Illustrative of this point, I'm just wrapping up a four-week swing through the Eastern time zone in which I've worked with three different residential communities. In all three instances, a portion of what I did was explain my thinking about conflict, and then demonstrate its application with a live example of some festering interpersonal tension where the protagonists volunteered from the floor. Think of it as theater in the round.
While all groups have conflict, only some have a commitment to engage with it when it surfaces. Fewer still have agreements about how to engage with it and members trained in delivering that support. Some groups (less than half) have a Conflict Resolution Team (in one version or another) whose job it is to be available to support members having trouble extricating themselves from the mud all alone.
While I'm always happy to hear that such support is in place, it turns out that Conflict Teams tend to be like the apocryphal Maytag repairman: grossly underused. Why? Here are half a dozen reasons that explain what I think is going on:
1. Is the team authorized to be pro-active?
When groups first stick their collective toes into the swirling waters of distress there is a tendency to take baby steps rather than full strides, with the result that the team is expected to not engage unless asked in by one or (hopefully) both protagonists.
This caution will definitely choke the amount of work that comes the team's way in that there are all manner of reasons why people needing help don't ask for it—including pride, embarrassment, uncertainty about whether it will make a difference, and lack of confidence in the members of the team. Further, people in distress don't always make good assessments about what's happening and what they need, all of which complicates case loads for the Conflict Team.
Better, I think, is to authorize the team to step in whenever it has the sense that there's unresolved tension and it's spilling over into group functionality.
2. Lack of a baseline commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve conflict if named as a player by another member
This is an important understanding that's missing in most groups. Thus, if Chris is struggling with Dale and asks Dale to discuss it (in an attempt to work it out), is it acceptable for Dale to say, "No"?
Mind you, I'm not saying that Dale needs to agree with Chris' story about what happened, to admit culpability, or to accept blame; I'm only suggesting that they have an explicit obligation—by virtue of being a member of the group—to make an honest attempt to sit down with Chris (perhaps with third party help from the Conflict Team) and sort it out.
Lacking this agreement, many people named in a conflict are leery of getting together with someone known to be upset with them, for fear of being the pin cushion in a wrestling match with a porcupine. Who needs it?
3. Lack of clarity about what support looks like
Often, groups empanel a Conflict Team without being clear how they will conduct their work, what options are available to protagonists regarding formats, or what support and safety will be extended to "customers."
Ambiguity about these things amounts to signing a blank check and it's understandable that there will be hesitancy about committing to an unknown process to navigate volatile territory. Juggling live sticks of dynamite is dangerous on any occasion; is it any wonder that being asked to do so in an unknown dark room is not appealing?
4. Lack of confidence in the skill of the team
Even if the process is fairly well defined (addressing the previous concern), there may be serious questions about whether Conflict Team members are sufficiently proficient at managing it. Who wants student doctors in charge while you're undergoing open heart surgery?
5. Confusion about whether team members facilitate all conflict cases that come their way
One reason why members don't approach the team for help with a conflict is that they may not have the impression that any of the team members are sufficiently neutral. Team members may be known to be close friends with the person you're conflicted with, or highly sympathetic to your antagonist's viewpoint. When those conditions obtain it's understandable that would-be customers try to get their needs met elsewhere.
The remedy, I think, is to spell out the expectation that the team is responsible for finding a facilitator (or team of facilitators) who is skilled enough and neutral enough to be mutually agreeable to all parties. There is no need to limit who is eligible for filling this important role to team members or anyone else—including the possibility of securing help from outside the group. The prime directive here is having a successful meeting between Chris and Dale—not generating work for people wanting to facilitate conflict.
6. Casualness in how team members are selected
For the Conflict Team to be used a lot, great care needs to be taken in how team members are selected. This is not an appropriate occasion to simply accept the first four people who volunteer for the job. While desire to do the work may be a factor, it isn't nearly enough.
First you'll want to delineate the qualities wanted from people serving in this capacity. The list might look something like this:
o Good listener
o Ability to work constructively with emotions and in the presence of high distress
o Ability to collaborate well (with fellow team members)
o Good communication skills
o Skilled at facilitation
o Has time in their life to make the team's work a priority when a conflict arises
Second, you'll want a selection process that gives the whole group adequate opportunity to indicate which members rate high for these qualities.
• • •It's one thing to know enough that you need a tool and make the effort to have it on hand. But that's not enough. You also have to make sure the tool is used when the occasion for which it was secured arises. A garden hose that's left untouched, coiled neatly at the side of the house when a fire starts among the leaves in your side yard, is not much different than having no hose.