[ICYMI] How to Autopsy a Conflict

How you get started with clients who need a situation resolved?

What are the steps you take to assess the dynamics?

These are great questions that, in order to answer fully, would require several blog posts covering psychology, sociology, theology, legal and other areas. However we are going to forego all of that.
Instead, we are going to focus on the post-mortem analysis of a conflict.
In the medical field, post-mortems occur when a pathologist must determine the cause of death of a human body.
Autopsies are performed either to answer legal or medical questions and tend to be either external, or the more common one that lay people think of, where a body is broken up and sewn back together.When a conflict communication consultant arrives on the scene, it feels like we are performing a post-mortem. And, in essence, we are performing a relational one.
Three steps are required to perform a conflict post-mortem:

  • Determine the players and their positions,
  • Answer questions about their motivations and goals,
  • Propose solutions that will benefit everybody.
Sometimes the solution involves changing an organizational or personal culture and that approach is what we’re all about here at HSCT.Here at HSCT, we deeply believe that changing your personal culture first can lead to changing your organizational culture.
A conflict consultant (or mediator) is called into a situation where the conflict is alive and well.
As a neutral third party, that person (typically us) has no idea what is going on.
Or, they may have only a tangential idea based off of something they were told by either a third party to the conflict, or a person involved in the conflict directly who may be trying to sway the third party participant in their favor.
Messy stuff.
So, us (or an organization like ours) enters the conflict. Our principal conflict consultant talks to all the parties involved and attempts to determine with at least 50% accuracy the answers to three questions. And yes, this is incredibly difficult.
Here are the three questions:
  •  Who’s lying to us about the situation and their role in it?
  • Who’s telling us the truth about the situation and their role in it?
  • Who doesn’t care and wants the situation to “go away” so that they “can get back to their real lives!”?
And yes, in case you are wondering, we have actually had clients say that last one to us.
The answer to the first question—who’s lying— helps us determine what direction we go in to propose resolution to the issue at hand. We may propose a mediation, one-on-one coaching with the conflict participants, or outside resources (i.e. therapy) in addition to whatever else the parties may need.
The answer to the second question—who’s telling the truth—helps us determine who needs the most direct intervention first.
In the case of a conflict involving violence against children, elderly or other individuals who are at-risk, the answer to that question is always, the victim is telling the truth. Period. Once the person being victimized is removed then we can successfully manage other areas of the conflict. Or, disengage from it completely.
The answer to the third question—who doesn’t care—helps us determine who to ignore and whom to persuade as a potential ally to advocate for solutions that may benefit everybody in the conflict.
This is a tough position to take, because sometimes conflict participants say that they don’t care, when in reality they do. Or, they may be saying that they don’t care as another way of saying “I’m emotionally exhausted by this issue.” Conflict avoidance is a way to resolve conflicts, just not a preferable way.
Emotional exhaustion, apathy, victimization, disengagement, deceit, power games, these are all the energies that animate a conflict and keep it going and reproducing, like a cancer in the body.
Asking these three questions allows the principal conflict consultant at Human Services Consulting and Training to make a determination regarding the best path to take to resolution.
Originally published on July 3, 2013.

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