Interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution
Dealing with interpersonal relationships is a complex subject that is often given inadequate attention by communities. Each individual in a group has a particular and unique personality style that has been shaped by the lifetime of their experience. There are driver types and quiet folk, expressives, analyticals, reserved, shy, reactive and many others. After you have been working together for awhile, an attentive person with training will recognize members personalities and styles and then use that understanding to predict how the group will react to different situations. As the group gets into conflicts, the elements of group dynamics and personality style need to be taken into account by the facilitators of the group.
Getting to know yourself
It is important to make, even at a surface level, some determination about yourself and how you are likely to affect the group dynamic. Ask yourself : Do I talk a lot, or very little? Am I confident about myself and my ideas? Do I listen to others well, or am I impatient having to listen to others? Am I empathetic to others or do I care mostly about getting the task done? When others speak, am I listening to what they say, or thinking about what I am going to say? Am I quick to anger? Am I defensive or accepting when someone talks about my behavior? Do I ramble or am I a bulleted list sort of person? What makes me annoyed? What makes me feel good?
As you define yourself as a member of the group you will find your strengths and areas that need improving. A good exercise in community building is to share how you perceive yourself. There are a number of personality style tests that are available and offer huge value to group understanding.
Getting to know each other
Getting to know one another is not a fast process, and the more the group changes and the larger it gets the longer it takes. It is hard to trust strangers and community demands a great deal of trust. Many groups neglect this, assuming that the "business" is more important than their relationships. It can be easy to incorporate social activities as part of business meetings, but the group should also hold purely social gatherings, where the point is to have fun. Share stories of where you grew up, important turning points in your life, people who you admire. Another way is to write up biographies of each other, one member interviewing another and then keeping these in a notebook for future members to read and add to. Go out for a weekend retreat and spend time talking and learning about one another.
Working with personality style conflicts
One of the most common sources of conflict and angst in all types of intentional communities is the friction between the "doers and the talkers". This dichotomy between task and process is very common and is often a source of conflict and frustration in community.
A healthy community has a balance between task and process. Think of task and process like the wings of a bird. If one wing is shorter than the other, the bird flies around in circles. If there is mostly task and little process, the friction’s between people will erupt into communication problems and the resulting conflicts keep tasks from moving forward. Conversely, too much process, and everybody spends much of their time in feelings meetings and the tasks that need doing languish. However, when task and process are balanced, both wings are working at maximum efficiency to carry the community in the direction it wants to go. You need process to determine the direction to go and how to work together, you need task orientation to accomplish all the jobs needed.
Often the conflicts that arise from process and task chafing come from personality styles. There are a number of tests, such as Meyers-Briggs that measure how a person reacts to events and people. The sum total of these reactions are called your personality style. Personality style characterizes how you approach group work and can and usually does effect your attitudes about other people you work with.
The task oriented vs. the process oriented person
A task oriented person is a person who gets great pleasure in getting results. They create prioritized, bulleted to do lists and then check off items accomplished. They are often fact and results driven, and want the bottom line clearly defined. They often want details organized, and they tend to know exactly where things are. So conversely, they are uncomfortable with ambiguity and get annoyed by discussions that are not related to tasks at hand. They have little patience for digressions. In extreme cases, if you ask them how they feel about an issue, they will minimize it, and be annoyed by the fact that you asked them for their feelings not the facts.
A process oriented person is one who gets pleasure from working with people. They want to make people feel good about what is happening, and they see the world in terms of relationships. They tend to not be interested so much in facts as the consequences of the facts and may also be disorganized, easily loosing place of the current discussion thread. They may care more about getting out peoples feelings than worrying about details or results. They tend to be very comfortable with ambiguity and tend to get annoyed by bulleted prioritized task lists and serial sequencing. If you ask them for the facts, they tend to want to move into relationships and concepts instead and may become annoyed that you asked them for the facts rather than their feelings.
Now, both the descriptions above are huge oversimplifications of the enormously complex arena of personality types, but it illustrates the differences and sets up the idea that both styles look at group endeavors with very different perspectives. Both perspectives are equally valid. Let me repeat that: Both perspectives are equally valid.
