facilitation & mediation
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.