Transforming Conflict with a Culture Committee

I’ve been chewing on a theme recently around building resilient regenerative groups. A big part of putting together a team or organization that can function well is being prepared. I’ve seen many groups crumble due to a lack of planning for the inevitable friction of people being people together. Often times groups don’t address processes for transforming conflict until they are in conflict. When I start a new project with multiple people I always try and answer the question “how do we deal with conflict?”. In this post, I’m going to describe one way to answer that question.

Transforming Conflict

I really like the slight re-framing of the term “conflict transformation”. Words are powerful and when talking about conflict we can unwittingly set ourselves up to see it as a negative thing. Our culture is full of conflict and it is most often portrayed as something to be fought, defeated, subdued, or made to go away. We might avoid conflict by making rules, explicit or otherwise, where some topics are off-limits–like politics–because we expect conflict to arise from them. Our stories often paint conflict as a battle between good and evil that arises out of a dualism that is as natural as light and dark.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Through this framing, conflict is something negative to be avoided. We can, however, look at conflict in other ways. Conflict can be a source of creation, thesis and antithesis creating synthesis. Tension birthing new ideas. Conflict can be the manifestation of awareness that causes positive change. The surfacing and processing of conflict can leave a group better than before the conflict.

Conflict can be a tool of group transformation.

Communicating Conflict

By asking “what do we do when conflict arises in our group?” you can open a pathway for conversations around conflict. When you create a channel for conflict to travel it has a place to go, a process to flow into, and it doesn’t become stuck.

By answering these questions outside of conflict your group can avoid having to create a process during times of conflict. This is how, I believe, conflict becomes a destructive process. Like trying to arrange a fire brigade while the city burns.

If you are part of a group, team, or organization consider for a moment what your process for conflict is. If you can’t bring a process to mind perhaps now is the time to put this question on the next meeting’s agenda.

In the following sections, I will outline a simple answer you can adapt to your group then I will get into a more robust proposal called Culture Committee.

3 Step Conflict Transformation Process

Conflict is often caused by someone breaking community norms. In every interpersonal interaction there are norms. When you go to a cafe there are norms around where you stand, how you queue in line, how you order your drink, and how you interact with the people around you.

In these times of COVID those norms are having to be rewritten, which you may have noticed is causing a lot of conflict. These norms are cultural and will differ from place to place. For instance, in New York City you enter the cafe, get in line, and once it’s your turn you quickly give your order. If you were to get to the front of the line and then start considering what you want you would cause conflict.

So the first step in dealing with conflict is to make community norms explicit. This will prevent small conflict that arises from people having different implicit understandings of norms.

No list of norms will be complete and conflict will emerge. In those cases I’ve often seen a very simple three step process used in groups:

  1. Directly communicate with the person you are in conflict with one on one.
  2. If that doesn’t resolve it, ask someone else to support you in talking with the person you are having conflict with.
  3. If the conflict persists invite an outside mediator to support mediation of the conflict.

There are additional tweaks that might be desired, such as waiting a few days to bring in a 3rd person or having an agreed upon mediator ready before any conflicts arise. The main point is that everyone in the group agrees to this process. With this in place members of the group will know and expect that if there is conflict then they can expect to start with a one on one conversation.

These steps, of course, will not automatically fit any group. Perhaps there are people who are very shy and don’t want to start with direct communication. Those boundaries will need to be negotiated with the group.

Culture Committee

I have adapted this model from my time with Agile Learning Centers where this process was used for conflict transformation among students as well as to work on general cultural issues that arose in the schools.

The Culture Committee can replace the mediation in step 3 above. Let’s break down the process of forming the committee and how it can work. Full disclosure, I have never fully implemented this in a group, so it’s a bit of a speculation rather than a tried and true methodology.

First, the Culture Committee is formed from volunteers who agree to sit on the committee if the need arises. These people can be selected from within the team or from adjacent teams.

Next a method for calling the Culture Committee is put in place. This might be an online form or email address people within the group can send their conflict to for resolution.

Once a request for the Culture Committee is received then the committee evaluates the request and decides how to handle it. This might look like setting up mediation, having both parties sit with the committee and work it out, or any other tool the committee can come up with. The key point here is that you have put in place a group dedicated to hear and deliberate conflicts from the group.

This pattern could be used to create a Culture Committee that serves many groups. Perhaps a network of activist chapters creates a Culture Committee by selected one member from each chapter to sit on the committee. Having related but outside perspectives can be very useful.

Another function of a Culture Committee could be to design cultural systems within a group. It could be the volunteer base that spends time thinking about ways for the larger group to get along better and have their needs met.

Conclusion: Invest in Culture

The key take away here goes back to the old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Talking about conflict when you are not in conflict will help prevent conflict from being degenerative. We aren’t trying to totally avoid conflict, we actually want to face it head on. This is how we create antifragile organizations. Co-creating pathways for conflict to be brought up and dealt with and creating structures that serve to support conflict transformation and culture maintenance are a worthy investment.

How does your group attend to conflict? Leave a comment below.

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