Systemic Conflict Resolution in Families and the Workplace

Nick AdlingtonUncategorizedLeave a Comment

All conflict arises in a system or systems. The focus of this article is to investigate this statement and the application of conflict resolution practices in light of it. It follows on from the previous article on the meaning of “conflict”.

I mediate conflicts on a weekly basis where the participants are two colleagues or two family members. I regularly support these two people as they negotiate conversations aimed at developing better work or family relationships. Within these discussions the participants are often able to reach a better understanding of the other and present a clearer articulation of their thoughts, feelings and needs. There can be a meeting, a softening, greater clarity, and plans for a way forward.

In mediation parlance, mediation is often framed as being “future focussed”; for example, encouraging participants to look towards the prize of a better relationship rather than sitting in the mud of pain, fears, recrimination, accusation and counteraccusation of what’s happened in the past. I believe this is an important framing. Yet at the same time, to move forward, there sometimes/regularly arises the need to understand something at a greater depth; for example, the motivations and thinking of the other person. And to understand this, there may arise the need to reference events that have taken place previously.     

As this exploration progresses and as the understanding builds, the two people concerned will often reflect on different aspects that may, to their mind, be contributing to the conflict they are facing. For example, in a workplace context, this may include policies and procedures that are or are not in place; how a previous manager who has now left dealt with a particular situation; the physical layout of the office space; how a merger or restructure impacted on morale; things that have been said by another team member.

These other factors are the tip of the iceberg of what I am referring to when I say, “all conflict arises in a system or systems”. There will very likely be similar systemic aspects at play when relationships within a family are particularly turbulent, including generations that have gone before. Indeed, we are so interdependent as human beings that to fully track and frame the systemic nature of relationship in either work or family is beyond what can be achieved in this article. However, what I would like to do is recognise it.

If we recognise it, then as mediators and professionals in the field of conflict transformation we can ask questions that will help two people or a group reflect on what the different contributing factors are in a dispute. If wider systemic factors are identified, it can be helpful to ask the participants to reflect on which of these they may have the power to influence or address, and which not. As the Serenity Prayer goes:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

courage to change the things I can

And wisdom to know the difference

Helping people name systemic aspects as they arise in a mediation can help people reflect from a different place. It can take them to “the balcony”, a place that is a few steps removed from the intense and often overwhelming feelings of the conflict. From the balcony they can see and map out contributing factors in a calmer more analytical manner. It can lower the level of blame, either towards themselves or the other(s).

However, there are also potential pitfalls to helping participants reflect on systemic aspects of a dispute. If not managed carefully, the dispute can simply be relocated to a place between a person or persons in the mediation and a person or persons outside of the current process. The dispute is simply displaced. Or factors outside of the mediation can be used as a deflection from holding potentially anxiety provoking conversations with someone present in the room. As with most things in life, it is about balance.

The systemic nature of conflicts leads me to increasingly think that, where possible and appropriate, working with the system during conflict transformation practices is important and can lead to better outcomes. That may mean including the voice of a wider range of people in the conflict transformation planning and process. There are obstacles to this, for example the cost of including others in a mediation or dialogue process, or the reluctance of those not immediately experiencing the turbulence of the dispute to get involved in a process.

However, in my experience of mediating disputes where the larger system is included, for example where a wider team or even the whole organisation is involved, there is a greater potential for resolutions and transformation. In bringing the wider system together there is a wider and more diverse range of voices and views that can provide balance to a turbulent situation. In bringing the wider system together, I find there also tends to be more support for people to be vulnerable and speak truths that can help reconcile.

It is of course more than just getting as many people as possible into the room. It is planning and managing a process that enables those people to find and express their voice in a way that gives them the best chance of being heard and understood and that enables those people to hear in a way that gives them the best chance of taking in what is shared. I do though believe that the principle of holding a systemic view in mind is an important one if we in the conflict transformation business are serious about supporting longer term and more deep-rooted resolutions.  

An article by Nick Adlington

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