Who likes conflict? Not many of us. But differences, tensions and conflicts appear to be an unavoidable part of life. Sometimes conflict can even help pave the way to greater understanding, relationships, teamwork, community and change. But we often need a structured way to proceed in order to make conflict manageable and increase the chance that it will be productive. This article reviews the Process Work model of conflict formulated by Arnold and Amy Mindell: http://www.aamindell.net I’ll outline its three basic steps and offer some ways to practice it.
The first step of this model is “take your own side.” What this means is supporting one’s own position, point of view, interests, needs, feelings and requests. If we are in a facilitative role it means helping other parties with this. Unfortunately, many of us have had historical experiences that have discouraged us from taking our own side, believing in our own perspective or expressing our position, and thus making this step more challenging. Or we may experience present-day conditions that make taking one’s own side an intimidating or very sensitive act. For example, there may be workplace or social forces that skew towards avoiding issues or censuring members for speaking up even while there may be tensions that affect communications, relationships or the entire environment; or, there may be rank or power dynamics that make “taking your own side” challenging. That said, when possible, taking one’s own side in a relationship or conflict situation can help clarify an issue and may constitute an important step in communication. This act may help the other party respond as they now know at least half of the issue. Of course some people will be more or less comfortable with this step and some may strongly take their own side but resist taking the other’s side, our next step!
Step two is “taking the other’s side.” This step basically has us “get into the shoes of another.” This means attempting to understand, empathize and see the perspective, position, feelings, interests and needs of the other, even if momentarily. There are many ways to practice this step but in my mind what is most important is the attitude we use. Sincerity goes a long way here as it’s quite possible to take this step with a less-than-wholesome mindset. For example, we can “take the other’s side” in order to manipulate or criticize. One useful way to practice this step is to inquire, ask questions or otherwise find out more about the other’s position or point of view. “Please tell me where you’re coming from. I’m trying to understand.” Another way to practice this step is to use the power of imagination to see if we can “get into the shoes” of that other person. Folk wisdom suggests that we “walk a mile in another’s shoes before we judge them.” This is sound advice as it asks us to take time to get to know and understand the other. It doesn’t say, “take two steps.” For example, when I’ve been really polarized with another and tried this step it often takes the “mile” in order for me to go beyond the surface of the other’s apparent position to what may lie beneath it. In my experience working with couples, families, community groups and organizations, this step has the greatest potential to de-escalate conflict and reduce polarities, sometimes in an instant. If you consider conflicts with one side doggedly holding one position and the other side holding another position, then imagine what can happen when even one side takes up the other’s position. Even a temporary inquiry can start that process of de-escalation where a bit of understanding or empathy can begin a reconciliation.
The third step of this model (and these steps don’t necessarily happen sequentially though they might) is to take the witnessing or neutral position. This is a moment to step back and look at the relational or conflict situation from even a bit of a detached point of view. What are the parties doing or potentially learning? What might help them? If we are one of the conflicting parties what does stepping back do for us and is there “advice” from the place of detachment? The second step and this one are naturally harder to do when we are really upset or angry. Frequently, we have to at least partly engage in step one, taking our own side and expressing ourselves before we are willing or able to take the other’s side or step back to see what might be happening in the situation. The power of this step is evidenced within the role of the neutral facilitator in any conflict: the power of one who can bring a little neutrality or offer a larger perspective. With this step we may find that we too can become a little bit of the neutral facilitator, even while we may be engaged in a heated dispute!
Many of us are stronger in one step of this model than another. Some of us can more readily take our own side, some can more easily side with the other and some are more natural “observers.” That said, there may be a step that we find more challenging yet could represent an area of growth in communication and relationship work. For example, some of us take great strides in development when we learn to fully, deeply take our own side in relationship and conflict situations. For others amongst us, we may promote greater relationship health when we learn how to more readily, deeply, take the other’s side.
Leadership and facilitation roles can be a great opportunity for us to learn to hold a greater diversity of people and perspectives. Working with conflict further tests us to embrace a range of human experiences and emotions. Whether we are working with an explicit conflict or simply are challenged to hold disparate positions, we may benefit from these three steps. Practicing step one may help us develop our ability to listen to the depths and breadth of an issue. Have we heard the deepest expression of the issue or perspective? Are there others who may help fill out the general point of view in order to better understand a side or faction? Leaders may practice step two when we realize that we are struggling to accept a given person or perspective. “Getting into the shoes of another” may help us gain enough understanding or empathy to regain our ability to hold the diverse points of view in our group. Alternately, a facilitator may encourage step two as a practice for a given group in order that members can become more fluid in their stances and more open to the positions and perspectives of their peers. Lastly, the leader may practice or support step three, gaining the witnessing position in order to have a larger perspective of what may be occuring in a given conflict. Who can hold conflicts and diversity? The steps outlined here may become practices that grow the wholeness of who we are as we move towards a greater sense of community.