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….



mediating and meaning

Mediated a dispute between members of a core group in a direct action group. The agreement was to keep the content and fact of the mediation confidential, so I can only talk about the process without any reference to the members of the group or the group.

One member of the group, that had agreed a plan of action and how it would be communicated, broke this agreement. A sub-group was set up to finalise the wording before the call out was publicised. A member decided to publish what they thought best. This annoyed the rest of the sub-group and the larger group that had come to consensus about the nature of the call out.

I spoke to some members of the group by phone and face to face before we met, and ironed out some of the conditions for the mediation. This included finding out who else needed to be involved, and how those involved represented the views of the wider group.

We only had an hour and a half, but spent it clarifying how the issue had arisen and what the underlying needs and motivations were. This helped to clarify where people where coming from, their intentions, how these intentions had been received and how they could be resolved. Those present thought that progress had been made and some initial steps were agreed to take forward this positive momentum.

For those interested in process issues. I began by negotiating the boundaries of confidentiality (I’d keep all confidential, they agreed to share the outputs with the rest of the group), the spirit with which we’d converse (using inquiry, rather than adversarialism) and started the conversation by asking why they thought I was present.

I then used a series of clarifying questions, summarised what I thought I’d heard every now and again and helped them to recognise any momentum that had been gained. I used notes and diagrams to keep track of what was said and destroyed them at the end of the meeting.

New Rhizome mediation guides

A little late for Christmas, here’s a gift from us to you. We’ve been busy over December and early January working with Stig – our designer of choice – on a range of  guides to all aspects of mediation. The first few are on our Resources page already. More to follow in the next week.

We hope they provide useful additional support to the mediation training that we offer. As always your comments and feedback would be very much appreciated. Contact us, or better still leave a comment on the blog

In the range are:

  • What is mediation
  • The Stages of Mediation
  • The Principles of Mediation
  • A State of Mind for Mediation
  • Active Listening in Mediation
  • Mediation Competencies
  • Mediation Reading List

We’ll also be overhauling our facilitation materials and adding a new Guide to Consensus Decision-Making. If there are other resources you’d find useful and that you think we can provide, tell us so.


Activist Mediation Training

19-29 February’s proving popular. This also just in:

Want to learn mediation skills

Interested in helping support activist groups engage with disagreements and conflict, to make them more effective?

Want to deal with conflicts in your personal life that interfere with
your activism?

Mediation training for activists in London on 19-20 February, from 11am – 5pm.

The aims of these days are:

  • To train people in conflict resolution skills that they can use in their own lives and activist work
  • For people interested in volunteering with us to receive training and to meet with us to discuss taking it further.

You are expected to attend both days (please talk to us if you are
interested but this is not possible for you).

Day 1 – How we deal with conflict, Conflict resolution tools, Basic
mediation skills practice.

Day 2 – Mediation skills and process practice.

Details of the training days

Booking essential: Please email activistmediation_AT_aktivix.org Please introduce yourself, explain what activism you are involved with, and what you hope to use your conflict engagement skills for. There will only be 12 places.
Venue: In central london. Wheelchair accessible.
Cost: We are asking for a £10 donation to fund expenses and help set up a travel fund to help with our mediation work. If money would prevent you from attending, then get in touch.
Creche: We are not providing creche facilities, but if childcare
issues are preventing you attending, please get in touch and we’ll try
and sort something out.
Lunch: Not provided. Bring your own or buy nearby.
Transport and Accommodation: Get in touch if you have any issues or can offer a lift.

For further information have a look at our website

Conflict resolution for capacity builders

Rhizome is a regular contributor to the meetings of the NGO Forum, an informal meeting of capacity building and network staff from campaigning organisation that have, or aspire to, a local group network.

As a result of our involvement with the NGO Forum, we’re planning a conflict resolution course designed specifically for the needs of staff and volunteers who have a role in supporting local groups or other networks of activists. If you think that might be of interest to you or your organisation or network read on and get in touch. Don’t worry if you’re not currently involved with the Forum, it’s not pre-requisite.

Back in July Carl ran an introductory session at a Forum meeting. Since then there’s been a conversation going on in the Forum about  a longer training. The NGO Forum is an informal meeting of capacity building and network staff from campaigning organisation that have, or aspire to a local group network.

We’ve come up with a proposal for a format that balances the need to explore conflict resolution, mediation, and negotiation skills at a deep enough level to have a real impact on your work, with budget and time restraints. We’re asking for feedback to ensure we meet the genuine needs of capacity builders. All comments are very welcome:

2 day residential course at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire

Day 1:

  • arrive 10.30 for an 11am start
  • main session: 11am to 5pm
  • evening session 7 to 9pm
  • overnight stay

Day 2:

  • 9 am start
  • 4pm close and depart

Where? Braziers Park is a community of people, and residential college founded in 1950 as an educational trust, and is a continuing experiment in the advantages and problems of living in a group. It’s approximately 1 hour from London to the nearest station, Goring & Streatley, which is between Reading and Oxford. The station is a taxi or cycle ride away from the venue.

When? We’ve provisionally booked a mid-February event – Tuesday 15th and Wednesday 16th February 2011

How much? Our provisional costing of such an event, including the costs of all meals and overnight accommodation is £255 +VAT per person. Costs can be reduced slightly if people are willing to share rooms. It’s also possible to stay the night before (including breakfast) for those travelling a greater distance, for an additional fee. These figures assume a minimum of 8 participants. If the course is well-subscribed we’ll look at subsidising smaller organisations, offering free places to network volunteers or refunding a proportion of the cost.

Interested or any questions? contact us or leave a comment below, preferably by 8th October. If we get enough expressions of interest, we’ll confirm the course.