Once again this year on Thursday last week I was delighted and awed by exceptional facilitation that left my brain aching, my practice challenged, and subsequently behaviour changed. Neil Denny piloted his Conflict Leadership Masterclass with a small group of eclectically diverse professionals, with two things in common. Neil, and a love of good coffee which he readily supplied. Although he did refer to us collectively as middle-class which I’m still uncomfortable with.
[Interjection > if you now want to read about class, check out this Times newspaper article. Neil had us mapping out news articles to Kartman’s Drama Triangle. Fab exercise with both hilarious and insightful consequences. In a triad we found this article in the Times of the day.This blog will proceed to not explore class.]
Ego and Power
What made the session so exceptional, is that Neil like others I have experience the stylings of this year, facilitates learning without ego. I’m not suggesting superiority. In fact the whole experience of observing someone perform in a traditionally authoritative and leadership position without ego, cancels out arrogance or superiority in replace of humility. For me, that feels like the presence of great leadership. I am absorbed and learning, and with that, ready to be curious.
To be the trainer/educator/leader is a position of implicit power. Whether you chose to be power-full or not – power is constructionally and traditionally present within these roles. In learning and development leadership, it’s all over it. By assuming said role it is therefore your responsibility to acknowledge it, and distribute it for the benefit of others and for the benefit of learning and growth. The alternative – power remains tacitly yours. Ignore or neglect it, and your ego will be sure to own it for you.
What I observed Neil so ‘deliciously’ exercise, and model encouragingly is negative capability. The paradox between ‘expert’ and the ‘not-knowing position’ that allows others the opportunity to really flourish and realise their ability. How? It helps if you start in position of positive regard, open to seeing the potential in other people. Whatever their presentation. You are the leader here, and that’s how I see the three naturally come together: leadership, learning and conflict.
Contextual Dynamics of Conflict
Neil presented Mayer’s Dynamics of Conflict, highlighting the presence of power in the leadership position, with encouragement not to use it. Resolution approaches that include comments like “I’m pulling rank” just don’t cut it. Yes they may work, but not without tipping the power in your favour and ultimately leaving the ‘other’ dis-empowered by nature of the interaction. Who knows, you might work with someone comfortable with that. But Neil suggested that conflict leadership is about conflict engagement and not necessarily the expectation of resolution (however this is ultimately likely to follow).
Another of Mayer’s contextual elements which struck me was personality, and how easily we use trait to dehumanise the ‘other’ person in conflict. Neil added that to dehumanise the other person is step 4 in ‘how to make an enemy’ (from John Lederach’s book Reconcile). It’s easy to refer to the ‘other’ as obstacle, vehicle or irrelevant, rendering them less human, e.g. “that’s just what they are like…lazy”. A personally attributed fault rather than a situational cause or reason. Viewing behaviour as something a person is, not what they are currently doing.
This relates to perceptions of addiction. People are commonly described as an alcoholic, rather than someone who is currently dependent upon alcohol. The former describing fixedness, whilst in the latter communicates belief in the potential for change.
Avoiding dehumanising, as the leader in conflict it’s more helpful to come alongside and validate the other person’s position: no need to sit on the fence, but walk alongside it, stick your head through and look around to get a real feel of their position (I understand this as demonstrating empathy – but Neil wasn’t keen on this term – and I agree that empathy is often misunderstood; making it one of my favourite topics for conversation). A curious position, with a genuine interest to understand where the other person is coming from. To let them know you understand before expressing your position is validating, to express this without agreement or joining them is empathy.
Emotion in Conflict
Leadership conflict also goes a step further for me with regard to the presence of emotion, the emotional competence of those in conflict to respond effectively, and the responsibility to do so. The presence of conflict means the presence of threat, which triggers a natural fight or flight response; whether or not the perceived threat is an actual one. We’re talking immediate here, with no paused attention or rationalisation. OR the created relational affect of one person with power and another with none in conflict. The physiological changes can still automatically occur, even when we chose to ‘fight’ or stay in the situation and exert effort to communicate, engage or resolve whatever is present. And at the same time our micro-expressions are ever present, betraying our intended approach: our choice to override biology with rationality and choose what we communicate. Biologically, I can see and interpret your non-verbals when you feel threatened. Not because I’m a body language expert but because I’m a human too and we’re designed to interpret how each other feel. At this point I can perceive without attention and react to a physiological display of feeling ‘threatened’, which then emits threat. In that case my auto-bio response is defence (fight or flight again). We mirror. We are both interpreting threat. We confront, or not.
The beauty of being human and not ape is meta-cognition, 3rd-order thinking (some evolutionary psychologists argue this is how we evolved, for others it was hallucinogenics that enabled this – oops another occupationally hazardous digression), including the ability to be an objective moderator of subjective experience and thoughts. We have the ability to: notice our physiological fight or flight; override it; make choices to act in spite of it; and notice that others’ non-verbals (our immediate interpretation of their position) may not be an attempt to threaten, but their own perception of feeling threatened. And if you’re the leader here, with the power, the Other is on the back foot.
Aside of whatever role you happen to find yourself in, leadership is a choice. In Neil’s workshop he offered out that choice for consideration, and gestured that with leadership comes the responsibility for approaching conflict with leadership. This for me means leadership in conflict comes with the responsibility of demonstrating emotional intelligence. To make choices regarding visible (or anticipated) emotion that balance power and maintain comfort with discomfort to engage in meaningful dialogue. And to be aware of and prepared to acknowledge this. This can be as simple as finding more respectful ways of asking ‘why’? Like ‘I wonder what your thinking is there’ or ‘I’m interested to understand what’s important to you’ or ‘what do you mean by…’. Though potentially too simple without context, it’s that not-knowing perspective mentioned previously.
Learning through constructive conflict
True learning is going to place of ‘stretch’ and engaged flow, where it’s safe enough to challenge existing ideas and beliefs, and being open to consider those of others. It’s Maslow’s self-actualising – whom I’ll continue to champion, as despite being old his theories hold relevancy. Leadership in learning enables constructive conflict to facilitate learning:
Somewhere in between pedagogy and andragogy, there is a place. A sweet spot. Where responsive intuitive leadership enables conflict, curiosity and true learning. Superseded by doing something different, because you choose to.You’ll find me there – growing in the komorebi.
I love my work because observing from equipoise is the most rewarding place to be; collaboratively learning with mutual benefit. I thank everyone who has attended something I’ve facilitated this year for providing that for me. And all those brain-achingly good 1:1s! More importantly those who have enabled this for me, by being exceptional leaders in learning.
“If the smartest person in the room is you – you’re in the wrong room” – Richard Tirendi
Fact, perception or mindset?