Category Archives: conflict resolution

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Spirituality and Conflict Resolution Work.

One of the insights gleaned from many years of conflict resolution work in local communities, schools and workplace situations is that it is profoundly spiritual activity. By this I do not mean it is religious in any narrow sense of the word.

Spirituality may at times overlap with religion – and the latter may at times utterly lack spirituality. Spirituality engages us with questions around the meaning of life, our truest selves and our profound interconnectedness with the environment and other people. Conflict sometimes creates a crisis where these matters come to a head.

For those involved in conflict there may be the temptation to give in to negative energies, opt for destructive strategies with regards to the other person and wallow in a broth of resentment, hurt and enemy images. The intensity of our reactions in conflict will vary with the nature of the conflict and also our own personal baggage and histories. Where we are able to negotiate conflict in a manner that enables the processing of all the negative emotions involved, seeks understanding of oneself and the other, pursues healing over retaliation and works toward optimal ends there we encounter spiritual growth.

The now clichéd reference to the Chinese character for crisis combining the symbols for danger and opportunity is still a resonant image for conflict. While fraught with danger it is nonetheless replete with opportunities for growth in the quality of our relationships with others, self-awareness and our capacity for engaging with difference. Conflict to that extent is a school for spirituality.

It is also a spiritual activity for those involved in conflict resolution work (e.g. providing third party facilitation) as qualities of patience, sensitivity, listening, respect for individuals and creativity are developed and honed. Some mediators have also discovered the benefits of meditation practice as one means of nourishing their skills as mediators. The ability to stay with silence, heightened sensitivity to moods, valences and optimal moments of readiness on the parts of individuals to move forward may accrue from such spiritual practices. Senator Mitchell once remarked on the patience required to stay with the recurrent cycles and rehearsals of historic hurts during the talks in Northern Ireland that eventually issued in the Good Friday agreement.

Helping disputing individuals and groups listen to one another in a new way, build bridges, find healing and move toward new opportunities for a different quality of relationship is a deeply spiritual activity.

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Delusions of Power: Top Down Models and Crap Management

One of the things that get in the way of wholesome communication and a positive approach to working through conflict in workplace situations – especially when the tension is between employer and employees – is the complex of insecurities around top-down models of leadership.

Leadership freighted heavily with hierarchical assumptions about its role will, on the one hand, have the advantage of being able to make quick decisions without consultation and, where these do not have a major impact on workers, will not do too much to undermine morale and productivity. It may even enhance the quality of workers’ experience at times. But where these decisions have a direct impact on the wellbeing of people, perhaps generating redundancies or affecting the work loads and patterns in ways that may be deemed to increase pressures on workers with whom little consultation about change had taken place, then tensions and disputes arise. The hierarchical approach to these conflicts is rarely helpful in the long term.

Where the disputes give rise to industrial and legal action, the tendency is for the hierarchal style of leadership to take refuge in a laager mentality, dig in for the fight, be defensive over negative comments about managerial decisions, and feed the polarizing energy.

During periods of tension and conflict he manager may go into denial mode as regards the relationship. In one situation where workers and management were in one of the regular meetings taking place within the organization, one of the workers expressed the sentiment that relations were awkward. This brought the response from the top manager, ‘No they are not. When you come to me you are always pushing on an open door.’ Even though this was utterly alien to the workers’ experience, it was said with a sense of deep conviction. Top down styles of management often lead to delusional states if, for no other reason, the boss spends excessive time talking to herself and not with the people who work for her. Consequently the sense of alienation between management and workers was deepened.

In some instances it is possible for other parts of the organization to come to the rescue. Management committees, boards of governors (for schools) and councils or senates (for Universities) may critically evaluate their situations free of domination by defensive egos – of both managers and workers – and elect to establish processes and forums for conflict and disputes to be addressed in supportive and helpful ways to the benefit of everyone.

The defensive ego of management which tends to react rather than respond is more likely to deliver a ‘management’ product that is less than competent to secure the wellbeing of workers – and here I am making a generous assumption that employee wellbeing is a high priority. A space in which disputes are processed, all views laid out, options critically evaluated and that allow everyone, as far as possible, to feel and be heard, can make a difference. It can relieve the manager of the burden of hierarchical habits and balance the power differential between management and workers.

Where a mutually chosen independent third party facilitator supports these spaces, the potential for a positive relationship between staff members and management is optimized. Even if unpopular decisions are arrived at after such a process, the chances are they will not be as encumbered with the negative charge they might have as a dictate from on high.

It makes the difference between ‘crap management’ and competent affirmation of the value of all workers.

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Mindful Structures: Working People not Pawns

I recently wrote about mindfulness practice and its impact across a range of domains for wellbeing and suggested the possibility of a ‘Mindfulness Based Conflict Transformation’ model for doing conflict. It might happily sit within the family of other approaches like ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ etc..

I am aware that underlying many conflicts in the workplace there are other factors beyond the ‘interpersonal’ dynamics that play a part in fueling conflict. These dynamics are themselves informed and exacerbated by systems of management and communication. We are in need of Mindful Structures as well as Mindful approaches to conflict.

What might these mindful structures look like? There are many possibilities which might suit the needs of diverse work situations. Whatever their shape they will bear certain qualities in common:

1. They will emphasise worker engagement and not just performance management. Management and supervision of members of staff will allow space for support as well as managing workloads and helping workers fulfill targets. There will also be a degree of flexibility in adjusting targets to more humane levels. I recollect a friend telling me that he had been committed to a range of targets by the funders of his organization, which he would work to, but he thought it would be to the damage of his own wellbeing. It may be a challenge to incorporate this kind of flexibility and in the end we may attain an optimal – if not perfect –balance between targets and worker wellbeing.
2. Transparency and communication will also be a feature of mindful structures. Top down dictates will give way to collegial approaches to setting aims and targets where possible. This may be more possible for smaller to medium sized third sector agencies than for statutory sectors. Where the situation may not allow for such ease of planning, targets and aims will be clearly communicated and opportunities created for negotiating the best strategies for working collegially toward work goals. Structures allowing for those who are responsible for delivery of service to listened to have a impact on employee morale, even where a degree of ‘top down’ management is entrenched.
3. Finally, in concert with the above, mindful structures will be seen to gather and respond to feedback from workers in meaningful ways. Feedback may be gathered from supervisions processes, surveys, suggestion boxes or other means but must be seen to be more than ‘non-sultation’ and mechanical. It must be genuine. It may not always be a case of saying ‘yes’ but will always engage openly and with reasons for any decisions taken. Perhaps in some cases it will even allow critical reflection on time-honoured habits of managing work places and risk creative thinking alongside workers to generate new possibilities. It will not necessarily be inefficient but will value the wellbeing of human workers –as opposed to ‘human resources’ – over the holy cow of efficiency. The irony may be that in doing so, in the long term, businesses, organisations and agencies will deliver a higher quality product.

But on that note we may be introducing another aspect of mindful structures: they think in terms of the big picture. I still remember the story of George Buss Sr. leading a group of business tycoons to visit Japan. Their Japanese counterparts reminded them that the Americans’ first port of call when companies face challenging times is to make workers redundant in order to keep profits high. The Japanese, on the other hand, initially would take a cut in salary in order to keep their workers employed. Redundancies were a last resort. This perfectly captured the difference between short-term foci on profits and long-term foci on the wellbeing of workers.

That sounded like a pretty mindful strategy to me. After all, workers are people, not pawns.