Once More With Feeling: Conflict as an Opportunity for Harnessing Emotional Energy
While the dream of community is living in harmony, the essential challenge of community is learning how to disagree constructively.
No matter how careful we are about selecting community members who are aligned with common values, there will inevitably be disagreement, hopefully accompanied by occasional strong feelings (who wants to live in a community where the members lack passion?).
I define conflict as a situation with at least two different viewpoints and at least one emotional charge. I further assert that emotional charge about specific incidents is rooted in emotional distress, which depends on who we have come to be as a complex accumulation of inherent and learned responses. People have varying degrees of self-awareness about their emotional make-up and differing abilities and inclinations to separate charge in the moment from their general pattern. Also, individuals and groups have different commitments to exploring the connection between charge and distress.
For this article, when I talk about charge, upset, or distress, I am referring to whatever is accessible in the moment, whether it be direct and simple, or deep and complex. How far you take a particular examination will depend on the specifics of the situation. If the deeper distress is not triggered, fine. I’m focusing here on when it is, with the idea that the more complicated dynamic is the more challenging issue.
I view conflict as a naturally occurring phenomenon in any healthy group. As such, the problem with conflict is not so much that it occurs, but that we generally haven’t learned to work with it well. Mostly we respond with attempts to coerce, intimidate, manipulate, outvote, submit, exit, or fight.
While there is quite a bit written about how to communicate in ways that reduce the risk of triggering emotional distress, I want to focus here on what happens when distress is triggered. It’s good to know all you can about staying on the road, yet you won’t be a complete driver until you also know how to get out of the ditch. (And it’s my experience that fear of the ditch—emotional distress —can actually be worse than being in the ditch, and certainly makes travel more tense.)
There are good reasons for being nervous about emotional upset. It is typically commingled with aggression, and people often get hurt—at least psychologically, and possibly worse. You don’t have to be caught too many times in the thunderstorms of distress before you start looking for protection as soon as storm clouds roll into the room. For the most part, if it’s our distress, we either erupt or learn to stuff it. If we encounter it in others, we respond in kind or try to get safely out of the way. While some groups have the culture of embracing high-energy, spirited discourse in no-holds-barred free-for-alls, most prefer to ignore emotional surges, or, if they can’t, to contain them, calling a break to let the belligerents cool down before re-engaging. I want to explore a counterintuitive approach—leaning into the emotional punch, with purpose. Not with the idea of promoting upset, but of working with the opportunities it presents.
The first challenge is separating expression of feelings from abuse; emotions from aggression. I’m asking you to invite anger, while separating it from blame; to welcome tears, yet discourage guilt tripping; to make room for fear, yet expose paranoia.
As you might imagine, it is easier to offer this guidance than to put it into practice, especially in the heat of the moment. With all the complications this entails, why do the work of sorting out emotions from aggression? I have two answers. First, emotions are part of who we are as human beings, and I find it crippling to not paint with a full palette. While the typical Western model of group interaction is based on the exchange of rational thought, what about feelings, intuition, kinesthetic knowledge, and spiritual truth? People take in, process, and share information in various ways. Rational discourse is only one. In an effort to open up other paths, I want to look expressly at emotional knowing.
Nonrational knowing can come in the form of strong feelings, and it can also be quiet. Have you ever been in a meeting where the discussion was proceeding steadily toward agreement when someone contributes, “I don’t know, but there is something that just doesn’t feel right”? Even in groups that try to make room for this kind of statement (meaning eyeballs don’t start rolling immediately), the typical response is an inquiry into what that can mean, and then pressure mounts for the person with the uneasy feeling to either get articulate, or get some Alka-Seltzer and let the group move on.
If, instead, there is an attitude that feelings or intuitions can be just as valuable a path to insight as rational thought, you can get a different experience. For example, years ago I worked with a seven-person community about an issue they had with how group finances were handled. After only 15 minutes it was apparent that most group members preferred a switch to another method of recording and reporting expenditures. However, we didn’t rest there because one person had an uneasy feeling about it—and that person was the finance manager.
I was there as an outside facilitator because the group had been at that juncture before and had repeatedly gotten stuck. What I did differently was assume that the uneasy feeling carried important information (even though this is not always the case—sometimes feelings are triggered by stimulation of unresolved past distresses that have nothing to do with the current issue, and until you look into it, you don’t know the meaning of that uneasiness).
