Moving Toward Conflict for the Sake of Good Strategy

Many of our social movement organizations are conflict avoidant internally, which makes it hard for them to form good strategy or build groups strong enough to carry it out. Our opposition has a strategy, and the stakes are high. We need to face our conflict avoidance in order to build the kind of movement that can win the world we all deserve.

Avoidance

I’m in the long, narrow living room of a tall West Philadelphia house with creaky wooden floors. It’s one of those airbnbs you can tell no one really lives in because the art is generic and there’s no can opener.

It’s 2015, and I’m with the Wildfire Project at an organizational retreat. Our facilitator is long-time movement veteran, George Lakey. He is a wise old man, big and sturdy, like a tall tree that grows in Sweden or wherever tall trees (and tall white people) grow. We’re doing an activity that Training for Change calls Team Types.

George is going around and asking us questions about how our leadership styles relate to one another. He asks me what it’s like being a leader in this group. I say that sometimes it’s frustrating, complain that the team moves too slowly, or doesn’t respond to my emails, or misses deadlines. I say that there is so much need, so much opportunity, no time, the world is burning around us. George asks me what the frustration feels like, where it is in my body. I hate the question, but I tell him it is in my chest, in my throat. I feel heat on my face as I talk, notice that my hands are gripping my thighs.

I am angry, I say quietly. Really, really angry.

I don’t remember ever having said that aloud before. I feel a sense of relief, like water draining from my body. George presses for more. I’m angry! I shout, almost comically, gesticulating emphatically. I’m angry at my team, at the world, the president, my parents (who isn’t, am I right?). I’m angry at myself.

I’m out of breath, panting. George has this wild surprise and amusement all over his face, and is looking around with big, excited eyes as if to say to the rest of the team, “Wow, folks, are you hearing this?!” One of my team-mates, Deirdre, leans over toward me. She puts a hand on my knee, looks at me with eyes that manage to be both deeply loving and slightly patronizing at the same time, and says: “Honey, we know.” The rest of the group agrees. The overall reaction is duh.

I’m confused. I don’t raise my voice, don’t slam doors, don’t really express myself in any of the ways I associate with angry people. I didn’t even know I was angry. I thought I was holding it all together, keeping my frustrations in check in order to support the group to continue moving forward. My team explains to me that my anger is apparent, that it comes out in lots of ways all the time, that it has been a massive barrier. They explain that not expressing my anger doesn’t mean the team isn’t dealing with it all the time; it only means that it can’t deal with it directly, can’t challenge me on it, can’t squeeze out from it the insights that might be buried beneath it. They say they aren’t scared of my anger.

We continue for an hour, maybe more, treading delicately. Others name the limitations they’ve put on their own hard feelings, and share some of what is going on for them below the surface. We talk about how avoiding these feelings has weakened our group. Now that the silence has been broken, it is clear to us that if we are brave enough to tell the truth, even when it’s hard, our relationships will be far stronger — clear that avoiding tension never makes it go away, only imbues it with more power, more poison. We know this from books and therapists, know it from the other important relationships in our lives, know it in our bodies; once we say it out loud, it feels obvious.

As we talk, we begin to understand this as a sort of conflict avoidance, and recognize it in many of the groups we work with. So many of the organizations around us, we realize, are maintaining some form of collective silence in order to protect themselves, and the silences are strangling them, strangling our movements. There is some sadness in the realization, some grief in how long it has taken us to see it. But in the room now, along with some light from the window, there is also some purpose, some creativity, some sense of possibility.

Conflict Avoidance and Bad Strategy

We take a break, and I go out for a walk. The air is crisp and grey, the sidewalk broken with small patches of green coming through the cracks. As I wander West Philly, I think about the impact of all this conflict avoidance, and my mind moves beyond the relationships and back to our work, to what we should be doing, to strategy.

