Steamboat Bend, Yampa River, Utah in Dinosaur National Monument
“If you want epiphanies, you have to put them in the schedule.” Phil Brick, Politics Professor, Whitman College, on his Semester in the West program
I’ve been short on solutions in the last three posts — namely, because there honestly aren’t any simple ones. When you have two people in conflict, and the way they structure knowledge is fundamentally different, meta-structures are not easily reconciled — let alone fundamental beliefs and precepts. Those that argue folks just need to sit down and talk it out? Well, it’s not that it never works. But often it’s not just a failure to communicate. It’s a failure to truly connect.
One of the things that I have seen work in resolving conflict is the creation of opportunity by leadership for shared epiphanies between warring parties. Note that this will NOT work with relational disruptors. But for those involved in Healthy Evolutionary Conflict, the elevation in empathetic connection that can occur with shared experience should not be underestimated.
In my youth, I used to be a hard-core whitewater kayaker. I originally moved out to the West because of my obsession with the sport. Running hard whitewater was still in its infancy when I started (1979), and basically, you had to paddle with whoever was available who could paddle at that level.
When I moved to Pullman, WA, in 1988, I also became intensively involved with the environmental/old-growth protection movement. I went on to write a book on the larger issues involving my home watershed — the Clearwater River in North-Central Idaho, called Wild to the Last: Environmental Conflict in the Clearwater (WSU Press, 1998).
While working on the book, I had more than one logger who was my kayaking buddy. I am still friends with these people now. I am convinced that what bound us together was shared experience. Loggers like being in the woods; I like being in the woods. Additionally, we would have to share a Survival v-Meme level interdependence. If someone went for a swim in some of the rivers we paddled, without a strong cohort to rescue them, that person could drown. Additionally, there were lots of opportunities to develop shared heuristics — sometimes we’d run particular rapids; other times we’d have to find ways to carry around them. The harder rivers were always team efforts. A particular empathetic ladder practiced by one of my friends was the instilled practice of fetching each other a beer. If someone asked you to get up and get them a cold one, you did.
At the same time, we were relentless in our taunting of each other if you went for a swim, and failed to roll your boat. I asked one of the guys one time why we were so hard on each other — his response was simple. “Dude — keeps you safe.” You don’t want to be the butt of the next joke. So you make your roll.
For bridging large gaps, there is nothing like shared, stressful experiences that bring out deep core values in all people. One finds almost no healthy person on this planet that doesn’t understand the guest/host relationship, or the fact that most people care deeply for at least a few people. But bringing out these connections requires making time for them. If you have nothing in your organization except endless work and meetings, you shouldn’t expect anyone to care about anyone else. Almost every workplace has formal relations and titles. But independent relationships take time to develop. And without these, there will be little trust or shared responsibility in an organization — especially when times get tough.
The starting quote at the top of this post was told to me by a friend and another professor, Phil Brick, who teaches at Whitman College. Whitman is a small, elite school, filled with some of the smartest and self-aware kids I’ve ever gotten to teach. Phil had launched a pioneering active learning program at Whitman, called Semester in the West, where students would travel around in a van to various sites of environmental conflict all the way from Washington to Arizona and New Mexico. He had tagged me for explaining forest politics to his kids, on the ground in the Clearwater National Forest.
As a fellow professor and environmental activist, I asked him that evening to show me his schedule for the semester. It was fall, and I was scheduled early on, and was curious what they would do as the light failed. Battery-operated LED headlamps had recently come into vogue, so that was one question that was answered. About 11 or so weeks into it, he had a week in Nevada labeled ‘Epiphany Week’. I asked him about that. “How can you expect students to have time to have any realizations if you don’t schedule them in?”
At that point, I had an epiphany.
The best solution for resolving conflict is avoiding it in the first place. Some conflict is inevitable, but if you have chronic conflict in your organization, it means that leadership has set up a non-viable structure for getting the job done. As the Star Trek blog post shows, you can have different v-Meme actors in any organization and have them form a functional, high-performance team if their roles are appropriate. But organizations that do not put some priority on individual growth of their workforce are asking for trouble. Because people will grow and evolve, regardless.
Since this blog is going to get turned into a book, there’s a little voice in the back of my head that says ‘Create things that are Internet listicles!’ But a better thing to tell you, the reader, is this: what is the structure of the organization that is causing the conflict? Have you looked at your scaffolding, and appropriately balanced authority, rules, and the ability to change rules? Do you provide opportunities for data-driven relationships, or are you obsessed with titles? If you create irrational environments, you should expect irrational people. And irrational people get into fights. If you need a bottom line motivation, fights cost money. But hopefully, by this point in this whole blog, you should be motivated by more than that. If you’re not, you’re likely not really needing higher synergies to get the job done. Though I’d argue that even a lawn service company will benefit from structuring environments and roles to avoid conflict. Happy employees figure out better ways to make happier customers. One of the things I also do with my students is have them work through what is commonly known as the Five Whys, or some form of root cause analysis. Having two warring parties write these kinds of things down separately, and then have them be empathetically reconciled, where both sides have to engage in a more rational empathy, can be useful. If you practice knowledge structure identification yourself, you can also bring both parties along by serving as a bridge for larger consequentiality of action — the things that people often find are missing.
But there is no substitute for shared experience in empathy construction. As well as epiphanies. Make time for them — and the reflective time that is also required.