As facilitator, I created an environment of patient exploration (groups will let outside facilitators do almost anything once). I asked the finance manager if this feeling had come up before and went from there, never pushing. After an hour we’d discovered that the root worry had to do with fears that the proposed change would mask information about how money was used, and the manager was afraid to disclose this interest because it might call into question their trust in the group. (There is great irony here in that the manager’s lack of trust in the group’s ability to talk constructively about trust led to the rest of the group not trusting the manager to implement agreements. It was quite a tangle.) Once we finally got that out in the open, it was relatively straightforward to get assurances from the group that the manager’s interests were valid and could be met in more direct ways. This resolved the uneasy feeling and the proposed changes in accounting could finally go forward. For this issue, rational discourse alone was simply not getting the job done.
A second reason for welcoming strong feelings is that they are a source of energy. This is not so admired when the energy is wild and out of control like an untended fire hose randomly thrashing around the room. But what if we learned to harness that energy, and bring it to bear on our issues, instead of on our neighbor’s head? Under control, we can direct that hose, and focus the powerful stream to quench hot issues. Have you ever noticed how people are more engaged when there is strong feeling in the room? Let’s put that attention to work!
What’s at Stake?
Forcing people into the rational often prohibits people from working where they are most comfortable, and does not allow a full range of input. If you don’t work with distress, you risk losing the contributions from and learnings for the people left unattended, plus it creates a background of tensions for those witnessing but not in the distress themselves. Can we afford this?
Working with distress in the dynamic moment allows the possibility of drawing out the poison and building creative, cross-viewpoint solutions which can have a dramatic impact on implementation.
I once worked with a multiracial, multiclass neighborhood association that was struggling to define its mission and just how much diversity it could bridge. In a pivotal meeting, one group member threatened to drop out, which would have left a segment of the neighborhood unrepresented on the council. Anxiety was high in the room, yet we stayed with the moment long enough to make a clear statement of intent to retain the dissenting member. When that person ultimately decided to leave, we worked immediately to access feelings of anger, fear, and guilt about the loss. Being clean and complete in its engagement with the dynamics, the council entered the most productive and cohesive two months of its existence.
This story illuminates two things. First, opening up emotional factors does not guarantee that everyone will like what’s exposed or even remain in the group. Second, taking the time for in-depth emotional work often promotes group cohesion and sets the table for productive bursts.
Once you experience the positive results of welcoming emotions, you simultaneously reduce fear of emotions. And once you start expecting good results from meetings—any meetings—you are already half the way toward getting them.
How to Do It
While the range of human interactions is infinite, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that guarantees success, here is an experience-tested four-step outline for productive engagement once conflict arises. While this model can be applied with any number of people, there is a strong tendency to process emotional distress alone or in pairs. Though much can be accomplished this way, there is a particular advantage to working with conflict in a group. It is more likely there will be neutral noncombatants present to ask questions and shepherd the process— whether this is being done by a designated facilitator or not. Ques-tions posed by parties neutral to the conflict can elicit completely different responses than the same questions coming from the lips of protagonists. Thus, I suggest that this model may be most effective when neutral parties are available to actively facilitate.
A precondition for using this model effectively is gaining explicit agreement or permission from the group to do this. This model will only be effective if the group allows it to be. Please do not assume the mantle of divinely inspired conflict superhero who goes forth springing this process on the unsuspecting.
Step 1. Acknowledge the distress. Start anywhere and ask what’s happening, making sure that everyone understands each person’s story before moving on (understanding is different than agreeing). If there’s a multicar wreck, attend to the most seriously injured first, staying on the job until everyone’s wound has been (ad)dressed.
Step 2. After getting the important feelings named and acknowledged, you can move on to explore each person’s version of how the accident happened. What are the perceptions of the “facts”? Sometimes providing an uninterrupted opportunity for each party to tell their story can lead to a breakthrough all by itself, where the principals can let go of attachment to history once they’ve been allowed to state it.
One pitfall here is the temptation to be the “truth police.” What we’re after is building relationship, not discovery of truth. With that in mind, you try to name the points in common and the points that differ, aiming for recognition, not reconciliation. Be prepared for stories to differ wildly—sometimes it’s hard to credit that two people are talking about the same event. Each party can be laboring under the mistaken idea that there’s a single objective reality (theirs), and these differences must be exposed and acknowledged before it’s possible to build durable solutions.
