (but challenging) space takes the book-learnin’ into the real and messy world.
3. Ask for help. Reading and practicing can help sharpen our skills, but even the best of us benefit from outside expertise when our organizations and communities are struggling with tough issues. It’s often hardest for those who help others through conflict to realize when we need help ourselves. I’m so glad I’ve turned to our local Dispute Resolution Center over the years. They listen, and then match us with the facilitator or mediator who can best help us collaboratively create solutions that meet the most needs. They don’t provide answers, but rather they provide structure and questions for participants to come up with their own answers. Find your local Dispute Resolution Center, and trained independent contractors, through state associations, or a search on “mediation” in your locale. Don’t wait until a conflict blows up before calling these pros. Although called “dispute resolution centers” and “mediators,” they really shine at planning advice, helping to craft agendas, questions and processes that anticipate and use conflict creatively. They coach on how to not simply avoid conflict, but rather how to work with it to help tough issues move forward in collaborative, participatory ways.
So that’s MizInformation’s approach, always learning, practicing and asking for help when I really need it. What are your Top 3 Tips for using conflict creatively?