Tag Archives: Conflict transformation

First “Conflict” Once Removed

A favorite game at extended family reunions used to be point out a tribe member and then see who could properly to identify the relationship. My first cousin Charlie was an expert. He would remind me that my kids were his first cousins once removed as well as our aunt due to a great aunt adopting one of our mother’s sisters. I usually was quickly lost when we would play where Charlie could maintain clarity and rattle off the titles of everyone in the room.

Relationship chart

Relationship chart

Charlie’s gift has kept on giving this week as I have been muddling over how to decipher and describe conflict relationships. Using my cousin’s logic, you’ve got your first degree disputes: you and another are fighting over something. If it is a business relationship, you and that person might be the named parties on the mediation documents. At home, the two kids screaming in your hallway at each other would be the clear participants in the battle. In these cases, we know the disputants or the “sides.”

Meanwhile, what about the sister/wife/business partner/friend of one of the folks you would name above? How would you name her? And, more importantly what is her role?

In honor of Charlie, I want to give that sister/wife/business partner a title — 1st Disputant Once Removed or 1DOR.  A 1DOR will be anyone who is one step back from a conflict, but connected due to their personal connection to a direct player.

Being a 1DOR is a muddy role.  If your wife is fighting with another, does that mean you are fighting with that person as well? What can you say? Where, if anywhere, are your opinions best spoken? In the case of the two kids screaming in the hallway, what is the best position for the third sibling who was in her room reading?

Sometimes we can stay out of the battle while it is fought and resolved. Our loved ones can fight with another while we listen and stay out of the fray. We might provide a few words of encouragement or support as tempers rise and recede. Conflict brings opportunity, but it is also messy, risky and can be dangerous, so laying low would be an advised strategy here.

Meanwhile, some disputes linger and battle lines are drawn. The third sibling can’t hide in her room forever. Your family feuds with a neighbor for years, do we wave at the neighbor when you pass him in the car?  Who is fighting in the US with the government of Afghanistan?

I met with a friend last week who shared she has been exhibiting symptoms of anxiety seemingly for no apparent reason. It was disconcerting her, but as we discussed the past months, it became clear that her role as a 1DOR for both sides of an ongoing dispute had been wearing her down. She can’t escape the enduring conflict, she has little power to resolve it and doesn’t want to take sides.  As I listened, I wondered when my 1DOR status has adversely affected me without my conscious awareness? Stepping back, I was struck by how often I have been a 1DOR as a sister, mother, wife, friend, employee, community member and citizen. This called me to consider more deeply how I can best play in that role.

In my next posts, I will cover how we might naturally react as a 1DOR given our default conflict styles and an ancient Hindu practice upon which we can draw for support.

Full Engagement Leadership

In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.~Thomas Jefferson

Leadership can feel like a juggling act. Competing priorities, competing team members, and competing needs call for our attention. Also, there is opposition between what our heartstrings sing out with what our head advises when we weigh what would be nice versus what would be prudent in a situation.

However, instead of seeing leadership as a juggling act, I am coming to believe that it is actually a daily call to integrate what might feel like irreconcilable opposites. I see leadership as turning apparent competition into collaborative partners, whether it is fighting priorities, or an internal battle between your head and your heart. Leadership is turning an “either/or” into a “both/and.”

For example, the world’s warrior traditions counsel us to fully engage both our heads (be smart, tactical and pay attention) and our hearts (be compassionate, honorable and see your opponent as a valuable teacher).  Great warriors, or leaders for that matter, know how to strategically assess the situation for their benefit while deeply valuing their enemies.

This balance translated into management theory terms, is described as seeing both the tasks and relationships as equally important.  Peter Northouse in Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice explains that those who focus on tasks “initiate structure” and provide a “production orientation.” Simply, they like to get things done. Meanwhile, we must integrate an inclination for achievement with creating “consideration behavior” with which we build respect, camaraderie and trust.

