Bring curiosity into conflict
I wanted to quit. Really, I did.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been participating with a volunteer group trying to work through a sticky issue. It’s an effort that I joined readily and am actively engaged in. Every person involved is smart and dedicated, we all are driving towards the same goal. A variety of opinions and creative ideas have surfaced in the many conversations we’ve exchanged; dialogue has been completely respectful and often supportive.
Yet, at one point last week, I felt that the tide had turned, where many people were headed in a direction that was contrary to how I would move forward if the decision was solely mine. And in the short period of one day, I almost quit. I was ready to walk away, not from the overall project, but from the group who was working so hard to fix the problem. I had emailed another person to say I was thinking of not coming to the meeting planned for the following night. I told her I was worried about the direction and needed to think things through a bit more.
Something stopped me short of that decision to back out. I’m not sure exactly why I changed my mind. Maybe it was the knowledge that the group desperately wanted the same things I did. Or maybe I realized that if I walked away, I eliminated any chance of furthering our collective efforts. So instead of giving up, I found a better solution. I brought my curiosity about the conflict to the meeting! I needed to hear what everyone had to say, to get a better understanding of their concerns and motives. Of course, I was eager to share my perspective, too, but I understood going into that meeting that full consensus would not be found.
I’m glad I went. I didn’t change anyone’s mind that night, and I left feeling perfectly fine with that. The time we spent in respectful discussion offered the valuable opportunity for us to understand each other more. And that’s the important thing. When steeped in conflict, we shouldn’t set a goal of forcing another to change his or her opinion; it’s a more productive objective to gain a deeper understanding of each other’s opinion. It’s worth your time to stay engaged in the process; when done with genuine interest for the other person, you can avoid the anger and permanent grudges that ruin relationships.
We’re still moving through the process and my guess is that we will be for a quite some time. I’m learning that’s the best way to move through conflict. One step at a time. Listening and talking (emphasis on listening). More listening and talking. And then more listening and talking. When we shut down, like I was about to do, there is no way to find common ground.
Conflict is much like the activities of dog agility. You have to move as gracefully as you can through the hurdles, not giving up along the way.