I’m reminded of a passage from Richard Rumelt’s book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy (a strategy manual for big corporations, the defense industry, and probably villains in superhero comics). I stop in the middle of the sidewalk to pull the excerpt up on my phone:

I turn the words over in my head: Conflicting goals. Unconnected targets. Incompatible interests. A laundry list of desirable outcomes. In other words, bad strategy is about lack of focus, energy and resources spilling out all over the place instead of reaching their desired outcome. I flash back to multiple organizations I’ve played a leading role in, multiple campaigns and projects I’ve been a part of, and I know that I have many times shirked the responsibility of making hard choices about where to focus, what to lead toward, where to narrow and sharpen. In my work, not having good strategy has meant only scratching the surface of what is possible, it has meant doing good work but not taking it all the way, leaving power on the table, leaving potential untouched. As I think about it, it makes me feel sad, empty, ashamed.

But it is the last part of the paragraph that really grabs me by the throat: “Good strategy requires leaders who are willing and able to say no to a wide variety of actions and interests. Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does.”

Conflict avoidance has not only been hurtful to the relationships on my team; it has negatively impacted our ability to form good strategy. Avoiding conflict has meant saying yes to everything instead of prioritizing and focusing, so that we didn’t have to fight or argue. It has meant compromising between multiple competing visions instead of choosing, so that we could maintain the group as it was, and not have to part ways. It has meant continuing programs that weren’t yielding results, even keeping folks on the team who weren’t showing up, because facing those harsh truths would have been painful, would have caused a rupture. It has meant shying away from making hard decisions.

Conflict avoidance has not only been hurtful to the relationships on my team; it has negatively impacted our ability to form good strategy.

I have avoided conflict to keep my people happy and connected, to keep the train moving, to keep resources and activity flowing. I have avoided conflict to protect my ego, to maintain an image of confidence and success and security even amidst fear of failure. I have avoided conflict so the thing I cared about wouldn’t break, so I wouldn’t break.

Fighting for Good Strategy

As I start to walk again, I am struck by the conflict avoidance and bad strategy I’ve witnessed in the dozens of groups I have facilitated, even the big, sexy organizations I admire.

I remember the racial justice organization whose conflict avoidance created a strategy that was merely a compilation of the things the people in the room wanted to do all mashed together — multiple programs that didn’t add up or point in a clear direction, that even contradicted each other. I remember the climate organization that tried to force compromise between multiple competing visions and theories of change in order to keep the group together, weakening its campaigns dramatically and ultimately leading to its collapse. I remember the student organization that spent all its time fighting, but only on the surface, so they never got to the real meaning of the disagreements, never applied the conclusions to their actual work on the ground. I remember the radical organization that was so bound to its idea of itself as a political home and a chosen family that its members withheld feedback, allowed dysfunctional behavior, shuffled people around from role to role, because telling them the truth or asking them to leave would have been a betrayal; in the end it couldn’t function effectively.

I remember the nonprofit leadership team that was so focused on creating a strategy document for its staff, thinking that would be enough to send them quickly back to work without wasting time, that they resisted the details, wrote what they could agree on, and ended up more or less where they started; digging deeper would have forced them to actually change what they were doing, would have disappointed some of their partners, may very well have cost some of them their jobs. I remember the dozens of groups I have worked with across the movement that couldn’t really have those hard strategic conversations with any integrity because they were ignoring or repressing other tensions — about leadership, rank, and power, about race, class, and gender.

Many of our social movement organizations don’t have a strategy to win. They do not have a clear grasp of their own purpose, don’t truly know why they exist or what their role is, don’t have clear goals they hold themselves accountable to, don’t run programs that add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, and lack a viable plan to grow to the scale necessary to face the challenge. There are lots of reasons for this, but conflict avoidance is one of them, because conflict avoidance is fundamentally the inability to really face the truth. How can we formulate good strategy if we don’t tell the truth?

Many of our social movement organizations don’t have a strategy to win.

I end up back on the steps of the airbnb. I look up at the house with its foreboding Victorian windows. My body is tired, but with the tiredness my sadness and shame start to loosen their hold on me, and some compassion slips into my eyes and chest and shoulders. There are so many good reasons to avoid conflict, I think to myself, with a bit of forgiveness. I grab the handle, open the door, and walk back into the house to be with my friends.