After studying communication and conflict styles over the past 16 years, I have also noticed that our innate styles place a natural priority on either doing/action or being/connection. Those who gravitate to an intellectual or “air” based style in The Way of Conflict: Elemental Wisdom for Resolving Disputes and Transcending Differences, are solution-oriented for example. They feel best when they are accomplishing goals and marking actions off of “to do” lists. Meanwhile, those aligned with the emotion-based or “water” style will concern themselves first with relationship and how something will make others “feel.” I contend that the best leaders know how to draw equally for all four default communication styles.

So, full employment of both head and heart is critical, yet I find it often a paradoxical experience. For example, if I combine a “heart” with a “head” term what does it look like to be truly “honorably strategic”, “compassionately clever” or “discerningly kind?”

Notice when you begin to think about those word pairs, to which word do you gravitate? “Ahhh, honorably strategic,” you might think, “She’s asking us to remember to be honorable so we can win…that’s a good plan.” Or, to resolve the paradox, you might try, “By always being honorable, that is the best strategy…” Sorry, it’s not that easy. For example, focusing just on being honorable leaves you vulnerable.  As a wise martial artist once told me, “Don’t kid yourself, I have been hit while bowing.”

Instead, we want to be equally smart and tricky as embody full integrity. Warrior work, leadership or resolving the heart/head conflict can be tough stuff. Meanwhile, both are required and last month, I was reminded how groups will naturally create balance if some members are too task- or relationship-oriented.

To host 17 international students at Montana State University, it took twelve core program staff.   Some of us managed the details of food, housing and transportation, others taught and worked on group dynamics and still others administered the program. Everyone was busy, some working 6 to 7 days a week. When we would run into disagreements, it seemed to often center using my filters around if someone was overly focused on tasks or on relationships. Not only did we need to assure all the students were getting along and the staff was working well together, but also we had a lot to get done on time and of the highest quality. Using this head/heart paradigm, for me at least, was a helpful framework to describe why folks were going crosswise.

For example, one very competent young woman watched all our backs by dealing with a myriad of details throughout the month.  At the end of program, we were all appreciative of the quantity of work she accomplished; yet she was frustrated that she hadn’t gotten to form deep bonds with the international students and often felt like “the bad guy.”

Personally, I have been getting feedback in 2010 to show up as an even more authoritative teacher and to be more direct, even a bit harsher, in my communication. What is ironic, and paradoxically right, is that in trying to be kind or heart-centered, I sometimes achieve the opposite result.  When I don’t call others to hold their end of a business or teaching relationship by succinctly sharing my expectations, I can be perceived as disrespectful and even patronizing. Going for “relationship,” instead of a full balanced integration of head and heart, I actually can compromise both. It reminds me of  the song lyrics, “…cruel to be kind in the right measure.” Good “heady” advice that I am now taking to heart!

The Global Techno Beat

During July,  I happily worked with Mongolian and Bhutanese monks, Middle Eastern business leaders, North African and Middle Eastern university student leaders and last but absolutely not least, 5 Iraqi high school students along with American peers. It was an incredible treat as I could soak up one of Montana’s best months while continually enriched by extraordinary conversation.

As foreign visitors visited Bozeman for leadership, civic engagement and conflict resolution training, I asked many of the participants some of my favorite closing questions before sending them on their way:

  • What have you learned here?
  • What are your next steps?
  • What have you appreciated during your time as a group?

Not easy questions for participants who have been drinking from a fire hose of lectures, field trips and project development skills for 8 to 10 hours a day.  For example, the Tributary Fund’s Mongolian and Bhutanese delegation not only attended multiple leadership and environmental courses in Bozeman, but also traveled south to the Teton Science School in Jackson, WY and then to northern Montana to the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee, over less than two weeks. It can be a challenge to integrate so much data in such a short period, especially through the filter of your second or third language.

Mongolian Delegation at the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee

After an intense month with all these visitors, I got a taste of my own medicine. Last Tuesday, I posed these queries to 17 extraordinary university student leaders from the State Department Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. A bright young woman from Bahrain gently responded, “May we also ask, what you have learned from us?”