The key element to understand is that neither the task nor process orientated person is right, they simply are differences in orientation to working in the group. Both styles (and all the others that exist) need to be recognized, celebrated and then worked with as the group dynamic unfolds. Ideally your group has a good mixture of styles, and although this can seem chaotic, it is actually a very good thing, much better than if you were all one style or another. Both task and process styles really do benefit the group as long as you learn what the other needs.
So let’s look at a couple sample conflicts involving the two styles and how they can end up. The meeting agenda for xyz cohousing has several issues on it and the first issue is about a process issue. The discussion goes on and on about how people feel about a particular issue and Task Oriented Mary is getting more and more frustrated. Finally she blows up at the facilitator for wasting so much of the meeting time on this one discussion about feelings. She stomps out of the room in a huff.
Another day, another group meeting. This time the agenda item is full of numbers and lists and complex papers about some development aspect. The meeting goes on and the task oriented people are making to do lists and trivializing or putting down peoples issues because "We need to get things done". Process Oriented Mary is detached and uninvolved. Although she has opinions, she is feeling alienated by the whole depersonalization of the issues. At the break she leaves. Nobody notices at first, and then they shrug it off maybe with relief, that they can "get things done now".
One of the best ways for style angst to be worked out in a meeting is for the individuals to be allowed to state what they are feeling and what they want. For example, in the problem with Task-Oriented Mary, she could have asked the group for help by saying something like: "As a task oriented person, the 35 minutes of discussion here with no real summary or end point in site is making me frustrated. Can we move to the proposal stage soon, or may I be excused until you finish your discussion?"
By clearly stating her frustrations, and proposing two solutions, she has made the group aware of her needs and the group then has choices to work with. Some larger groups use a system of colored cards where different colors represent different types of input. In most systems, there is a color for process and so when the meeting is not working, it can be changed by input from the individuals it’s not working for. In extreme cases, task oriented people will have difficulty asking for what they want and the facilitator needs to watch for angst from the task oriented people and then intervene on their behalf.
Recognizing your personality style and the needs and limitations it places you under is a key step in understanding how to work with a group. Both task and process styles have important contributions to make and you have to be patient and recognize the value of styles that are different from yours. You will be annoyed with your style opposite sometimes, so use that annoyance constructively to make changes in the process that benefit the group.
If you are a task oriented person, you can help the group get organized and working on results. Your skills at seeing the bottom line can help the group when you summarize information, add facts, or urge the group towards concrete proposals.
If you are a process oriented person you offer the skills of building relationships and understandings so that proposals can be made that get accepted and implemented with a high degree of spirit. You can work to keep the morale of the group high by offering personal support and acknowledgment of peoples work.
Groups often go through cycles where task or process gets emphasis in the groups activities. There may be a period where you make many decisions, hard and fast, and work with lots of information, get lots of details accomplished and then get somewhat paralyzed by what may seem to be a minor side issue. The group then focuses on process work, working through the issue, hearing emotional side issues, talking with each other and building up communication bridges and processes.
Over time, most experienced and successful groups learn to balance the task and process parts of their activities so each works to complement the other. As meeting skills grow in the group, the facilitator can capture emotional issues that get raised as part of a task agenda and skillfully roll them into the task processing so the end result is the optimum for everyone. When you can balance both the task wing and the process wing so they work together, your group will fly as high as it can go.
There can be undercurrents of bad feelings which don't get talked about. One technique that can bring this out is to do a feeling circle, in which everyone in the group expresses how they are feeling.
For this to work some ground rules are needed:
- Only one person speaks at a time around the circle.
- No defensive reactions are allowed in the circle.
- Start your contribution to the circle with "I".
The goals of the feelings circle should be written down and placed where everyone can see them. Some sample goals:
- I am here to learn about my neighbors and myself.
- I will listen carefully with an open heart to what you have to say about me.
- I will speak for myself only, and speak the truth as I see it.
