From Conflict to Wisdom


Imagination is a powerful thing. For many of us in the cooperative movement, it is one of our greatest strengths. In the past, we imagined local marketplaces that would be owned by the people who use them. And we imagined real human connections between the folks who grow food and ourselves.

Often a precursor to imagination is curiosity: Asking ourselves questions about the world, and our place in it. Curious people seek new knowledge, new ideas, and investigate old ideas that are no longer in style. They know that with new ideas, knowledge and experiences they can see the world in new ways. They recognize that much in the world is as it is simply because of the choices we’ve made in the past—and that we can make different choices if we want to.

Imagination and curiosity are critical in our cooperatives’ boardrooms, member gatherings, and staff meetings. I don’t believe I’m saying anything that board members or general managers would disagree with. However, I know of organizations that share these same attributes but that have experienced paralysis, open hostility, and relationships that seem damaged beyond repair. A difference between those that thrive and those that fail is the courage and skills people bring to successfully negotiate conflicts.

I’ve worked in and with organizations where people wanted what they thought was best for the organization and their community, but could not communicate this to others or hear that others wanted the same thing. Each person had a set of experiences, perceptions, and knowledge, but rather than enriching the group, these different perspectives resulted in closing members of the group off from each other. Rather than accepting the potential gift each individual brought, the group instead became mired in their differences, or their assumptions about their differences.

Maybe you’ve sat in a meeting and witnessed a dispute spiral out of control or you’ve seen people who care so deeply about something that they can’t even imagine that anyone could feel differently. Maybe you’ve felt insulted or dismissed by someone you could only describe as rude, or found yourself in an argument where each person hurls information at the other person—but nobody’s really listening. Different world views, experiences, cultures, and knowledge can make us all richer; but if we let them, these differences can divide us and leave us all poorer.

Transforming our individual differences into our greatest collective strength takes imagination, curiosity, skill, and courage. Luckily, there are folks who have devoted a good portion of their lives to figuring out how to do this better. If our boards want to build knowledge and wisdom, a group or individual study of conflict can pay a priceless dividend. If we take the time to study conflict itself, we’ll be better prepared to be in one. We may even find ourselves seeking out individuals who see the world very differently than we do, and feel enriched by the experience. Often relatively simple techniques and a commitment to a process can positively transform a relationship and an organization.

A group out of the Harvard Negotiation Project, the same folks that popularized win/win negotiation—Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen—maintain that most difficult conversations are really three separate conversations: what happened, feelings, and identity. They believe that each of these conversations holds potential traps, but if we’re aware of them and can make subtle shifts in our own stance we can avoid destructive entanglements.

In discussing what happened we can be blinded by the illusion that we know all that we need to. Because of our experience we see a reality that makes sense to us, while other people see something completely different. This very difference in perception that can enrich our understanding of an issue can also lead us to the position of, ‘‘I’m right and you are wrong.’‘ A more useful stance is to explore how we all make sense of our world. It’s likely that the other person simply has a different set of perceptions, interpretations, and/or values. This rarely means that one person is completely right and another is wrong, but rather that each person holds some truth but not the entire truth. Arguing often inhibits our ability to learn how others see the world, and unless we’re listening deeply, it rarely enhances it.

Our imagination can get us into trouble if we assume we know the intentions of others. We too often attribute bad intention to the people we find ourselves in conflict with. Conversely, we see our own intentions as noble. Most unfortunate is that what we imagine other people’s intentions to be can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we think other people’s intentions are bad, we’re likely to treat them with less respect, which leads to their responding with defensiveness, hostility, or anger, which then confirms or reinforces what we already believed. This can be an especially vexing problem between groups of people.

Once a group begins to believe another groups’s intentions are malevolent, it can take tremendous amounts of energy to restore trust. The flip side of this coin is that we too often believe that because our intentions are good, other people should forgive us when we offend or hurt them. When they don’t, this can lead to our becoming defensive and hostile. The spiral into disrespect can start almost anywhere. Our assumptions about other people’s motivations are often just wrong. We’d all be better off if we would test the truth of our assumptions and simply inquire about intention.

Another trap groups and individuals fall into is blaming. Blaming traps us in the past and often hinders our ability to get onto the more fruitful conversation about contribution. Usually, everyone involved in a conflict has contributed to the conflict. If we can’t see our contribution, we’re not likely to discover the flaws in a bad process. Conversations about blame rarely lead to insights; conversations about contribution often do: We seek out what we need to take responsibility for and recognize we have power to create positive change.

Feelings play a role in most conversations. Like imagination and curiosity, feelings enrich our lives; they can also make it difficult to have meaningful conversations. Suppressed feelings can come out in inappropriate ways: it’s hard to really listen to someone when you’re feeling hurt or angry. Complicating this picture further is the fact that many of us aren’t good at recognizing our own feelings, or we’ve been encouraged to suppress them. If we can recognize our own feelings and learn how to share them appropriately, we may be more likely to acknowledge the feelings of others. Sometimes, the simple act of acknowledging the feelings of others can open up the space we need for meaningful conversations.

The identity conversation is the conversation we’re having with ourselves when we question our competence, our goodness or our worthiness. It’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation when we’re questioning our own goodness. In conflict both parties are likely having these same internal conversations. People whose sense of self is being threatened can behave in ways that seem extreme. And reacting with hostility to a person whose identity is feeling threatened is counterproductive.

Curiouser and curiouser

We need the full imagination, curiosity, and knowledge of every director, employee, and member in our co-ops. We must find ways to transform what appear to us as disrespectful participation into meaningful conversations. When we each turn our focus inward and examine our own assumptions, feelings around a hard issue, and sense of self, we’ll be better prepared to meet and fully engage with each other. Conflict can be extremely difficult, but avoidance or escalation do not generally improve our lives or our cooperatives. The courage to attack conflict, not each other, opens the world up to greater possibilities and fuller integration.

Let’s use our imagination to explore better potentials for our communities and cooperatives, but use it less to attribute motivations to other people. Let’s use our curiosity to explore new ideas and each others’ world views. To create learning organizations we need more learning conversations. More curiosity will make our cooperatives stronger.

There are thousands of resources available to help prepare your board or organization to deal better with conflict. Two books that I recommend are: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Fisher, Patton and Ury, and Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Stone, Patton and Heen.


Bentley Lein is on the board of People’s Food Co-op in LaCrosse, Wisconsin and is a consultant with CDS Consulting Co-op ([email protected]).

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