How your landscape expands if you talk about conflict…


Let me start by saying: I don’t like conflict. I am actually pretty good at diffusing unnecessary conflict and running away from necessary conflict.  (except sometimes, when I turn around in mid-running, and explode, but that is a different story).

I don’t even like talking about conflict. So why have I started insisting that most of the groups that I draw network maps with, add a link of “conflict” to their picture? Even if they don’t approach me with the question: “How can we solve our conflicts better?” Even if they don’t mention a single conflict when we plan the Net-Map session. But rather, their question might be: How can we be more successful in project implementation? How can I achieve my personal career goals? Or: How can we change the world?

I stumbled over the importance of talking about conflict when talking about networks rather unintentionally. When I included the link “conflict” in some of the maps I drew, I realized a pattern: Often the groups had agreed on the actors that play a role for the question, put them all on the map, linked them with friendly or neutral links, such as collaboration, hierarchy or money flows.

Then we moved to the question: Who has a conflict with whom? And all of a sudden new actors came out of the woodworks, quiet participants became agitated and the group explained the world to me in a way that had much more depth (dark and deep holes too) than the good weather picture we had seen before.

While I learned a lot about the personal differences, conflicts of interest and beliefs, I also learned about the history of the system, because most conflicts reach into the past. I started understanding where people were coming from, both in terms of their thinking and their family, loyalty and tribal relations. And by mapping out the conflict flows and how they are embedded in the rest of the social network, we could detect patterns and reasons that go beyond individual .

One agency or actor might be at the center of all conflicts in the network: Is that because they are mean and always looking for trouble? Or because they are standing up for what is right, in a corrupt system? Or is it because their formal role is to control others (e.g. evaluation function) so conflict is inherent in their role and will remain a productive force in the system?

There might be actors who have conflicts with our opponents – can we build coalitions, even if their area of interest is different from ours?

Drawing the lines of conflict is like adding the shallows to a nautical navigation map. Instead of just seeing where the ocean starts and ends, you now know which rocks and sandbanks you need to avoid on your perilous journey of change. And, in case you are nervous to ask about conflict when you are drawing network maps, in my experience, putting the conflict on paper by drawing colorful lines together seems to be enough of a diffusion that the sessions don’t normally end in a yelling match but rather turn into a collaborative exploration of how the conflict works.

Are you we? Or are you I?

And she said WHAT?

Working in an international organization, I see that we have a strange mixed relationship to our awareness of cultural differences. We think about them when we go to the field, especially if the field is an actual field (as in “rural”). But we try to forget that they exist when we’re at headquarters, interacting with our colleagues from all over the world.

I was reminded of that today when a small group of colleagues disagreed about how you best frame a problem you have with how the team does things. Do you say: “I don’t like this.” or rather “As a group we could achieve so much more if we changed this.” If you come from a culture that puts a high value on individual responsibility and ownership, you probably think telling what you don’t like is honest, you are taking ownership and you leave it to the others to decide what they will do about it. And you feel that talking about how the group could benefit from changing is just trying to hide what you want behind some politically correct, unclear diffusion of your own agenda.

If, on the other hand, you come from a group oriented culture, “I don’t like this” may feel like watching a screaming toddler who wants everyone to jump to their likes and dislikes, taking no responsibility for the larger good. And framing a change you advocate for in the light of the group’s benefit is the natural way to show how you care and that your own desires only really matter if they are aligned with the benefit of the bigger group.

And if we choose to ignore our cultural differences, it is very possible to have a conversation between two well meaning colleagues where one thinks the other is pushing a hidden agenda while the other thinks their colleague is a pushy egomaniac. While both feel very confident they are being responsible and communicating to the highest standards (of their respective cultures).

(Disclaimer: Our team discussion got to the point of making the differences explicit so everyone left with renewed respect for the other person’s good intentions…)

The participant who drives you crazy is you!

Edgar Degas, Madame Jeantaud in the Mirror (1875)

I recently had the great learning opportunity to deal with a workshop participant who drove me crazy and rubbed me all the wrong way.

