When I’m in conflict with someone (including with myself), there’s this ache that sits within my whole body. It’s a strange feeling. There might be anger, shame or good old pigheadedness, yeah sure, but when I try to put words to how it feels, there’s this sense of being unfulfilled.
It’s like a story needing an audience, a magnet with nothing to hold to or an incomplete circle. Chances are, those I’m in conflict with feel the same.
Given this sense of un-fulfilment, when holding space in a conflict clearing, I think of my facilitator role as that of a pathfinder. I’m trying to help guide people’s different stories to each other; to acknowledge and becoming a larger whole.
I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna and be excessively cheerful, but there’s typically a yearning for completion sitting beneath all the division and hurt. After all, no matter how important a conflict or strongly held view is to someone, maintaining that conflict is painful.
And if people are in the room together to go through a facilitated conflict resolution process, they have recognised the need for a way out – as painful as the journey is.
At the Groupwork Centre we like terms and methods that quickly get to the heart of issues. Our definition of conflict is: a difference of opinion with strong emotions attached. It’s deceptively simple.
As parties in conflict, people give most of their attention to these ‘differences in opinions’. It makes sense to do so. After-all, they are way-points in their own narratives and reflect their own versions of the truth. These are the “you did this…; that is bad…; how could you let X happen?… etc.” bits. But these are generally symptoms of far deeper and more powerful stories; the stories about who they are and how they see the world is and should be.
It’s these deeper stories that need to shift, for conflicts to resolve in an enduring way.
The problem is, the more emotion we have bound up in a story, the harder it is for us to question it. Like a cherished memory, it’s become part of us. And the more fundamental these stories are to our sense of self and how we make meaning of things, the less we allow them to be tested by reality or the light of our own questioning. Like deep-sea creatures, these stories dwell in the shadowlands of studied avoidance or limited self-awareness.
So, when parties to a conflict come together, their truths will typically overlap but sit like oil on water. As facilitators, our challenge lies in traversing and linking across this divide.
The Groupwork Centre process involves helping people deeply hear each other; we ask them to listen to each other and then reflect back the other’s story. It’s challenging, but brings an emulsifier to the oil and water of conflicting stories.
Being heard gives people a sense of genuine acknowledgement and validation. It also allows you to let some of your own story go. To acknowledge someone else’s truth and reflect back what you’ve heard is to absorb another truth. Even if it’s not true for you, when you recognise someone’s story as genuine for them you naturally blur the boundaries of your own. Your version of the truth shifts.
If facilitated with skill, awareness and care, people can develop a sense of a greater truth than the one they had been clinging to and this can address that feeling of being unfulfilled. We are creating an opportunity for those in conflict to find a new story that integrates them all. We just help people find a path to it.
And as a facilitator, witnessing this capacity for growth in people continues to inspire me.
Read more about the Groupwork Centre’s approach to challenging encounters
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