Step 3. Ask each party what they want. What’s the fullest expression of each person’s views about this issue? Occasionally the strength of reaction in a conflict hinges around a gross misunderstanding about what others want. People in distress often make up stories about what’s wanted by others, and forget to check it out. For this step, it isn’t necessary that answers be bounded by what is reasonable or attainable. An answer can be modest or huge; it can be anything from second helpings of dessert to the Second Coming. As before, note the differences and similarities in responses, then go on.
Step 4. Finally, ask each what the person wants to do about it. (This is not “What do you want others to do about it?”) Answers here should be concrete and measurable. In step (3), you might get “I want to be friends.” To step (4), “I’m willing to meet for two hours every Thursday afternoon for the next two months to work on our relationship.”
Having de-escalated the tension through steps (1) and (2), and established a common understanding of what’s wanted in step (3), you finally begin problem solving, starting with what each can contribute. This sets the stage for creative exploration of new ways, or seeing old positions in a new light. It is important in this model to link the examination of hurts with active problem solving, taking advantage of openings in the former to forge agreements in the latter.
A common error in conflict resolution is people jumping to possible solutions (step (4)) as soon as tension surfaces, and before there’s been a full expression or acknowledgment of the feelings and desires. Typically, these efforts fail to resolve the matter—even when the proposed action is no different than what evolves from following each step above. That’s because buy-in is nearly impossible if one or more parties don’t feel the other side has heard or understood their concerns.
What I’m proposing may sound like therapy, and there is certainly overlap with the skills of careful listening and reflecting. However, this is not therapy in any professional sense. It is peer counseling, which is equals trying to help each other out of the ditch. People who facilitate conflict in groups operate in a middle ground—somewhere in the wide terrain between traffic cop (deciding who gets to talk next) and psychologist (tell me all about it). It is crucial that the facilitator know what the group has agreed to undertake, so that there is a sense of boundaries and safety for the individual in the process. Everyone should know ahead of time what may occur among group members when probing conflict.
Choices in Distress
I want to end this article by looking at the healthy choices available for use once someone is in the ditch. I think there are four, all of which have their legitimate place É and all of which can be misused. Learning what they are and how to employ them in constructive combinations is a lot of what is meant by “emotional maturity.” I think it’s useful for groups to understand these choices, to help guide individuals once they are charged up.
This is disengaging and distancing yourself from the thing that’s disturbing. It can be a minor shift or a major one: leave the topic; leave the room; leave the group.
The fact is, there are too many irritating things out there to address them all. If we attempted to process every distress that came our way, we’d never do anything else. You have to pick your spots, choosing engagement where the payoff is greatest (either in reduced anguish or improved happiness—and these, of course, are related). At the same time, the danger with making this choice is that people have a tendency to choose inappropriately. They hope that an upset will not hook into their distress, but sometimes it does. Once distress enters the picture, you only have two choices—pay now, or pay later. And the interest charged on deferred attention to emotional distress can really add up. In their determination to let go, people may hide the lingering distress (either consciously or unconsciously) and have it surface in surprising and unpleasant ways, such as distorted reactions in unrelated situations, loss of attentiveness, or even ill health.
If you’re going to engage on the issue, that leaves only two options.
3. Request a Change
Ask the other person(s) to change their behavior. This, of course, tends to be everyone’s favorite choice, and sometimes it works. When the other person has no attachment to the thing that was offending, or cares enough about relieving your distress relative to their inconvenience to make a change, you can get your wish.
However, that only works some of the time. When it doesn’t, only one choice remains.
4. Change How You Feel About It
This option is the least frequently selected and the most commonly misunderstood, yet it has tremendous potential. Sometimes people insist that there be a reciprocal offering from the other person as a precondition for their own movement. While this occasionally works and there can be a feeling of power and a sense of balance in this approach, look again. By tying your relief to another’s actions, you are accepting a disempowered position. Your experience of distress is held hostage to your demand for reciprocity.
While there is nothing wrong with reciprocity when you can get it, what can you do when that’s not on the menu? Let’s examine the power of unilateral work on one’s feelings.