Why is this so great? Because, let’s face it: If I didn’t recognize parts of myself in her, I wouldn’t have reacted with strong emotions. I would just have thought (in my head, not in my whole body): “Oh, this participant does things that don’t work well. What can I do to help her?”

But when you see someone who does something you tend to do, and you see it from the outside, experience how your behavior must feel to others, that is a whole body experience of: “Why can’t you just STOP DOING THIS?!” And if I didn’t take a deep breath and looked in the mirror before reacting, I would be tempted to shout something like this. I think an important part of being a facilitator is actively feeling what is going on in your whole body (not just above the shoulders), observing it and then taking yourself beyond your immediate gut reaction. It may sound paradox but that’s what it is, you have to closely listen to your gut reactions, but then not just say whatever your gut tells you.

So what did I do when my participant just couldn’t stop doing it: Looking at everything from an evaluation or co-facilitation perspective, getting stuck in thinking and discussing about process instead of allowing herself to experience it? And keeping her group from the experience as well?

Well, the first thing I did was walk away and take a deep breath. Acknowledge that the participant who drives me crazy is me. And then I tried to think of her as if she was me: “What would be a kind thing that someone could say to me if I were stuck in the same way?” The “kind” part of it can be the most difficult one, because your gut may be far more ready to pick a fight, push, dragg and put pressure, than to open a door and get out of the way so the other person can walk through the door.

When I am the participant who is stuck in analyzing the process, it won’t help me if someone tells me to just stop thinking and get on with it. Because if I feel like something in the process is not going to work out the way I think it should, I can get pretty stuck and feel like this needs to be fixed. So what kind of door could I open for my participant that would be easier to walk through? Here is what I said: “Try to let your concern rest for half an hour, join your group in going through the process and let’s talk about your concern afterward.”

That is basically saying a number of things:

Your concern is valid.

You have permission to let go of it for a while.

You also have permission to pick it up again afterward.

Did it work for her? I’m not sure… but it definitely taught me a few things for my next group meetings – both as facilitator and participant.

I’d be interested to hear from you: Does this ever happen to you? How do participants show you your own face in the mirror? How do you deal with it?

What’s more important? People or structures?

If you look at any great change, in your organization, in history, and you ask people to describe who this happened, most likely you will get one of these two stories:

Story 1.

It’s all about the people: There was this inspired leader, or evil man, or group of passionate individuals, or conspirators, or clever people, who came up with this grand idea who made all of this happen. If you wanted it to happen again, you would have to find the right people again and that’s the only way it would work. This would be an inspirational story (or a gruesome one, if the leader was an evil one) about the power of one but it would also leave you a bit at a loss in the question of how you learn from this for another similar situation.

Story 2.

It’s all about the structure: The time was right, there was a new law, technical invention, financial incentive, change in weather pattern, means of transportation, political system and all of a sudden, people (like sheep) had no choice but to change how they were doing things, it only made sense. The story sounds logical and convincing, enchantingly simple. It holds the promise that, if you want to replicate it, you just have to change the structure in the same way and everything will fall into place.

But have you ever wondered: Which one, now, is the true story? How come the same event can be told in these very different ways? Or do you hear the stories and it’s very easy for you to decide which one is a true account of what happened? If you know exactly which one is the true story, that might make you feel very clever. But beware, being very sure of something is often not a sign of high intelligence but rather of strong bias. You will get much closer to the truth if you don’t just enjoy this feeling of “I’m so clever” but rather explore your bias a bit further and see what other people (with other biases) have to say. The fact that both, the people and the structure story sound so convincing to so many people, can either mean: Half of the people are clever (obviously, the ones who share my view), the other half is stupid. Or it means: Both stories are true. If you combine thinking about people and structures you will gain a far deeper insight into what actually happened. And you double your options for changing the world. Because depending on what your levers are, you can work on both, putting the right people in place, connecting and enthusing them AND changing the structures in which they operate.