The way feeling circles work is for members to simply state whatever is on their mind. For example, a member might say: " I'm feeling disappointed because no one else helped me work in the garden yesterday." This helps focus the group on feelings and also can define some larger issues for discussion. For this kind of sharing to work it is important that the circle not be interrupted by defensive answers, but that each person is allowed to speak without interruption. Participants have to be free to express feelings without immediate reaction. If this becomes part of the meeting routine, even very shy individuals may come to express themselves. A nice addition to this is to add a "I really appreciate_____" round at the end.
Sometimes feeling circles can be focused on a specific issue. They can be a way of dealing with a particular issue, a conflict between individuals, an individual behavior, or even as a healing source for someone who loses a family member or has some other personal crisis. Or they can be general in nature, focusing on getting to know one anothers histories by responding to set questions such as: A story from my childhood, people that are important to me, lessons in life I have learned and who taught them, the most important thing I ever did, the most dangerous moment in my life. These kinds of sharing circles allow people to learn about each other in new ways.
Active listening is a skill which enhances communication. In active listening you listen carefully, then paraphrase back what you heard, with the goal of supporting and drawing out the feelings of the speaker. When this is done well it validates a persons feelings and encourages him or her to fully communicate. The goal of active listening is to help clarify the feelings and thinking behind the words. When active listening is applied it creates a supportive bond between the speaker and the listener. Because there is no threat of criticism or judgment, the speaker is encouraged to express feelings honestly.
The important thing about active listening is that it is not intended to change or alter the feelings of the speaker, only to support them in expressing their feelings. When you try and advise or change the message the speaker gives, it forces them to defend themselves, which often causes further denial of the feelings and experiences. When the listener responds by trying to change the speakers way of looking at things, to see the situation from the listeners perspective, the listener is trying to divert the communication down the path to meet their needs, not the speakers.
One of the special difficulties in active listening is when the listener is called on for decisions, judgments or evaluations. Often what the speaker is doing in this situation is try to pass the buck, and disguise or mask the expression of feelings. In active listening it is best to try to identify the emotional context of the question and leave an opening for the speaker to say what is really bothering him.
For example Jim, a teenager doing childcare comes to the meeting looking upset and says:
"I'll never get anywhere with those damn kids. Why did I ever sign up for childcare, this is impossible!".
An active listening response would be something like:
"You had a problem with the kids? You sound pretty frustrated."
The active listener checks in on the emotional context which includes body language, then summarizes back what the speaker said. Often this encourages the speaker to continue.
"Yeah , those kids just don't listen to me when I tell them what to do."
The speaker has continued to describe the problem in more detail. Again the listener paraphrases what the speaker has said in order to encourage the dialog.
"So the kids didn't listen to you?"
"Yeah, I tried to tell them how to set up the game but they just went into it an created their own rules."
Now with a better understanding of the situation the listener tries to capture the emotion and rephrase back to the speaker.
"Being ignored like that must have made you mad."
"Boy don't you know it. I just walked away I was so mad. I guess I should go back and see if I can work it out. Being in charge is hard sometimes."
In effective active listening the goal is to convey back to the speaker that we are seeing things from his or her viewpoint. The listener must look for and respond to feelings. Not all of a message is in the words so non-verbal clues can help the listener be aware of the speakers feelings.
Triangulation: talking about others when they are not present
When people get into conflicts with each other, one of the fine arts of conflict is to use triangulation to bring people to your side of the issue. The way this works is that when A and B have a conflict, B talks to C and tells C lots of negative things about A. The goal of this type of triangulation is to degrade the person not present. This kind of malicious gossip can occur very easily and spontaneously, you may not even realize what it has done until you analyze why you feel a certain way towards someone, or how you ever got such a wrong notion about someone. Malicious triangulation is very dysfunctional behavior and is one of the worse things that can happen in a community. Malicious gossip and character assassination undermine relationships in a huge way. They poison peoples perspectives of each other, fill voids of understanding with misinformation and deceit, and create an atmosphere of distrust, disrespect and paranoia.
Now sometimes, to help your own understanding of people and their conflicts you need to get and share information about people who are not present. This is healthy and normal and there is an easy test to distinguish between what is healthy and helpful and what is unhealthy and destructive. It's the invisible person test. When the topic of someone who is not present comes up, imagine that the person of whom you are speaking or hearing about is standing behind you. If what you say, or hear would make that person angry, defensive, or unhappy you are engaged in an unhealthy triangulation.