Why Avoid Conflict

It makes sense to avoid conflict, because conflict can be difficult, scary, dangerous. The movies and billboards seem to be communicating that conflict is volatile, unpredictable, and violent. In our lived experience, many of us have learned to be conflict avoidant in order to survive or succeed, based in part on our race, class, gender, sexuality, geography and more. We’ve seen conflicts be handled poorly in our work as well — on the internet, or in our organizational spaces — and we’ve seen them kill movements. We’re afraid of getting hurt, hurting one another, saying the wrong thing, getting called out, being disposed of. We think that if we fight, the group might collapse; if the group falls apart, then the thing from which we derive so much of our meaning, our vehicle for making change, our circle of belonging, will be lost, and then we’ll be alone.

Some of these fears are old, carried with us from previous experiences that continue to exercise their hold on us, not truly about the here and now. But many of the fears are grounded in the present. The truth is, if we move toward conflict, we will encounter loss. We will discover disagreements where we thought we were aligned, weaknesses where we projected only strength, messiness where there was previously order. Sometimes we will work it out, but sometimes we won’t. Sometimes moving toward conflict will mean changing course, letting partners down, losing funding. Sometimes it will mean parting ways with our team-mates, hurting or being hurt, firing or being fired. Sometimes it will mean the group dissolving, leaving before the job is done, finding ourselves caring about the same things but without a vehicle with which to do anything about it. Sometimes it will mean anger, or grief, or heartbreak.

In the face of these pressures, both real and imagined, we often find ourselves unequipped, unpracticed, and unsupported. We have few models for how to move toward conflict in a generative way, few systems to support it. Sometimes even when we know there is tension and know we should deal with it, we just don’t know how. And it’s worth noting that, of course, not all conflict is healthy. The opposite of conflict avoidance is not conflict, it is generative conflict — what the Wildfire Project describes as conflict that generates “more possibilities, greater connection, and fuller expression.”

So we avoid generative conflict in all sorts of ways. We replace deep planning with an untenable pace of doing, or with producing documents everyone can agree on, but that ultimately don’t change much. We diffuse tension with humor, discourage anger, express negativity with passive aggression and gossip instead of directness. We sweep conflict under the rug, or find surface level tensions on which to spend our energy. We project it onto some external actor (like, for example, a facilitator!). We use tools like “stack” or anonymous feedback forms, which prevent direct conversation between people, make it so that our words flutter off into the ether instead of landing at someone’s feet or in their hands. We encourage compromise toward a middle ground to avoid polarization. We let folks stay on the surface — accept indirect statements, behaviors that don’t line up with stated intentions, ideas that would fold under cross-examination. We hire facilitators who do all this for us too, who steer us away from the bumps, who protect the agenda at all costs, who smooth things over to support the group feeling connected, who help us get to the end instead of getting to the bottom.

Whether because of a lack of awareness, lack of skill, or lack of courage, we often avoid conflict rather than moving toward it intentionally. But conflict avoidance has devastating impacts. Groups need the capacity to be in conflict in order to develop good strategy, and in order to have the collective strength to carry it out. And without those things, we’re going to lose.

Why Groups Need to Develop the Capacity to Be in Conflict

The emotional life of a group matters. Organizations rarely arrive at good strategy, or execute it, without being healthy on the whole, which requires being in an ongoing practice of removing the major interpersonal, political, or structural tensions in the way. When individuals or groups allow the difficult things between them to live in silence, they become barriers that weaken relationships. They slow us down, as if we’re trying to run with our shoelaces tied together. Those tensions usually still find their way out, but if they’ve been repressed, and if we haven’t provided them a genuine opening or a process by which they can be brought into the service of the group, they are likely to be much more painful, and much less generative when they finally emerge. Our most important insights are often hidden, buried under hurt, covered in contradiction, concealed behind ambivalence. When we draw our tensions out into the light, when we hold them properly and treat them with respect, we get to discover what is really at the bottom of them, and we get to apply that learning to create a stronger group.

Good strategy requires the capacity to be in generative conflict. Strategy is all about choice. It is about saying no, sharpening a position through disagreement, narrowing focus. It requires the will to remain in tension long enough to expose the deepest misalignments, the skill to actually enter into serious disagreement and emerge from it stronger. It requires letting go and facing loss, giving up pieces of oneself and one’s dreams and sometimes even people on one’s team or one’s own place in it, in order to create something healthy and clear and powerful enough to have an impact. Groups cannot arrive at a good strategy if they aren’t able to say no, prioritize, make choices that not everyone will like, and separate what is a relational conflict from a strategic one.

