As a social innovator, when facilitating stakeholders through complex challenges, you might encounter conflicts on all kinds of levels: heated conflicts, or it might just be differences in perspectives that stagnate an innovative process, because parties are unable to “meet the other” and find a common denominator that enables them to co-create. Besides, some conflicts are not outspoken, and tension and avoidance between parties might inhibit them to engage into dialogue about future possibilities. Other conflicts, in which people are outspoken to each other, could result in a situation in which people (verbally) attack each other.
Throughout my education in becoming a social innovator, I have facilitated numerous sessions for companies and neighborhood challenges. In these sessions, I was able to learn about both my strengths, as well as what I find difficult as a facilitator. I recognized that these aspects are very much determined by my personality traits. I consider myself quite able to provide a communicative environment in which participants engage on a deeper, value level of dialogue, and I believe I tend to listen and ask exploring questions well, which also reflects on the dynamic of the group. In life situations, I do well when people get along. If people do not get along well, and there is a sense of confrontation, I tend to freeze in terms of what to say, or what my position is in directing a situation.
When being realistic about the possible contexts of societal challenges, a process and its involved stakeholders could hold many different forms, and conflicts could express themselves in a wide spectrum of ways. Definitely also as heated confrontations, especially when matters are close to peoples’ hearts.
If I am invited to contribute to such a process, I want to be equipped with skills that allow me to manage a situation that is confronting; skills that I believe are not so much part of my personal nature, however, in my view, relevant. To learn about my current limits and what I could possibly do in such situations, I interviewed professionals from different domains and different perspectives on conflict management, also out of the context of social innovation.
Moreover, I decided to work together with a training actor from Social Studies at Fontys College, to challenge myself, and experience what it could be like to facilitate a situation that is very confronting. Together with the actor, I devised a fictional case of a challenge. The actor played the roles of the different people in the conflict, and I facilitated the dialogue. The circumstances of the case were the following:
Residents have been experiencing nuisance from youngsters in the neighborhood. Parents of these youngsters clash with other residents around this issue, which has a negative effect on the livability and social cohesion in the neighborhood. So far, no sustainable solution has been found and the municipality has invited me as a facilitator to see if I can contribute to the question.
The participants that I invited to join the session are: parent of youngster that is causing nuisance; resident experiencing nuisance; local social worker; member of the municipality.
First of all, it was a challenging, but very rewarding experience for me. I was confronted by aspects from my personality that made it difficult for me to intervene in the conflict. At the beginning of the session, the tension between the two residents was very high, and they tended to blame the other for being the cause of the conflict.
For example, I asked the resident that experienced the nuisance, to tell what according to her the problem was. She said about the other resident: “Well, her kids are constantly making noise at night.” The other resident then responded: “Well, kids just need space to grow up and if you wouldn’t be such a whiner, then there would be no problem.” The residents threw some more blaming words toward one another, and then the actor suddenly paused the interchange between the two roles, to give me a moment to reflect.
At that moment, I was frozen and felt a little ashamed, and totally clueless about what to do next. The first thing that went through my head was: “Well, that escalated quickly.” However, after some reflection I realized that I actually contributed to their destructive interchange, because I asked them to share their view on the problem. We rewound the moment and I had the opportunity to try something different.
Instead of asking them for their view on the problem, I decided to start asking the residents what they find important in their lives and in the neighborhood. One of the residents said: “I find it important that it is quiet in the neighborhood, I need things to be peaceful.” The parent of the kids that caused nuisance said: “I find it important that my children have the space to play and grow up.” My intention here was to put the focus first on the people’s values, instead of the problem, and with that, trying to delay talking about the problem. I tried to do this to give the conversation some air.
However, fairly quickly after I had asked each of them to share what they found important, they started to blame each other again. I again got stuck. The actor then asked me to reflect on what I did as a facilitator. I realized that I created a situation in which they were allowed (and even encouraged) to react on each other. I concluded that at this stage, it was too early to have people react on each other, and I realized that it might be better if I would give people turns and have them communicate to me, instead of each other. The actor told me that this type of communication is called a “wheel-structure” (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Wheel-structure in communication by Maharjan (2018).
“In wheel pattern, there is a leader at the center of all communication. All others are members that stand at the same level in the structure. All members can communicate with the leader and vice versa. But, members cannot interact with each other. Communication problems are less and the method is quick. There is no distortion of information by other members of the group while passing the message.” (Maharjan, 2018). By applying a wheel-structure of communication and giving people turns, it took out noise from the conversation, and it helped to avoid escalation of the conflict. This communication structure helped to prevent escalation of the conflict and it helped to create grounds for new possibilities in the dialogue.
Furthermore, when trying to deal with the conflict in the session, I started asking myself more about my own frame of working: what are my own boundaries as a facilitator in terms of a groups’ behavior and circumstances? What standards and requirements do I have when I work? When the participants in the session lashed out onto each other once again, I choose to interrupt the conversation and spontaneously asked one of the residents: “Hold on, what do you think the impact is of what you are saying to her, and how would it be for you, if she reacted that way to you?” The resident then said: “Well, that would not feel good.” By confronting her and by asking her to self-reflect on her behavior, I was able to take some of the hostility out of the situation, but also set a standard of norms which I find a requirement as part of the communicative environment.
I concluded that I as a facilitator am in the position to set a standard of norms, and that I can explicitly set boundaries and rules of communication when necessary. For example, when people disrespect each other. I also concluded that when those boundaries and norms are constantly disrespected, I believe the situation rather belongs in the realm of therapists, psychologists or social workers. Although I am willing to create a healthy communicative environment, the moment that someone deliberately sabotage a process or disrespect the norms, I choose not to continue the session with that person. I need a certain level of willingness to participate.
The session with the actor gave me some valuable and relevant insights about facilitating, especially about different communication structures that I could use, and about the boundaries of norms that I (can) set as facilitator. I also learned more about my style of facilitating. I realized that naturally, I tend to deal with confrontation in the following way: instead of punishing people for certain destructive behavior, I tend to confront them by stimulating self-reflection on their behavior and with that, provide an opportunity for people to change their behavior themselves. With the result, I aim to improve the quality of the interactions in the process and create conditions for progression between people.
“Treat people in a way you wish to be treated” – a norm
Working together with the actor allowed me to learn in a safe environment, and it gave me insights into elements that I could adopt to my own practice. Nevertheless, although I was able to explore some communicative approaches, some of my tendencies, and boundaries that I carry as a facilitator, I recognize that I am just at the beginning stages as a professional facilitator. The experience made me curious about discovering more in the future.