When you find yourself in triangulation's about others, use the invisible person test and point it out to those present. If you go along with triangulation and character assassination, you become an accomplice to dysfunctional behavior that is very destructive to relationships. Relationships are the foundation of community.
If you don't care about the community dynamic involved here let me add something to catch your self interest: People who gossip to you, in turn, will gossip about you. So if you want to create a place where you don't have to worry about what people are saying about YOU behind YOUR back, it is worth the personal investment to point out triangulation whenever it happens.
Conflicts and miscommunications occur. They are part of life. Not everyone thinks, acts or responds in the same way and members come under stress at different times which causes differences in tolerance and patience. Not everyone has the same level of commitment, honesty, or even integrity. It is important to define a process that resolves problems and encourages members to talk about the issues under conflict in a controlled and reasonable way, even if those issues are intensely personal. Many people are conditioned to avoid conflict at any cost, that conflict is bad, a failure. Overcoming this tendency to avoid conflict is hard and conflict resolution training is a good first step. Conflict is healthy and a normal part of any human relationship. One of the most important elements of all the successful intentional communities is a clearly defined process for dealing with group and personal conflicts. Sometimes conflicts can't be resolved and must simply be respectfully accepted as differences. Vegetarian versus meat eater can be such a conflict within a community.
If you ignore conflicts between individuals, it is common to find these conflicts coming into meetings as hidden agendas. In some communities interpersonal conflicts are expected to be resolved by the individuals, not the group. Some communities have the whole group take responsibility for conflict resolution between members. Figure out a strategy for who is responsible for interpersonal conflict resolution and set some community ground rules. Interpersonal conflicts often start out as poor communication. The more frank and open you are while communicating, the less conflict and less severe conflict will exist.
Sometimes meetings become really intense, and negotiations and discussions become counterproductive. The whole meeting environment becomes too emotionally charged to reach a solution. Conflicts can be emotionally draining, and meetings dealing with conflict can leave you feeling wrung out and exhausted. Group conflict resolution is a very demanding process and sometimes you are not up to it. Under these conditions is it often best for the facilitator to break the meeting or adjourn to another time with perhaps a homework assignment for each individual to brainstorm all the pros and cons of the issue to bring back to the next meeting.
Common conflict issues
Kids and dogs are two of the most conflict rife issues any community deals with. Another big issue is personal behaviors which have a negative impact on others, such as an individual who frequently uses a loud and angry voice which intimidates other members. Other issues often causing conflict include gun ownership, private use of common areas, clothing optional facilities, hidden sexual agendas, bad cooks, parking - specifically drive up parking, house location selection, how to add common amenities that not everyone will use. Personality styles often lead to clashes, especially between task oriented and process oriented styles.
Some conflict resolution strategies
- Begin conflict communication with "I" statements that reflect how you feel. The " I am feeling" statements create a group process where individuals feelings are out front. For example, here are two ways to say the same thing: "I need to have the bathrooms be larger so I can play my Tuba in the bathtub" and "The bathrooms you guys designed are too small." In the first sentence, the individual is expressing her needs, which can then be discussed and worked around. In the second sentence the individual could be construed as criticizing others, who may react defensively, and it is unclear what the individual needs are.
- Learn to identify what is needed by another person and learn how to gracefully ask another person to define what they need.
- A very key question in working with conflicts is "why?". Why do you feel so strongly about this? Why are you shouting? Why do you have such angst over this issue? Why do you think that way? Learn to ask for clarification when an issue becomes a conflict.
- In a consensus process where one person is blocking, have that person choose a "clearness committee" of people either within, or from outside the group. The purpose of this small group is to support and help the member or members clarify why they feel as they do about the issue. The members in the clearness committee just listen, or encourage the person to speak by asking supportive and clarifying questions. It is very important to understand that the goal of this process is not to change the opinion or feelings of the blocking individual but to clarify the reasons and thinking of the blocking individual. The result can be that once the reasons for the block are clarified, the community has more options for dealing with it. Sometimes in this way consensus can be reached, sometimes the blocking position is strengthened and consensus is not reachable.
