This week, the Spring team gathered online to take a leap of vulnerability together. On our agenda was a deep dive into courageous and transformative conversations.
How can we improve the quality of conversation, whether we’re talking about strategy, politics, power dynamics, gender or racial justice? How can we strengthen the level of learning and the personal development that we come away from these conversations with?
Understanding how we (and the people around us) experience conflict is a powerful piece of awareness to carry into group spaces dedicated to social change. As leaders, this kind of insight empowers us to facilitate tough talks with empathy while intuiting what role we can play to keep a group connected and aligned with purpose as we work collectively toward resolutions.
“In a group, if everybody thinks about the other person’s needs, everyone’s needs are actually fulfilled in the end. But if you only think about yourself, you are breaking that contract,” writes Priya Parker, a conflict mediator and expert on transformative gatherings. “Healthy conflict,” she says “is love tapping fear on the shoulder and saying, It's ok, I got this.”
So, if we think of our teams, organizations or movements as a tree, this awareness and care for one another is like the roots: a strong and unique network of caring relationships that supports the whole system. Strong roots allow us to stay connected, grow stronger, reach up and out, and have a greater impact out in the world.
What's your conflict style?
Spring believes that conflict and tension can be navigated successfully if in the process trust is built, relationships are strengthened and new levels of clarity are achieved.
People tend to have one of three habitual responses to conflict: moving into it (looking for clarity), moving with it (nurturing relationships) or moving away from it (protecting safety).
Each has its own unique flavor and medicine and, in combination, contributes to healthy conversations and processes, however complicated they might be. But we don’t always manifest them in healthy ways.
Here is an overview of healthy and unhealthy manifestations of each style:
1. People who move into conflict feel drawn to tension, are curious about why it exists and are energized by exploring and digging into it. This is resourceful (meaning helpful to resolving conflict) when it really surfaces and protects the clarity needed to come to a resolution. It is unresourceful (aggravates conflict) when a person becomes too focused on the why and loses an emotional connection with the group or pushes boundaries that make the process feel unsafe.
2. People who move with conflict are also drawn to tension. They are more likely to want to reach out and build bridges, finding ways of accommodating people so that they can come together again. This is resourceful when the group really needs to maintain and protect vital relationships. It is unresourceful when a person’s efforts to preserve harmony stifle or smother a process—either by preventing a problem from being solved, bringing about a compromise that doesn’t meet group needs, or when they lose themselves in the process, forgetting to contribute their own thoughts.
3. People who move away feel alerted by conflict, wanting to make sure that they and everyone else feel okay. They tend to look for ways to disengage or leave. This is resourceful when it protects safety. This can be important when a group is handling subjects around trauma and oppression or when a group is still building trust with one another. It is unresourceful when it results in a person withholding their wisdom and contributions because they’ve checked out or when a person stonewalls the process, giving the group the silent treatment or refusing to be a part of moving forward.
How can we put this into practice?
Learning about how we handle conflict means being able to manage our own responses and being considerate of others. While one style will be your habitual response, there will be different moments that call for different approaches.
Knowing where your gut reaction takes you is an important part of first asking yourself, Why am I reacting this way? and Is this response what I and the group need right now? When you know the answer, you can make your move either by going with what comes naturally or pivoting to another style.
Here are just a few strategies our team of facilitators, trainers and communicators use to manage their habitual responses. We call them “ninja moves.” Making these ninja moves can make all three conflict styles available to you, so that you can bring to the situation what it needs.
- If you tend to move into conflict but are noticing you are losing connection with the group, maybe you even feel your shoulders tensing and brain going at full speed, consider relaxing your shoulders and taking a few deep breaths. One Spring colleague brings their attention to the people around them, feeling their presence. The timing and ways of broaching a topic are important for staying connected. Are they ready to hear what you have to say? When and how can you best communicate it? As one colleague put it, “I know my truth, but my truth needs packaging.”
- If you tend to move with conflict but want to check if the group needs you to jump in and mediate or ask about how people are feeling, you could try another facilitator’s tip: press your fingers together in front you, creating a barrier between you and the group (or computer screen) so that you can connect with your own needs and wisdom. From that place, you can better gauge what the group needs and how you can contribute.
- If you tend to move away from conflict, but see that you need to remain present, consider mentally preparing in advance and try to keep a mindful state. Another Spring colleague consciously puts her feet on the ground, reminding herself to feel the different parts of the floor under her feet as she listens. You can also try reminding yourself that you want to stay connecting with your group as you lean in and reconnect with the purpose of the conversation.
Working with conflict in resourceful ways is critical for holding space for transformative conversations — and we only get there by being vulnerable enough for honest reflection, letting others in and thinking of what nurtures us alongside what nurtures the group.
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