Illustration by Thea Schukken

Navigating Conflict: A Lifetime of Work

Five Big Insights from the workshop ‘Address the Elephant’

Christiaan Verwijs
Dec 9, 2019 · 6 min read

On November 22, we had the huge pleasure of hosting a 1-day workshop on navigating tension and conflict in groups with Julie Huffaker, Karen Dawson, and Daniel Steinhöfer. Attended by 55 participants, we explored how instead of ‘resolving’ conflict — which often isn’t possible — we can navigate conflict and tension more productively instead. Rather than making this a very theoretical workshop, we opted for a hugely interactive and experiential experience. This post captures some of the biggest insights we took from the workshop.

If you prefer, you can also listen to us reading this post.

Insight #1: Be Kind To Our Ancient Brains

Our brains are incredible organs, allowing complex emotions, thoughts, and creative solutions. Although they’re doing a good job of keeping up with how our modern lives have changed, they still retain many of the qualities that helped us survive millions of years ago.

“Most of our conflict with others begin where those social needs are violated by others — often unintentionally.”

Seeking safety in groups, our brains have evolved a deep sensitivity to social hierarchy and what is happening in our interactions with others. Our social nature gives us a strong innate need to be seen and heard by others, to belong to a group and to be treated fairly compared to others.

Superficial task-oriented conflicts aside, most of our conflict with others begin where those social needs are violated by others — often unintentionally. And this is where the “pinches” begin.

An impression of the 1-day workshop on conflict navigation. Pictures by Lisanne Lentink.

Insight #2: Pinch, pinch, pinch, CRUNCH!

Most collaborations begin with a honeymoon. We have big ideas, see fields of possibilities and are eager to get started. The “pinches” begin as our expectations and social needs are violated, as is only natural in any human interaction. A pinch can take the form of someone going on and on, leaving no space for your valuable contribution. It can also take the shape of feeling like you’re doing more than others. Or when others bask in the light of someone of high status, and you are not. We covered many of these invisible pinches in a previous post. Wanting to keep things positive and fun, and not wanting to be seen as ‘that person that always complains’, we swallow our tiny hurts and step over them.

“‘Crunches’ account for a large percentage of absenteeism, for people leaving teams or breaking up collaborations.”

But as the pinches continue to build, eventually there is a CRUNCH. Stronger emotions soar and turn into resentment, anger, and blame. Although it is possible to return back to the honeymoon from a crunch through mediation and open and frank conversations, the process is often difficult and painful (and thus requires a big investment from both parties). “Crunches” account for a large percentage of absenteeism, for people leaving teams or breaking up collaborations.

The Pinch Model for Conflict helps us see how conflict builds over time, and how clarifying roles and expectations can help navigate them. This model and other scientific research tells us unambiguously that addressing pinches early, as well as re-negotiating expectations and roles, is the best way to navigate conflict. It also is an unavoidable part of any collaboration, as implicit expectations and needs are violated by others.

Most of our conflicts start underwater, as social needs and expectations are violated by others — often unintentionally. Illustration by Thea Schukken

Insight #3: Expressing your pinches well is hard

Learning to express your pinches clearly is a good way to navigate conflict more effectively. It's easy to turn an experienced pinch into blaming someone else. By making them feel bad in turn, you are likely to add more pinches to the chain.

“Learning to express your pinches clearly is a good way to navigate conflict more effectively.”

During the workshop, participants explored how the Experience Wheel helps express pinches more clearly by quickly completing four sentences in your head:

  1. I see … What are the things I see happening, as factually as possible?
  2. I feel … What are you feeling (in one word)?
  3. I want … What is your need from the other(s)?
  4. The story in my head is … What is your hunch or assumption about what the other(s) want?

Whenever you experience a pinch, the experience wheel helps express the pinch in a way that someone can productively respond to. During the workshop, participants practiced with this and received help from others in “tuning” their experience wheel for a conflict they experienced. We also practiced with Non-Violent Communication, another technique that serves a similar purpose.

Insight #4: How Liberating Structures Help

One area where many pinches occur is in (group) conversations with others. Their often-unstructured nature makes it particularly easy for people to keep going on and on, step over each other's opinions and say things that (unintentionally) hurt others. Liberating Structures hold the promise of creating environments where every voice can be heard and included.

During the workshop, we used Heard, Seen, Respected to let people express their personal needs in a conflict. We also used Wicked Questions to help make sense of the often paradoxical nature of conflicts, and how it is often possible to find solutions that address both “sides” of a conflict instead of just one. But we also used Troika Consulting, Impromptu Networking, 1–2–4-ALL and many other structures.

Tiny Demons in progress

Insight #5: A 1-day workshop and a lifetime of work

During the workshop, participants explored and practiced with a variety of techniques and perspectives on conflict and tension. Even though every one of them was easy and simple to apply, effectively navigating conflict takes a lifetime of work and practice. This workshop was just the first step.

“I think there’s something hopeful about the fact that experts in conflict navigation actually missed an opportunity to do so, resulting in a slight crunch.”

As a design team, we experienced the importance of that message ourselves. In the days leading up to the workshop, we experienced how an accumulation of pinches required a conversation about roles and expectations. As a team, we failed to create an environment where everyone felt they could contribute equally and be seen by others. There was significant tension when we started this conversation, but simply expressing our needs allowed us to clear the air and move forward as a team.

I think there’s something hopeful about the fact that that experts in conflict navigation actually missed an opportunity to do so, resulting in a slight crunch. It really takes a lifetime of work.

Closing

This workshop was a huge learning experience for me, personally. It was a pleasure to work with Julie Huffaker, Karen Dawson, and Daniel Steinhöfer. And to explore our own pinches with Barry Overeem.

The string of the workshop is available here. Due to the success of this first workshop, we’ve invited Julie Huffaker and Karen Dawson back for October 27, 2020. You can already sign up here.


You can support us by purchasing from our webshop, by joining one of our events or by becoming a patron.

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

Christiaan Verwijs

Written by

I aim to liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing and ineffective ways of organizing work. Professional Scrum Trainer & Steward @ Scrum.org

The Liberators

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