- Having someone within the group who is trained in mediation skills, or hiring an outside trained mediator can be very useful. The group will need to decide how mediation is to be handled and under what circumstances it will be used. Setting up conflict mediation early is important, so that a plan can be in place should a major conflict occur. Having an outside opinion can do wonders for a stuck process.
- Determine whether the disagreement is over facts or the respective feelings about the facts. Ask questions to discover the underlying assumptions, values, and attitudes. Separate feelings from facts by using the phrases like: "To me", "in my opinion", "it appears to me". When people feel intensely about issues it is important to ask them: "Why do you feel so strongly about this?" Keep asking that until the real issues emerge. Often the real issues are buried and the current issue in dispute is only the carrier for feelings left unexpressed.
- Don't make it personal. If you disagree about an idea or concept frame the discussion around the idea, not the person. Say: " I don't agree with that idea", not, "your idea is stupid".
- Try reversing the roles. Agree to argue the other side for 15 minutes and then express the other viewpoint as persuasively as you can. This can be an effective way of keeping a single issue conflict from escalating into a larger conflict. If you do this with integrity you will find that, amazingly enough, the other side has some validity.
- Is it really an either/ or issue? Put both sides away and brainstorm other ideas. Often conflicts come because of boxed thinking, the participants believe that there is only a limited solution. Conflict occurs when people believe there is only one way. Break through happens when people discover there is a third way, a fourth way, a fifth way.
- Do a trial solution. Lets try this for 3 weeks and evaluate it. Often a group must make decisions without adequate knowlege or experience. Doing a trial solution and then evaluating the results can often result in future changes and also can reassure reluctant participants, since the decision is not permanent.
- Do a deliberate defocusing by temporarily adjourning the meeting for two hours. Let people go get food, relax in the sun, gather in small groups to talk or walk in the woods. If time concerns make a two hour break not possible, take a five minute silent thinking break where the goal is just to quietly reflect on the issue. Often this sort of change of atmosphere helps people think through an issue and come up with ideas for resolution
- If people get visibly mad, stop the discussion. If you can't discuss the issue without anger you need mediation. Get professional arbitration help early in a conflict where real visible anger is present. If people get visibly angry, and if you take a "time-out" meeting adjournment, make the time-out last at least one hour, and two hours is better. The hormones that anger releases take at least 90 minutes to dissipate and these hormones will not let the body be calm, no matter what.
- Create a special group meeting environment where members can argue, disagree, yell, cry, stomp around, get mad, hug, or whatever it takes. Part of the sense of community is feeling safe enough to let real feelings out; these kinds of expressions, as uncomfortable as they may be to some, will help the community to grow.
- If you are arguing about details or specifics, back up a step to a bigger concept. Sometimes people who won’t agree about the details can agree on a concept or goal. Then the details can be sorted and placed in relationship to the agreed upon concept or goal. It is often a good idea to define and agree on goals first, then try and find agreement on details that support the goal.
- Rather than try to find the right answer, throw out the bad answers, the things you agree won’t work. This might narrow the focus and also bring out something you hadn’t thought of before.
- Watch for you or the group putting someone in a untenable dominant position. Some people are leaders and take action, while others wait and follow. If a leader oversteps their authority it might not be all their fault, expecially if a group lets them take leadership in the first place.
- If personal behavior problems occur, it is a very good idea to have a mediator help the group. Communicate privately or in a sharing circle how individuals affect the process using "When this happens, I feel Y" language. For example, When yelling happens in the meeting, I feel insecure and I close down and stop talking for the rest of the meeting". Avoid putting the blame on inviduals until you have clearly defined the behavior and the problems it causes. Then, if that does not end the behavior, bring it up in context of the individual. For example, "When you yelled at the meeting, I felt threatened and stopped contributing and was afraid to say anything."
This started as an article by Rob Sandelin, distributed in various forms and published online by NICA. Rob gave permission to post it here, knowing that it may morph into something new as we "wiki" it...