Perhaps the most devastating thing about conflict avoidance is that it is dishonest. Being part of groups is hard — we have tension, we disagree about important things, we’re scared, want to feel seen, seek belonging and meaning, yearn to make a difference. When we pretend this isn’t the case, or don’t devote the necessary time and energy to dealing with it, our groups lose integrity as a whole. Groups that lie to themselves about the tensions that exist also lie to themselves about what is realistic for them to accomplish, lie to themselves about their deadlines and when they’ll start their meetings, lie to themselves about their competence and levels of accountability. They lie to themselves about strategy. And at the end of the day, so much of good strategy is about finding the truth — what is real about the opponent, about us, about the world, about our role, about the best way to move from here to there, about what we will need to change, even if it’s painful, in order to get there. Groups that don’t tell themselves the truth cannot form a winning strategy, and they are unlikely to be healthy and strong enough to actualize it even if they did.

Groups that don’t tell themselves the truth cannot form a winning strategy, and they are unlikely to be healthy and strong enough to actualize it even if they did.

Not having good strategy sends resources, attention, and activity in different — even contradictory — directions. It is a waste. But worse than that, it usually means we lose. Facing our conflict avoidance isn’t the only thing we need to do to correct course, but it is a prerequisite.

Practice

Many groups in the movement have already drawn the connection between their ability to be in generative conflict and their capacity to strategize and win. We can learn from the things they’re doing.

We can fight for the time and space required for depth and truth-telling, knowing that the effort invested in that on the front end will pay off later. We can develop strong systems for giving and receiving hard, loving and grounded feedback. We can make a regular practice of examining how rank and power are showing up in our groups, have deep conversations about race, class, and gender in ways that don’t punish or posture but open windows into each other’s experience and empower each of us to be our most powerful selves.

We can form teams intentionally with an eye toward emotional intelligence and a commitment to growth and learning. We can read about strategy, group dynamics, trauma, and facilitation. We can learn each other’s practices for facing grief, so we are better prepared to handle the loss that comes from being in authentic struggle, with each other and out in the world. We can go to therapy, seek out our mentors and spiritual lineages, do our work to show up to movement spaces with purpose, boundaries, and integrity so the group doesn’t have to hold us in our entireties.

We can do, every day, little by little, the small but vital things in our control: say what we mean, steer toward tensions instead of away from them, get in the habit of asking follow-up questions when we sense there is something being left unsaid. We can try to tell the truth, even when it is hard — the truth about our groups, ourselves, each other, our fears and doubts, our hopes and dreams, the stakes. We can build all of this into our meetings, our retreats, our planning sessions. We can invite people from the outside to facilitate us, to teach us, to hold us through these risky, delicate, transformative journeys.

Above all, we can practice. Conflict avoidance has been woven into our organizational structures, into our habits, into our flesh and bones. It is a crutch, a thing that protects us from something scary below. But it is blocking us too, and we don’t need it anymore. There is something bigger and more powerful available to us, and the only way to get to it is practice.

Moving Toward Conflict

I’m at a retreat center in upstate New York, facilitating the staff of a powerful multiracial organization. It’s warm inside, but freezing outside where we just took our break, and the wind is in our bones so that even by the fireplace, everyone is bundled up in sweaters and scarves. Two leaders of color have brought forth a proposal to the group: That the organization invest additional resources specifically in developing the leadership of people of color.

The conversation about the proposal begins, and everyone is agreeing. Everything is even-paced, polite, going smoothly — maybe too smoothly. I feel a strong pull to keep going and move quickly through this — feel the pressure from my watch and my eye on the rest of the agenda, from the group’s apparent agreement, even from my own body that likes this smoothness. If we took a vote now, the proposal would pass. But I take a deep breath, close my eyes for a split second, and slow it down. At this point, I know better. I know that there is more here than is being expressed — historical traumas, cautious perceptions of each other, old hurts from previous experiences, fresh wounds from the day-to-day struggles of being in multiracial community in a deeply racist world. I know that if I let the group move on, their alignment on this question will be meaningless, that when it becomes difficult to actually carry this proposal out in real life it will collapse, that those fears and hurts and suspicions will be there at every turn until they are brought into the light. I know that beneath a proposal like this, even when it is an almost obvious yes for the group, deeper questions are always lurking, buried, wondering: Can I trust you? Do you see me? Are we on the same team?

