facilitation & mediation
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Creating an Empowering Space
To move from polarized to exploratory conflict requires the co-creation of an empowering space which is an on-going process that changes over time and is subject to many other factors within a team and the wider organisation.
An empowering space has five characteristics:
The goal of facilitation or mediation then is to engage in communication that supports the co-creation of an empowering space so that people feel that they have an equal voice in speaking up and being responded to.
The focus is on both the individual and the collective enterprise. Individuals have the potential to grow and achieve outcomes important to them, which also benefits the whole.
The working relationship, team and organisation is also viewed as a resource to enable the individuals or team to achieve these outcomes.
Perceptions of Workplace Conflict
If asked to describe what constitutes workplace conflict, most of us would probably initially associate the word ‘conflict’ with experiences in our present or past working or personal life that were negative, stressful or distressing. Those situations would most likely be characterised by a sense of frustration and powerlessness, and this would be true irrespective of whether we are in the role of a supervisor, manager or team member.
We would no doubt also be able to recall positive experiences of open communication where we felt heard and understood in the process of resolving our conflicts at work. These positive experiences of conflict would be characterised by a sense of shared power, trust and mutual respect, even though we may not always have achieved our preferred outcome.
In this sense, our experience of workplace conflict is not unlike our experience of conflict in our personal and family lives, in that while we do have significant and rewarding experiences of being able to work through our conflicts with each other; we still tend to have an over-riding perception of conflict as something undesirable, negative and difficult to deal with.
A Functional Understanding of Conflict
It is suggested that in order to respond more effectively to conflict we need to re-frame our definition of workplace conflict so that it is neither negative nor positive but functional, as a function of all human interactions. Workplace conflict is instead viewed as an outgrowth of diversity and differences and is a natural process of communication and as an inevitable aspect of all human relationships arising from the fact that human interdependence means that all human relationships are power relationships.
Power is not seen here as something that anyone possesses or lacks, but rather, is a characteristic of all human relating. In human action, power is an enabling-constraining relationship where the power balance is tilted in favour of some and against others depending upon the relative need they have for each other, for example, one may have control over resources that others need. These power relationships form figurations, or groupings, in which some are included, and others are excluded and where the power balance is tilted in favour of some groupings and against others.
If there is a significant power imbalance within a relationship, this may have an impact on a person’s capacity to communicate freely about their concerns and resolve their differences. A whole range of factors come into play within our power relationships including:
Gender, age, class, sexuality, ability/disability, health, colour or ethnic background
Experience, length of service, position, role or rank
Training and education
Expertise and technical knowledge
Personality or physical characteristics
Ideas, philosophy, religion and values
Conflict also always involves the substantive issues or what is actually happening between people and the socioemotional aspects of our interpersonal relationships with each other. When people feel that something is happening that is unfair or harmful in some way and that may also be having an impact on their “we” or “I” identity.
We also hold strong values and ideas about how things “should” be which also come into play when trying to work out why a conflict is unfolding and how it can be resolved.
Resolving our differences is as a result understandably a complex process that requires good faith and trust, which may not always be possible.
Polarized and Explorative Conflict
In accepting the inherently neutral nature of conflict we can then start to move the focus away from what is often experienced as a disempowering fear at the core of most conflicts. We can also stop investing energy in avoiding the potential negative consequences of entering into conflict and instead focus on how we can respond effectively and positively to those conflicts both at an individual and organisational level.
One way of doing this is to appreciate that conflict shifts between becoming polarized conflict where people take up fixed win-lose positions and 'explorative conflict' (Grant, 2008), in which they carry on talking about their differences and negotiating a way of going on together.
This is important because they live very close together and knowing how to stay out of polarized conflict is a skill that can be developed. If we try to prevent conflict believing that it can somehow be managed away, or we try to repress it and make it a negative thing then inevitably conflict is pushed into becoming polarized. So, negating the differences is not the solution.
Instead we look to creating as many opportunities as we can in developing relationships and discussing and engaging differences. In doing so we co-create another form of conflict called 'exploratory conflict'. The challenge is that exploring differences can quickly and easily erupt into polarized conflict. Explorative conflict is in a sense always at the edge of polarized conflict, which is why many people avoid it.. Taking risks though is inherent in engaging with explorative conflict in order to reduce the potential for polarized conflict.
However, to take these risks we need to feel supported and safe enough at work to do so. Organisations need empowering cultural practices and to know how to use empowering communication with each other. Then we can ask what a conflict situation tells me about myself, my working relationships, my team or my organisation? While the answer to this question is ultimately subjective and value laden it is suggested that in asking it of ourselves and each other we begin to improve our level of self-awareness and stay closer to explorative conflict and so increase our capacity to respond more effectively.
We can also begin to work out something of what we want that makes sense to us collectively, even with our differences, and even if this does not always result in agreements that work or that meet everyone’s needs.