“Conflict exists in community, and not all conflict is the same. It has dimensions. Nuance. If we’re to live in community with each other we must acknowledge this reality. Living in community requires a shared set of values and norms to serve as guideposts, defining the behaviors that we want to encourage and discourage, outlining the actions that make our community stronger and those that take away from its strength.” – DeRay McKesson, On the Other Side Of Freedom
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the word conflict? I’m reading DeRay McKesson’s brilliant book, and this section really stood out to me. As a coach/facilitator the topic of conflict comes up a lot, so I recently polled my friends. Here are the responses I got (to the same question in the first line): breakdown in communication, ugh, discomfort, professional-conflicts-of-interest, opportunity, growth, values, angry, bad connotation, understanding, and resolution.
There’s a reason for our reactions. Our brains are wired to protect us. Physiologically, if we feel discomfort (which, many people do during moments of conflict), our brain thinks we could be unsafe, and it is wired to help us to avoid unsafe circumstances.
I know this from personal experience. As a recovering people-pleaser and perfectionist, I was a conflict-avoider for YEARS–in fact it wasn’t until 5 years ago that I really started to look at my relationship with conflict–personally and professionally.
That same year I had a BIG wake-up call: I realized that my conflict-avoidance (especially when it came to having complex conversations about race, equity, and cultural differences) was a manifestation of white privilege/fragility, which was ultimately impacting my happiness and potentially even impacting the student outcomes we were seeing at our school. My inability to call-out (and have a difficult conversation about) assumptions / unconscious biases / microaggressions I witnessed wasn’t about me anymore. I committed to getting more practiced at navigating conflicts. That’s when everything changed.
Just as we expect discomfort to come up when children are learning in school (knowing when they’re in their ZPD: the “zone of proximal development”, a place of healthy struggle), if we’re practiced at recalibrating our expectations and navigating that healthy struggle-zone, we have a different relationship with discomfort. That means we can rewire, reframe, and re-train our brain to make positive / neutral associations with conflict.
Fast-forward 5+ years, as a equity leadership coach and facilitator, I now see conflict as a healthy indicator of progress. I now know about Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development and see “storming” as one of the predictable weather patterns in the seasons of community dynamics.
And yet, it’s taken YEARS to get comfortable with that. And how we feel about conflict continues to be a hot topic. It’s the thing that comes up most in client/coaching conversations, and it’s the thing a lot of people have energy around.
In talking to hundreds of leaders, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern when it comes to adult conflict/disagreement: 99% of the time, here are the top 3 reasons why we avoid conflict:
- Because we’re afraid of offending someone
- Because we don’t know what to say / don’t want to say the wrong thing
- Because we’ve had negative experiences of not being seen and/or having had people make assumptions about us, so we don’t want to cause harm to someone else
Especially on diverse teams committed to equity and inclusion, conflict comes up. With so many different perspectives, thoughts, viewpoints, and biases at play it’s nearly impossible not to disagree about something.
When we normalize the storm, have brave conversations, get explicit about our community values and agreements, and have systems/structures in place to hold healthy tensions–the dynamic becomes more productive AND the quality of our work improves.
I love when metaphors match an experience, (I could geek out about it all day), so when I thought more about weather/storms, I looked into what meteorologists do so we could learn more. As luck would have it, I actually had the opportunity to talk with a meteorologist from our local TV station, KVUE, Jason Mikell!! So thankful for his generosity. Here’s a screenshot of our Facetime chat…
In case you’re curious, here are some notes from our conversation…
What was the first thing you learned as a meteorologist?
I’ll never forget it. The first advice I ever got was from a mentor in Philadelphia who said “you have to have thick skin in this work. If viewers don’t like you they’ll change the channel. It’s that simple.” You have to know yourself well enough not to care what other people are going to think.
What steps do you take to both prepare for–and navigate–when a storm comes?
Three things. But before I say that, I’ll say that meteorologists have some distance from the eye of the storm… we are rarely storm-chasers (although most stations have a storm-chaser vehicle, it’s rarely used), and reporters are usually on the ground updating the viewers about the real-time conditions. So, when you know a storm is coming…
- Staying calm is the #1 thing
- Focus on what you know–state precisely what’s happening and what that means
- Stay with them. Be present (and emotionally grounded).
For example, when a storm is coming we have to think about what to anticipate and how to communicate that to the viewers. When we know it’s coming we can prepare the viewers, but sometimes a storm just hits in the middle of the day without warning (especially in TX). it’s important that we’re always ready. That we know, in the back of our mind, if there’s heavy rain, we need to prepare people for flooding. If there’s hail, we need to prepare people (and help them prepare) for external damage (outdoor furniture, cars, roofs, etc.), if there’s heavy wind, we need to potentially prepare folks for tornadoes etc.
What happens when things change unexpectedly?
Oh yes, i’ve had a producer tell me–right as I’m walking up to go on air–that there’s a tornado warning, and the new weather projections don’t match the slides I prepared. In that moment–literally on that day, from 8:38-9:00 I had to demonstrate calmness, talk about what I knew, show up consistently with how I usually show up, and “wing it”. Knowing myself and being self-aware was key.
Any pitfalls you see folks make often?
Oh yes, I think one of the biggest mistakes (blindspots) is giving mixed-messages in the delivery, style, and tone. For example, I’ve seen someone sit down and nonshalontly talk about flash floods–that makes viewers confused/concerned. It’s contradicting. Consistency matters.
People need you to stay calm during a storm. You can’t cause viewers to go into fear. You have to handle things to prepare action plans and guide the viewers calmly. We have to gather our thoughts, be coherent, consistent, and visibly showing calmness.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s so powerful.
What parallels do you see/notice to navigating conflicts and the storming phases as equity leaders.
When we see ourselves more like meteorologist and see conflicts as storms, we can calibrate our expectations. If we normalize their existence, then we can see warning signs, prepare, and equip ourselves with strategies/tools to minimize harm and maximize health.
And if we want to be effective, we can’t get better without discomfort.
We can’t get good at something we don’t practice. And the antidote to fear is courage. So if you’re a conflict-avoider like I once was, or someone who will always be a work-in-progress like me, taking the first step–even if we’re nervous–allows us to get better.
The S.P.A.R.K. Acronym helps remind me to always show up with intentionality…
- Show up authentically and with love — it takes courage to show up as your full self, taking the mask off, being ready to be seen, heard, and vulnerable. I added “with love” for a reason. Imagine that the person in front of you could be your partner or close friend. Imagine (even if it’s a stretch) they are doing the best that they can with the tools that they have. See what that makes possible for you.
- Pause — check in with yourself. Your body. Your mind. Your whole being. Get emotionally grounded. Breathe. What do you notice? Feel? Physically sensations arise.
- Ask intentional questions — how to show curiosity rather than certainty? Asking
- Respect diversity — who’s perspective needs to be considered? Hasn’t been considered?
- Kindly expect messiness — anticipate a curve-ball. Expect things to veer left when you hoped they’d veer right.
To lead with a S.P.A.R.K. is a choice. It’s a choice to intentionally walk down a path with some resistance, but the good news: we’re not alone. We’re a community of leaders on this journey together.
Now, let’s keep the conversation going….
What does this spark for you?
Rachel Rosen is a seasoned facilitator/coach and the Founder/CEO of S.P.A.R.K, the game where everyone’s story matters.