By Lori Cohen, a Bright Morning Associate and contributing blogger
Tending the Fire of Healthy Conflict
When we go camping, my spouse is the one who likes to tend to the campfire. From laying down the kindling to the tenting of the firewood to the careful stewardship of the flames and logs throughout the evening, she attentively ensures the flames don’t get too high, spread too widely. She keeps the fire contained. The whole process reminds me a lot of healthy conflict.
Tools for Managing Conflict
Much is written about the role healthy conflict can play in shaping an organization and moving a group forward. Schools who engage students in social-emotional learning teach students skills and tools to take ownership of their experiences when engaging in challenging moments. Nonviolent communication protocols give people across a range of organizations a process for acknowledging difficult emotions in hopes of keeping any potential conflagrations to a simmer. The Onward Workbook also features a guide for how to address conflict in service of building community. In all these instances, people have tools for engaging in conflict. And the secret to healthy conflict is planning for it.
Proactively Planning Conflict
Chapter 12 of The Art of Coaching Teams is devoted to conflict, and in this chapter, Elena Aguilar poses the following question: “What if we could experience conflict as opportunity, and what if we embraced exploring our conflicts together?” As I think about building resilient communities, I think about how teams might spend some of their early-in-the-year meetings planning for conflict in advance rather than waiting for the moment when heated conversations become uncontained.
My dream world is a world of proactivity, where our anticipation of possible outcomes is more than risk management—it’s human caretaking. In teams I lead and schools I’ve worked with, I think a lot about ways individuals can build proactive habits that lead to more authenticity, and ultimately, more resilience when difficulty arises. I find myself relying on many of the tools from The Art of Coaching Teams as a starting point, and I’d like to offer a process of planning for conflict that may be of support to you and your teams’ resilience:
Calendar it: Determine a meeting time early in the school year where the entire focus is conflict. You’ll want to devote at least 60 minutes, but 90 would probably be best.
- Offer the following “Reflecting on Conflict” questions to your team to review in advance of the meeting. Let them know you’ll be addressing these questions in the meeting (to build community and develop agreements). You may also want to consider assigning this section of The Art of Coaching Teams as pre-reading.
- Solicit scenarios from your teammates that are focused on school-based conflict. Ask colleagues to generalize where they can and change names so as not to implicate specific individuals. Scenarios should contain just enough information to name the type of conflict, if power dynamics are at play, and any other relevant information.
- If you’re the facilitator, you’ll want to put a lot of intention into the planning; you may want to use this planning and facilitation tool to ensure you’re meeting your goals with integrity. Depending on how meetings are planned at your site, it may be useful to receive input on the agenda from another teammate or the whole team.
The meeting (or two):
- If your team already has community agreements for your meeting, let your teammates know you’ll be building on these agreements to focus specifically on engaging in healthy conflict. If your team doesn’t have community agreements, it is worth creating space prior to this meeting to developing some. This sample agenda serves as a good template for planning an agreements conversation (and Chapter 5 of The Art of Coaching Teams is another good starting place).
- Give teammates time to share their early experiences with conflict from the “Reflecting on Conflict” questions. Depending on the size of the group, you may want to have people share in partners. This activity will build trust and empathy; it may also raise issues of race, class, power, or other systemic forces at play, which is important to unearth. The more you can talk about the roles of difference and power early on, the better.
- Using the question, “What does healthy conflict look and sound like to you?” ask teammates to share examples. Responses can then be shaped into conflict agreements. List these on a document that can be revised and shaped into a standing set of agreements.
- Review Sentence Stems for Healthy Conflict and engage in role play. You may need a couple meetings for norming, sentence stems, and role play, and if that’s the case, it will be important to build in time for it. Role playing potential scenarios gives your team a safe and optimal space to test out the sentence stems and practice.
Reflect: As a team, it’s incredibly important to reflect on learning together: what felt natural, what felt challenging, what the team may need more time attending to. Reflection offers opportunities to deepen learning and new insights that can be addressed at future meetings.
Tune-up Over Time: These types of meetings can often feel really good to teams, and they help people access some foundational tools in times of conflict. Every month or two, however, you may need some tune-up time to assess how you’re doing in relation to conflict. Tune-up can look like a 10-minute check-in at the beginning of the meeting, asking people to reflect on conflicts within or outside the team; or tune-ups can be reviewing and revising team norms after a conflict has happened. These types of maintenance moments go a long way in nurturing a team’s health and resilience.
Hopefully, by taking the time to plan for conflict, your team is better poised to contain the flames of challenging moments, and if anything, allow the team to grow together as a functioning unit—and ultimately, a model of resilience at your site.
The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.