I am not suggesting something as simplistic as, “You’re angry, get over it.” I’m saying something much richer: first notice what your feelings are, and then do what you can to understand their roots. Ask the question, “Where does this reaction come from?” With the answer to that, ask yourself whether your reaction is appropriate to the current situation, or whether you are bringing an old pattern into play. If you decide your response is not apropos, do you want to work on changing your response? What’s the payoff for staying in an old pattern? An answer might be to do some personal pruning to clear your psyche of dead wood, and bring your emotional reactions to present-day reality. I won’t pretend this is easy; yet it’s clearly your work and not the responsibility of the person whose actions triggered your emotional response.
If your feelings are appropriate to the situation, I suggest you work first to express your feelings and see that they are understood. (This is unrelated to a request for action; here you are just aiming for disclosure.) Next, ask, “What change can I effect?” Or, “What’s possible?” The premise here is that feelings themselves are neither bad nor good; they are information and energy. What do you want to do with them? Even if you deem your response appropriate, you have the chance to assess the pros and cons of staying in that response. This examination can be done in a wide variety of ways: personal reflection, meditation, conversation with friends, peer counseling, therapy—use anything that helps!
The way I finally “got it” about the power of unilateral work was in relation to my father. He and I fought more or less continuously throughout my early adulthood. Part of my pattern in distress is to have imaginary conversations with my adversary (in which I invariably say witty, brave, and crushing things while the other observes meekly in clumsy humiliation), and I was having a lot of “talks” with dad during those years. Finally, after 15 years of rocky relations, I started reflecting on my part in why it wasn’t working (instead of sustaining the charade that it was all his fault).
After months of agonizing, I wrote my father a letter. I called attention to my perception that despite deep caring for each other, we had a tough time doing anything other than fighting. I wrote that I felt we both played a part in why it didn’t work. I told him a bunch of things I thought I was contributing to why it wasn’t working, and invited his response. A few weeks later I got a letter É in which he told me some more things I’d been doing to make it not work. It was not to the response I was hoping for.
However, having finally started to look in the mirror, I was determined to not go back to pretending it was all his fault. I continued the work of examining my own role in the dynamic and was able to give up my feelings of anger toward my father for not respecting my life choices. I finally came to understand how I was a prisoner of my own anger. My father died three years after I wrote that letter and we never reconciled. I did, however, stop having imaginary conversations with him. I did finally look at the origins of my distress and made the choice to change my feelings. And that’s how I came to know the possibility and power of unilateral emotional work. It took me 15 years, but I finally got it.
Thus, one reason for examining emotional distress is that once you begin to know yourself better, you might be able to eliminate barriers to hearing others more fully. Emotional distress can be thought of as a kind of psychic earwax; left unattended, it can permanently distort your hearing. Not working through distress is dangerous for another reason as well—you’ll teach people around you not to give you information about their views and how you are perceived.
If you stay mired in your distress, people may find you unpleasant to be around. They may learn to avoid offering you information because they don’t want to risk your reaction. If you have an aggressive response to distress, it is even worse. In its most straightforward application, people will learn to avoid offering feedback for fear it will trigger aggression that will be directed toward them (shooting the messenger).
My personal struggles with distress took a more subtle form. I didn’t begin unraveling it until my mid-40s. I sabotaged the feedback loop not so much by fighting off the other person or their comments as by using the feedback to beat myself up. Witnessing my self-flagellation was so unpleasant that fellow community members hesitated to give feedback the next time, for fear I’d use it as a weapon against myself. While a person can hardly be held accountable for feedback they never received, it took me long years to understand that I was unwittingly discouraging the information from reaching me in the first place.
The good news is that this is reversible. If people see that you work constructively and creatively with emotional distress, they’ll be encouraged to offer their perceptions. Since information about how we are perceived is crucial in assessing where we are in relation to where we want to be, it becomes essential to encourage the messengers, not shoo them (much less shoot them).
Author Bio: Laird Sandhill has been living in the fire of intentional community since 1974, and active in intercommunity networking since 1979. He has been involved with the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC) since 1986 and been doing consulting work on group process since 1987. Excited about what community living has taught him and others about how to live cooperatively, today he is a principal in the CANBRIDGE process collective, making the learnings available to interested groups everywhere. He can be reached at RR 1 Box 156-D, Rutledge MO 63563, USA. Tel: 660-883-5545, email: [email protected]