Running from meeting to workshop all month, I hadn’t been able to think about much other than lesson plans, preparing and did we have any milk left in the fridge!  I could suddenly relate to the blank stares I had received from some after hearing my closing queries. Hmmm, great question, what had I learned?

My favorite teachers remind that after major experiences, we are best served by giving ourselves time to integrate our experience. Systems theorists stress the importance of iterative learning – gathering new information, testing it out and then reflecting on what we have learned. Angeles Arrien posits that the seminal Taoist text on managing change, The Tao Te Ching, teaches that we must continually

  1. Gather information (seek/be dynamic), then
  2. Open ourselves to the results (be receptive) and last
  3. Integrate the results of the first two actions.

So, lots of new information came in this month.  I have tried to be open to receiving. Now, what needs to be better integrated?  With some initial thought, four themes are emerging to be considered from this summer’s work:

  1. Technology’s role in leadership
  2. How to balance connection and action
  3. How it is a rarely “an American issue” or “a Middle Eastern situation,” but that it’s usually  “a human being problem,” and
  4. The absolute impossibility of truly knowing another in the global age

Today I’ll tackle technology…

For a bit of background, I began my career at IBM as a programmer. In 1985, many on our team coded only in machine language (that’s ugly stuff).  I would knit waiting for my programs to compile and my compatriots at IBM and I were some of the first to have email in the country which IBM called VNET.  By 1989, I was the project manager for one of the first electronic medical record systems in the country. We used optical disks the size of large dinner platters, $3,000 scanners heavy as boat anchors and computers that required cooled raised floor rooms to house them – all with less capability that you now have with a decent flash drive, a $200 home scanner and a steady PC server.

In those days, computer technology appeared in our everyday lives through clunky PCs and printers that we would use to write letters and attempt to budget the family finances and do our taxes. Working with computers daily at IBM had me swimming in very different waters than my friends and siblings.  This is not striking or very interesting until I contrast this with Asian students with whom I have worked over the past year who literally risk their lives daily to post their names and photos on Facebook. Where technology used to be nerdy, it’s now deemed a critical necessity.

The next generation, whether you come from a rural region of our south east, the Middle East, Latin America or a monastery in Bhutan wield external drives, digital cameras and cloud computing like our foreparents managed hammers and shears to complete their respective tasks.  Those I see in the classroom are usually armed better I to cross the digital landscape.

I witnessed students dialogue for hours on how to introduce those in their group of Kurdish descent (“should we call them Iraqis, Kurdish or from Kurdistan?”) all the while deftly creating a PowerPoint presentation. While grappling with big issues, I notice that there is no discussion on how they might want to add a short video or animate a slide.  On that they have equal awareness and agreement.

Computers can become more important than sustenance. Visitors with whom we work will forego meals and any entertainment to funnel their per diem money to a laptop fund. Host families and the program assistants consistently make midnight runs to Walmart during the last days of a participant’s visit so he or she can buy electronic equipment. It is not only cheaper here than around the globe, that I am told again and again, but also buying a computer for some is one of their top trip desires.

Through their yearnings and savvy, the students consistently demonstrate that computer and digital skills are key for our next generation of leaders…and, probably for all of us currently working to effectively implement change. This is not new news, but after this month of visitors, I realize I need to consider information systems technology as a critical leadership competency.

Last night in Washington, DC, I attended a final celebration dinner to send off our bright MEPI students after 5 action-packed weeks. Each of the 5 MEPI student groups from around the country were asked to create a 5 minute video or presentation on their time in the US. Our students selected a graphic design student, from Kuwait and a marketing major who also holds a corporate job in Lebanon to lead the charge. Knowing what was possible, most of the students provided photos and ideas and our two video leaders worked through 2 or 3 nights to create this final program deliverable.  It was stellar and included cartoon renderings of each student created by their team graphic artist, meaningful music and a carefully selected (and refined, refined, refined) photomontage to portray their unique Montana highlights.  I was impressed.

