A Facilitator in Conflict

Conflict. It sees to be the thread that’s connecting most of the work I’ve done this year so far.

I seem to be naturally adept at getting into conflict. Less so at getting back out of it. So facilitating conflict has always been something I’ve simultaneously been anxious about, and something I’ve been keen to develop the skills and mindset to do. The fact that conflict figures so large in the facilitation landscape of 2013 so far is almost certainly, in part, down to where I’m at as a facilitator, and not just to where the groups I’ve been working with are at. I’m changing my relationship with conflict (slowly), and that’s there in the conscious and unconscious signals I send to groups.

My experience of facilitating conflict has been very mixed – ranging from unexpected conflicts erupting mid-workshop, to consciously prompting conflicts in a group, to working with a coop on building their abilities to resolve conflict. I’ve not always been successful.

There’s at least some members of a community out there who feel I failed to deal effectively with a conflict that erupted unbidden in a workshop. And they’d be right. Ironically it was one of the few times in my facilitation journey that I’ve taken a deep breath and internally muttered “bring it on!” – feeling as ready as I’ll ever be to hold a group in conflict. My sense is that the group norms reasserted themselves and they slammed the door shut on the conflict, preferring to suppress it than deal with it. I needed to do more to confront that dynamic – to name it and to share it with the group so they were in  a better position to see what was happening and decide where they wanted to go with it (if anywhere).

Then there was the work at Facilitating Change in which the facilitation team made a concerted effort to name the dynamics that were causing conflict within the group, naming them repeatedly if the group tried to avoid them. Perhaps necessarily, or perhaps because of our lack of skilfulness this put us as facilitators in conflict with some of the group. Uncomfortable stuff, but made far more possible because of the support we were shown by group members who suffered most because of those dynamics.

More recently I worked with a group on their strategy and vision. An essential part of this was bringing out the conflicts within the group – conflicting interpretations of their core aims, conflicting values, conflicting approaches to running a campaign, clashing personalities and interpersonal dynamics. Simply doing strategy was never an option – so once again naming and addressing some of these issues allowed some forward movement.

Then last week I co-facilitated 2 conflict resolution workshops with Carl, a very experienced mediator who makes it all seem so easy! Working alongside him was heartening. He makes it clear that effective conflict resolution is possible and that in many ways it’s just an extension of the skills and states of mind of a good facilitator.

One of the other factors influencing me to feel more confident in conflict has been working alongside Emily. Her process oriented psychology approach has fascinating insights into groups and conflict, and I’m learning loads. We were lucky enough to have a process work student at Facilitating Change and her input showed, once again, how powerful the technique can be when groups are in conflict.

I’m sure that’s not it for conflict in 2013. I won’t say I’m looking forward to facilitating more conflict. I certainly won’t say I’m doing it well. But on balance I’m optimistic.

But enough of me – tell us about your experiences of facilitating, and being facilitated, whilst in conflict. Horror stories? Great successes? Over to you….


Learning to co-operate?

There’s loads of valuable support out there for anyone wanting to start up a co-op. It’s certainly easier than it was in 1992 when, along with 2 others, I started the process of co-founding the first co-op of my working life. But even now, 20 years later, the focus is still primarily on the ‘business’ end of that process – legal structures, administration and business advice. The ‘people’ end seems to get less emphasis. And yet any successful co-op is far more than a particular form of legally constituted organisation. It’s a group of individuals coming together and choosing to give up a part of their autonomy to work collectively because they understand that by doing so they can realise a vision that they couldn’t realise alone. The whole being more than the sum of its parts, and all that.

Don’t get me wrong, back in ’93 we needed all the support we could get on the business side of things. But it didn’t take long for us to realise that we aren’t all as adept at co-operating on that interpersonal level, day in day out, as we might at first have assumed. Many of the processes we adopted, because they spoke to our values and hopes for how we’d relate (such as consensus decision-making), were learnt through cross-pollination from the activist world rather than through co-op support channels.

Rhizome’s working with Co-operatives UK to try to redress the balance. We’ll be at the Co-operatives United event in Manchester this week helping to conduct a learning needs survey, which we hope will lead to some high quality support for co-ops in areas such as decision-making, communication, and dealing with conflict. There are many ideas under consideration – from the more obvious face-to-face training through online learning to mentoring and workplace secondments.

If you are a co-op and can’t make the event, never fear. Fill in the survey online so that your voice, and learning needs, are heard! If you are at the event and someone leaps out at you with a clipboard, be nice – it could be Rhizome’s own Carl, Gill, Jo or Maria!