I suggest a simple activity, a spectogram: one side of the room is “strongly agree” and the other “strongly disagree,” and folks can place themselves along the spectrum. They shuffle into place, scattered between the middle and strongly agree. Now that people have revealed some difference, the tension begins to rise, but it hasn’t fully emerged yet. People’s faces are tightened by pursed lips, hands are clasped behind backs or on bellies, eyes are locked on the grey carpeting. These are things our bodies sometimes do when they can sense a fight around the corner, and are trying to hold it together — hold it together because if they don’t, maybe everything will spill out, pour forward uncontrollably, sweep us all up in a sea of fear and rage and doubt. If we don’t hold it together, maybe everything will fall apart.

I ask people on either end to explain why they are there, but first encouraging them to move a few paces further away from each other, invite them to make their positions even more extreme, to play a role. It’s hard. There are roles that no one wants to play. Their sentences are short, clipped, strained. I move slowly, and let the silences linger, until the tension in the room is full and suffocating, like a summer day a minute before a torrential rain. No one wants to speak.

I ask them to sit, take out their notebooks, and write what they are noticing about the group in this moment. When they are done scribbling away, I ask them to share. The participants can’t help but reflect on the heaviness in the room. They notice the tension in people’s body language, the shortness of sentences, the quivering of voices. As they reflect back, the group is beginning to open.

One of the two who brought the proposal forth, a gender non-conforming¹ person of color, finally says: “It seems like the group is avoiding something, like there are things that aren’t being said.”

I ask them: “What’s something you think maybe isn’t being said?”

Me?” they ask, surprised.

“You,” I say gently, with a smile.

There is a deep breath, the breath seeming to symbolize some kind of decision, perhaps the resolution to a conversation deep inside about whether it is safe to tell the truth. I feel some tingling in my fingertips, which I move to my knees as I sit up and shift slightly forward in my seat to square more evenly with the person. This is the moment that the conversation will either deepen or end, the point at which this member of the group has an opportunity to make a choice: move toward conflict or away from it, bring the group toward the truth or remain on the surface, claim their agency or leave it on the table.

The person begins talking, and it becomes a waterfall of unsaid things — pain, anger, sorrow, exhaustion. The group is glued, softening to the realness being expressed. At the end of it, the person asks, with some fire in their throat: “Why do I need to explain and explain and explain over and over again why investing in our leaders of color is important? Can’t you see how painful it is?”

The room is quiet. The person who spoke is rubbing tears off their cheek with the sleeve of their sweater. I ask them who they were talking to.

They say, through the sleeve, “I don’t know, the group.”

I press, “But…if you had to say this to someone…is there maybe someone you have in your head as you’re saying this?”

The person looks at me for a few seconds, but it feels like an hour, the longest game of chicken, and then I can see their eyes soften, become even, narrow with what can only be determination. They turn their body, look at another person in the group, and speak directly to her.

I sit quietly beside the two of them while they talk for half an hour, mostly without intervening, though from time to time I help a person say more clearly what they’re trying to say (Tell me if I’m getting this right, what you’re basically asking for is…), or draw out some feeling that might open things up more (I’m seeing you get a little choked up, what is that feeling? What is it trying to say?). Now and then I step in to support them to return to what is difficult before them instead of escaping it (What might go wrong if you keep going? What might be possible if you get through it?), or remind them of their options if they get stuck (Well, you could make a request, or stop and take a moment, or…). Every once in a while, I try to help the rest of the group see what’s happening as connected to them, offer them opportunities to join, help them themselves in the people doing the work so they are benefiting from it as well (Do others resonate with either of the folks speaking? What are other folks feeling?).

By the end of it, they’ve said important things to each other: I don’t want to have to explain things that feel like core values in the language of strategy all the time. Yes, but I want to be able to question the strategy of something without the assumption that I disagree with your values. Ok, but there has been so much hurt, so much broken trust, so I need you to name the agreement of our values as you push me on strategy, so I know we’re on the same team. Yes, I want you to know I’m with you. Yes, we are on the same team. Yes, I want to be free, want you to be free, want to fight for myself and for you and all our people.