Although their video was truly unique, the Montana MEPI students’ professionalism and quality level wasn’t. The friendly competition included tough opponents! For example, when I was a bit awestruck by very polished video with fades, a story line and slow motion created at the University of Delaware. At the table, our students whispered, “It’s not a surprise, one of their students is a film student and works on action movies.”

Gone are the days when leading a project could be done without electronic savvy.  To sell your idea, to portray that your team was the best, or to present anything well, today you are going to want a plug, or perhaps a solar panel, attached.

Harnessing new technology, whatever the form, has always boosted leadership power. The train and then effective use of the car “drove” the results of political races when they were introduced. We can use the additional power for a variety of ends. And so,  if I arm you with a set of powerful tools, be it today computer expertise or how to turn conflict into opportunity, for what will you use them?

I’m a bit fixated on the above question when I am training young leaders. I was reminded again why it feels alright to keep pushing for clear and hopefully positive intentions while I passed through the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) . I stopped in front of a full-wall placard entitled, “Technology and Race,” The exhibit explained that by 1938, Hitler’s team had effectively employed the newest data gathering and storage technology available to create a country-wide national registry of Jews during that year’s census. By the following year, systematic killing began.

Then, down the hall, I strolled through the new USHMM Take Action interactive exhibit where you can access their website and track progress on ending genocide in Darfur, support relief and awareness efforts and create a pledge to make the world a better place. Knowledge is power. For good or ill, you must decide.

It gives me hope that every one of our Montana State University MEPI students chose to use their last Saturday afternoon in the US to thoughtfully tour the USHMM exhibits as well.  Each made a conscious choice; Best Buy, Target and more work on the QuickTime video needed to wait until another day.

Weeding One’s Garden

Sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste.  ~William Shakespeare

The calendar tells me it is spring, but at our home in the foothills of Bozeman, Montana that still equals snow drifts. I shouldn’t complain since my “in town” friends are spending this weekend weeding their gardens to make room for early tulips and crocuses.  The arrival of spring reminds me that if you are attached to what your flower or vegetable garden produces, there are usually weed-induced backaches involved.

To welcome in the longer days and work ahead, I read a 2002 interview this week with photographer Doug Burgess on his artistic study of weeds. After a childhood of pulling unwanted plants from his parent’s front lawn, Burgess continued this practice as a form of therapy to cope with a miserable job as an adult. Noticing that after 50 years he never had a weed-free patch of earth to show for his efforts, Burgess finally moved to “the dark side,” or a neighborhood where weeds are a norm.

Burgess then spent four years photographing weeds. In an eleven-page gallery catalog on the subject he states, “The relationship between weeds and people may be one of our most enduring relationships with the natural world.”

I recommend the interview to start you waxing philosophically the importance of observing the unimportant. Through Burgess’ careful regard of his surroundings he brings forward jewels of wisdom on how we deem something beautiful and thus welcome in our lives. One of his statements especially struck me — “a weed is a social definition”; that it is simply “a plant growing where someone doesn’t want it to grow.”

So, what makes a weed? I am less than thrilled when bull thistle erupts all over my lawn and vegetable garden. It’s a pain to uproot and no matter how diligent I am at attempting eradication, it returns. Meanwhile, I am told that this “weed,” as the emblem of Scotland, was brought to the United State as a beloved plant by immigrants.  A weed is in the eye of the beholder.

Outside of its original habitat a weed flourishes. It finds space and opportunity and with it the weed takes root with such gusto that it never wants to let go. Thus, in its enthusiasm it can also push out native species unaccustomed to the interloper. Weeds, like other introduced species, disrupt the balance of an ecosystem and bother its inhabitants.

Human have often been compared to invasive plant species when we set out into new ecosystems and create havoc.  At the beginning of the 16th century, Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortez and Suleiman the Magnificent all shifted the landscapes of North America, Central America and Europe respectively. Five centuries later we can still feel the effects of their efforts.

