Some cardinal points to keep in mind when conflict arises in a group

1. Do not draw any conclusions about an issue without hearing from both sides. Hear each side out to the extent that each feels is necessary (i.e. don't assume you've heard enough just because someone seems tiresome, pedantic, or emotional). Talking to a friend of a person involved in a conflict is not the same as getting the lowdown straight from the horse's mouth.

2. Although you may feel it is your duty to throw your support behind a friend or close ally who is in distress, giving emotional support is possible--and desirable--without having to draw conclusions or take sides.

3. Corollary to #2. Regardless of who you believe is right or wrong on a given issue, give emotional support. It is not okay for the feelings of the people involved to be trampled on, especially if someone is clearly suffering, even when one or both of the parties are acting like jerks. It is especially not okay to jump in and join the faction doing the stomping on someone's hurt feelings.

4. Assume that every concern is legitimate and address its substance, even if the tone or context in which it is delivered seems overblown, emotional, or vindictive.

5. Corollary to #4. Do not dismiss concerns just because the manner in which they are brought up seems strident or out of place. It is one of the shameful practices of the adversarial court system, which we don't want to emulate in our own collectives (at least not in this respect), to discredit complainants who are emotional or enraged. For centuries, women's grievances, in particular, have been successfully shunted aside by overbearing men by claiming that a woman who is outraged to the breaking point by the injustices and abuses she has had to suffer is hysterical. (Keep in mind that men can be very emotional too, and just as readily dismissed for being so.)

6. Never assume that someone who is raising a concern is just wasting the group's time. (That can happen, of course, but, at worst, the outcome of such a situation will simply be a certain amount of time wasted.) Much more often, someone who feels threatened by the concern raised will try to persuade the group to squelch it on the grounds that it is a time-waster.

7. If a concern is in fact taking up too much of the group's time, create a subcommittee to look into it. The subcommittee should include the person raising the concern and at least three other people who are neutral or uninvolved in the issue but who are willing to take the time to ferret out the facts and study them thoroughly.

8. Sometimes someone (or a group) can be so controlling or self-involved (often without even realizing it) that he sees any disagreement with his chosen course as sabotage or disruption and will react angrily to what he sees as an unnecessary obstacle being created. This is a very common source of conflict in collectives. The solution is to treat every concern that is raised as legitimate and to address it as such. There are often fundamental differences in the basic values or beliefs of group members that get swept under the rug in a flurry of angry accusations and are only brought to an end by driving out or expelling the weaker faction or individual. This is a terrible breakdown of collectivism and should never be viewed as a successful resolution to a conflict.

9. Be the solution. Volunteer to create a committee to look into a problem and, after thorough study, recommend solutions. Volunteer to seek outside mediators. Talk to both sides to try to understand each point of view.

10. Instead of listening to empty accusations, look for plausible motives for people's behavior. When someone is accused of acting a certain way because he is "crazy," that just does not hold any water. People usually act badly either because they are upset, insecure, frustrated, or afraid, or because they have something to gain by that behavior. Why would someone who has nothing to gain go around sabotaging or undermining the group's work? Could it be that they in fact have a legitimate concern they feel needs to be raised and are only being painted as saboteurs by someone who in fact has something to gain (such as consolidating his own power) by shutting them up?

11. A solution to a conflict does not have to--and should not--assign blame nor declare a victor. When conflicts arise, emotions often run high. People who feel they have been wronged or mistreated can react badly. Often, one side (or both) has become so overwrought by the conflict that she does not want to resolve the problem but merely crush the perceived offender. It is necessary to create an atmosphere where both sides can come back to the group relatively whole; that can only happen when all the issues have been thoroughly addressed and resolved to an extent that both parties can live with.

12. Not assigning blame does not mean not acknowledging the wrongs that have been visited on either side. When people are not made to feel that they are under attack, but that their concerns will be genuinely listened to, they are much more likely to admit their mistakes. Create a means for people who may have acted badly to make amends, so that everybody can move on. (But do not be the judge and jury. People can only honestly make amends for errors that they acknowledge. No one can be forced to admit she was wrong if she does not in fact believe it. It may be that someone who is adamant in her position is in fact correct in her claim that she has been unjustly vilified. A situation that is still in this stage has not been thoroughly dealt with yet.)

13. A conflict between two people who were previously close friends or have been involved in a romantic relationship should never result in the group taking sides against one or the other party. The facts of the conflict that involve the group as a whole should be addressed as such (i.e. s/he has been excluding me from activities; badmouthing me within the group; will not leave me alone when I am doing work for the group, etc.). The group should absolutely not become complicit in eliminating the former friend or partner from the complainant's life by driving him or her out of the collective. It should become especially obvious in such a case why assigning blame is fruitless: people who have been hurt sometimes do stupid or cruel things. There's no need to rub their faces in it.

14. People become involved in conflicts because they have some unaddressed need. Find out what the need is and determine a way to address it, with the collaboration of those who are in disagreement. That is the only way to resolve the conflict: it needs to be addressed, worked through, and straightened out.

15. Anytime someone is kicked out of the group or leaves voluntarily in order to stop a painful conflict, there has been a terrible breakdown, not a conflict resolution.

Please send your comments and suggestions to:

"Is This What Consensus Looks Like?"

"Is This the Just Society We Want to Model?


[Why This Booklet?]
[Introduction to Consensus]
[The Particular Vulnera-
bility of Collectives
[Power Sharing]
[Red Flags to Guard Against]
[Ploys To Subvert Consensus]
[The Problem With Politeness]
[The Need For Kindness]
[Creating Pariahs]
[Respect for Differences]
[Personal vs. Group Issues]
[Micro-Managing Behaviors]
[Skepticism is Healthy]
[There's Hope]

[A Model for Justice?]
[The Dearth of Due Process]
[What About Free Speech?]

[Codifying the Collective Process]
[Relinquishing Control of Projects and People]
[Staying True to the Mission]
[What’s a Lone Person to Do?]







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