We find a natural resting point. It’s not over, or perfect, or resolved per se, but resolution isn’t really the point — the point is the group practicing, exercising its capacity to be in struggle, moving toward greater understanding and depth and alignment that will allow them to go into the fire together. We stand in a circle and folks say a word or two of how they’re feeling: tired, raw, seen, open, sad, proud, clear.

On the deck outside during the break, it’s cold but sunny, and I marvel quietly to myself at how frightening and even violent the word conflict can sound, but that in reality, in this room, the process of moving a group towards the tension and ambivalence underneath the surface is anything but that; it is tender, and warm, even quiet. What an honor it is to support people facing the sharp and painful things inside and between them that keep them from their potential. What a gift it is to witness them take an opportunity to claim and reclaim, bit by bit, the most powerful versions of themselves.

When we come back from the break, the mood is palpably different. There is a quiet buzzing in the room, knowing smiles, some warmth in the way folks look at one another, brief touches at elbows, tender grips on shoulders. Folks go back into small groups to write down the alignments they think the group has reached. They include the original proposal, but a dozen new ones that have emerged as well, deeper ones. This part is easy now. We test the proposals, and the group is there, together, connected, focused. There is more work to do, but the group is moving forward, toward its strategy, toward a more authentic, clear, and powerful version of itself.

Possibility

We know intuitively that every group has a deep, complex emotional life, with both natural and imposed tensions swirling beneath the surface — political differences, old hurts, new hurts, clashing styles, self-limiting beliefs, misalignments about theory of change, conflicts over rank and power and identity. We know from our own experience that we don’t do our best work as individuals when we are hurting. We know intuitively that this is true for groups too — that groups that don’t deal with the tensions underneath the surface are not as good at crafting or executing their strategy as groups that are strong and healthy, groups that have a practice of dealing with their problems.

But beyond this, strategic clarity requires conflict, because focus, boundaries, and honesty are integral to good strategy. Good strategy requires the skill to debate, the ability to say no, the strength to let things go. None of those things are possible in a conflict avoidant group, because conflict avoidant groups stay on the surface in order to protect themselves. Conflict avoidant groups appease each other, shy away from the details. Conflict avoidant groups look for compromises over sharpness, choose the easy way out instead of going together into the fire. Conflict avoidant groups don’t tell the truth.

The forces we’re up against are more powerful and more violent than any pharaohs or emperors before them. But there is an opening, too, a door cracked just a bit, an opportunity to intervene and create possibility where it seems too dark to exist. We are being called to rise to the challenge: to build movements at the scale of the crisis, build organizations healthy enough to develop good strategy and strong enough to carry it out. Conflict avoidance is getting in the way, and we are often aiding and abetting it.

Moving toward conflict in a generative way is hard. It requires awareness, courage, and skill. It is dangerous, and sometimes it hurts. But it is a prerequisite of good strategy. And so, in the end, our job is to tell the truth, to support others to do it, to create a culture that seeks the truth, develop the skills and practices that elicit it. It is the only way to arrive at good strategy. It is the only way to build groups strong enough to weather the storms ahead. It is the only way to win.

Thanks to the many brilliant people who gave thoughtful feedback and crucial edits: Bianca Bockman, Ben Case, Sendolo Diaminah, Celia Kutz, George Lakey, Daniel May, Sumitra Rajkumar, Lissy Romanow, BJ Star, and Michael Strom. This writing was supported by the Conflict Transformation Fund; what a gift it is to have time to reflect deeply. Thanks also to the many mentors I’ve benefited from having, to the founders and practitioners of Process Work for blazing a path, to Training for Change for setting many of us on this journey, and to the Wildfire Project for giving me a space in which to grow and partners with whom to do good work. Most of all, I am deeply indebted to (and in love with) the many groups I’ve had the honor of walking with, supporting, growing alongside; I’m sure I’ve learned at least as much from you as you have from me.

[1] Gender non-conforming people are folks who don’t conform to traditional ideas of gender and might not identify as men or women. The character in this story uses gender neutral pronouns (they/them/theirs), as opposed to gendered pronouns (he/him/his or she/her/hers).

Written by

Organizer and facilitator based in Brooklyn. Played leadership role at Occupy Wall St, former Director of the Wildfire Project, founding member of IfNotNow.

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