At work, I make dozens of considered decisions about and during each intervention. Think about any conflict, and there was perhaps some heart stopping moment when you realized that someone needs to do or say something. But what? Each intervention, reframe, summary, or caucus, has potential to be a change leading the parties somewhere, with no returning to the prior state.
Seventeen years ago, I wrote a 90,000+ word novel about a Conflict Manager’s thought processes at work, the in-the-moment decision-making. Editing those words has been my 16 year obsession since. If you’ve ever wondered about the tension I experience when, with all parties’ eyes on me, I decide what to say or do next, here’s a summary of what it’s like:
Do as I say – but do I know what I do?
Conflict Management practitioners talk and write about best practices, research, and experiences at work (without identifying details about the parties – confidentiality foremost). Conflict Managers teach a linear stage model of managing conflict that is behavior based; do this, next that. However, we tend to use a nonlinear model that is cerebral based; think this, analyze that, or instinct based; feel this, emote that. In other words, the espoused theory of what we say we do, and the theory-in-use, (also called enacted theory), of what we really do and how we do it, may not align.
How do I know what I think about?
Conflict Managers sit at the table head, with minds playing air traffic controller, tracking intervention ideas and possibilities aloft like planes awaiting landing instructions. Depending on the Conflict Manager’s individual conflict resolution philosophy, orientation, experiences, and training, some ideas for interventions may land safely, some may be diverted to a different airport, some may remain in a holding pattern, and some may disappear from radar.
Do I think about what I think? The nanoseconds between having a feeling/thought to intervene and some intervention, remain somewhat mysterious. What do we believe influences decisions at the moment to intervene and what that “best” intervention should be (Espoused Theory), versus what actually influences the decisions/interventions (Enacted Theory)? Or, how do we decide the ‘best’ intervention is none at all, while we sit silently watching our mental radar screen?
Which decisions have impact?
Dozens of decision-making models are taught, researched and theorized. Do we know which skills or models might be most appropriate in the multiple and complex contexts of various conflict management styles? Do we pay attention to what decision-making model we enact or espouse?
We do what we know how to do and trust that individual decisions will (or will not) build up cumulative impacts. Early, innocuous decisions are: I don’t have a conflict of interest, and am available, therefore I will do this case. On the meeting day minor decisions include having coffee available. More serious decisions include which party speaks in what order, and every potential moment thereafter. Some decisions occur without thought its significance.
Conflict Managers believe the parties control their own decision-making, called Party Centred Empowerment. We guide the process and the parties control the decisions and any outcome. Our espoused theory is that decisions are theirs to make. Do we know this is our true theory in use? Does it apply to every decision, just to the substance of the conflict, or also to control over process decisions? How innocuous/true?
That begs the next set of questions: what is the relationship between decisions we make about process and decisions the parties make about substance? Are those two decision streams silos or systems? If the decision streams are silos, our decisions about process should have no effect on the parties’ decisions about outcome. But if our decisions about process are part of the system, what we do does indeed affect how they decide their own outcome. Do we take ownership of our own power and influence over their decisions?
How do I think about thinking?
Those are questions I’ve pondered over 17 years, and still have only random thoughts instead of answers:
1. From the first inquiry into a Conflict Manager’s availability until the Conflict Manager dies or retires, his/her impact on a conflict’s decision-making path is engaged. In complexity science terms, a conflict is path-dependent: meaning how it goes depends on how it starts and what happens to it along the way. Conflict does not start at the meeting room door or stop with goodbye handshakes. The discussion and decisions are inputs added to the conflict’s path. So, it would be nice to know what value our inputs add.
2. Which decisions are more important is revealed over time. Because Conflict Managers see only a fraction of the conflict, we may never know our impacts. Conflicts are comprised of discrete events as points in a time series that can be plotted. Interventions become part of the time series, incorporated into the conflict story no matter what the outcome. Because a meeting becomes part of the conflict system, the meeting can affect the conflict in unknowable ways, outside the boundaries of the meeting room. Our presence in the room was an input that can amplify or dampen conflicts’ changes over time.
3. Boundaries around conflict decisions are permeable. Linkages among decisions are not always clear. Maybe no one decision felt big at the time, but decisions’ effects are nonlinear, which means they can accumulate and cascade. If we just look at interactions in a linear and simple context, we risk missing important data about the conflict and our inputs into it.
4. Orientation towards risk affects capacity to decide. We talk a lot about conflict management style and models, without considering that our risk tolerance and our capacity to use those models and styles are interconnected in our unique comfort zones. Do we pull back from lines of inquiry that feel dangerous to us or wade right into a morass? Or, do we think we do one (Espouse), and actually do (Enact) the other?
5. Acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty may be essential Conflict Manager traits, since only imperfect information exists. We stand in the tension of dichotomy and paradox without knowing anything beyond meaning we make of what we are told. We make meaning when we are under pressure to perform. Not only do we take for granted we understand how our meaning-making machinery affects our decision-making skills, we also trust we understand how parties in the room make meaning that affects their decision-making. How do we hone the skills we believe we have?
6. The neuroscience suggests our decision-making performance may be hard wired in our brains, while the educational psychology suggests our decision-making performance can be improved. Is it either, or both of these that are correct or is the sum of the two greater than the individual parts? The science and art of decision-making suggest that what we do may be much more than what we understand we do, or it might be less than we assume we achieve.
Conclusion, if any?
Is my ‘impartial’ chair a fable I espouse about my work, fact that I enact, or some of each? I have no control over the eventual impacts of my decisions. It’s the same with my writing. My novel’s genre is unclear; I’m aiming for literary fiction in my highest aspiration and for just getting it published in my more realistic.
Dynamic, shifting questions, like my novel’s protagonist, intersect at decision-making, power, and a Conflict Managers’ analysis of risks and unfolding process as the meeting unfolds.