When I land in an environment that provides fertile soil for my ideas, I am intoxicated! Isn’t it delicious when you find a community that welcomes you unconditionally? What about a place where you can live unhampered by old constraints?  Many are drawn to live in Montana – the “keep your laws out of my bedroom and gun closet” state – for this very reason. I have to admit that getting to wear jeans to dinner parties and roaming through wide-open spaces unhindered is really fantastic.  Yet, a common question in our region is we will destroy exactly what has drawn humans like me here for hundreds of years?

Am I a weed in Montana? Since no one wants to be classified as a noxious species, you’ll notice that folks here like to be regarded as “Native Montanans,” “a third generation Montanan” or being of Native American descent. Who belongs to this ecosystem, and who doesn’t, creates a constant source of debate here.  Walking into the surrounding wilderness though, humans as a whole can feel like very weed-like.

Yet, adding Burgess’ assessment of weeds into this equation, I must pause. He says, “When I photograph these weeds—and in the process of photographing them, you create an abstraction, it gives one a little distance—one of the things I’ve noticed is that some of them are very beautiful. It makes you think. If something that is so common and lowly is beautiful, the idea of what is beautiful gets to be a little confusing.”

The introduction of an invasive species is hardly new. Seeing MacDonald’s golden arches and pervasive graffiti in every foreign city I have visited in the past five years reminds me that “weeds” takes all sorts of forms. A weed’s success can be terrifying, as evidenced in the timely introduction of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the last century. It can also be delicious as we choose from a dozen gourmet chocolate bars at the average American grocery store.

Yet, each new introduction calls us to keep reassessing what we deem as beautiful, and what is inherently good or right. In their fortitude and relentlessness, “weeds” assure that these become questions we can’t ignore. In that exercise alone, a weed brings value by asking us to be conscious of what is worth fighting for and how we can best evolve.

Regardless of the ecosystem in which we each stand, how can we continue to pay attention to what we’d rather ignore? As I contemplate this question, I am finding the snow in my backyard quite beautiful for the time being.

It’s Happening

This week I attended a lecture by the biochemist Trevor Douglas. Trevor is one of Montana State University’s rock stars who investigates how viruses could become mini-containers to bring targeted drug therapy directly to a cancer site. As his compatriot Dr. Mark Young once described to me, “Think of the outer casing of a virus cell like the candy coating of an M&M…” They are thus exploring how they might fill its center with appropriate material and deliver it to the perfect location.

Yet Dr. Douglas began his lecture to the University Honors program students not on the importance of nano materials, but on the value of play. Well, there’s nothing like having another sing from your hymnal…he had me captivated from beginning to end!

Trevor believes deeply in curiosity and play after studying with Fluxus artist Allan Kaprow. After listening to Trevor’s enthusiastic description of Kaprow’s philosophy and its influence on his work, I wanted to share a bit about it here.

Allan Kaprow (1927 – 2006) was a painter and teacher who is credited as an early pioneer of performance art. He created the idea of the “Happening” that he described as “A game, an adventure, a number of activities engaged in by participants for the sake of playing.” (Italics added for blog title emphasis!) Kaprow created some 200 “happenings” where volunteers and spectators are asked to actively participate in an experience.

For example, in 1967 Kaprow created the “Fluids” happening during which twenty identical ice block structures were created around Los Angeles.

Kaprow believed that “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.”

Was it art? Who knows, but what is clear from watching the video below and a Flickr slide show (click and view photos) of the 2008 recreation of this event, it is captivating, fun and calls us to pause and contemplate.

Kaprow, by blurring the lines and bringing play into the mix, pushes us to open our minds to see problems from a fresh perspective, just as Drs. Douglas and Young are modeling with the development of bio-inspired nano materials.

So, where might you create a more fluid boundary between what appears separate (i.e., art/life, pottery/bio chemistry, or, joy/chores)? How can you too introduce more participation and play?