When we draw Net-Maps and discuss them, we often jump between talking about individual agency and talking about structure. The network connections (e.g. flows of money, hierarchy, friendships, conflict) tell you a lot about the structure and by mapping out the whole system you can get some insights about incentives and patterns that you would’t see by just talking about inspirational leadership. But when we discuss how influential individual actors are (influence towers) and explore what their goals and specific connections in the network are, and how they use them, we often talk very concretely about the way that individuals lead, disturb, interact, build trust, follow a vision etc. Bringing groups who work together around the table to discuss people and structures can have amazing effects. Because typically group members would either lean toward story 1  or story 2. Opening up to the idea that both stories are true and valuable can bring teams closer together and help them develop far more powerful strategies.

Relief: Stop banging your head against that wall…

if you just can't help it: Bang head here (copyright by jcrakow on flickr)

A lot of my Net-Map sessions are about: “How do you achieve your goal (whether that is feeding children in Ghana or reorganizing a company in the US) and who will help / hinder you?” And I can see how mapping out all stakeholders and developing realistic strategies for their involvement can be hugely empowering.

But every once in a while I also see that the biggest impact of mapping out who influences the achievement of a specific goal is the realization: “There is very little I can do. This goal is too tall for me or I am just not in the right position to influence this very much.” In these cases mapping it all out and talking it through with an experienced facilitator gives the person permission to stop banging their head against a wall in an attempt of creating a break-through. Once you realize that your head is so much softer than that wall, you can take a step back, sit down, take a deep breath and have a look at your whole situation: Once you realize something is out of your reach, you can stop feeling like a failure for not achieving it.

Just recently I helped someone map out a long standing family conflict around the one black sheep in the family. She had a very strong desire to integrate her uncle in family festivities again and had put a lot of energy in trying to push for this. Mapping it all out, however, helped her see that as a junior family member who was not involved in the conflict, she had very little power to change deep rooted family dynamics. And that there wasn’t just one side to blame for the whole conflict. So while it was well within her power to continue maintaining a strong and loving connection to the uncle herself, she had to let go of the goal of drastically changing the way the rest of the family connected to him.

Have a look at those things that you fight for most passionately and with most headache involved. Are you banging your poor soft little head against a rough stone wall?

Using Net-Map to become more agile

Ok, I wrote about how a different sector (e.g. international development) could use agile philosophies to improve their work and become more relevant and adaptive. But we also looked at it from the opposite direction: Is there something I could offer the coaches to improve their work. At the Agile Coach Camp I did two Net-Map sessions (and then some impromptu lunch break ones for those who couldn’t attend the “real” ones), and there we talked a lot about what Net-Map could do for Agile.

If you come to an organization (as internal or external Agile coach) and you want to implement Agile, this is not like saying: “We are going to use this new product now… but we will keep on working the way we did before”. It’s a radical change in what the organization does and how it does it. And as we know, the core reason for forming an organization is to organize chaos, provide stability and predictability. So typically organizations have a strong inherent force toward doing things “how we always did them” and are allergic against change. A lot of organizations are sort of ok with changing what they do (e.g. producing new products to follow market development) but changing how things are done is the scariest thing, because that attacks the glue that holds an organization together.

And that is the main reason why introducing Agile is not a technical as much as an organizational change task and why the Agile coaches got so excited when trying out Net-Map. Typically they are brought into the organization by someone who thinks Agile is a great idea and is looking for a partner in implementing it in the organization. The coaches should, however, not fall for the illusion that “the organization” wants to become agile. It’s always more complex than that. You will have people who fear loosing their power as experts or clearing houses as the new way of doing things is introduced, you will have others who don’t agree that you can trust people to deliver instead of micromanaging and controling every breath they take, some (maybe in the leadership) will wake up one day and realize that they underestimated the depth of change that they invited into their organization and get very nervous about it, because they actually just wanted an increase in productivity without a revolution in work flow organization or organizational culture.

As a coach you come into this situation and see all these people just as “the organization”, a mass of faces, having no idea where the secret and open supporters and saboteurs sit and how this specific change process fits into the history of this organization. In our Net-Mapping session, participants mapped out their own perception of specific organizational constellations they have to deal with and developed a deeper understanding of the core stumbling blocks and coalitions. That is a great first step. But imagine how powerful it would become if you started to use it with the people driving and impacted by the change. Interviewing your first point of contact / the person who initiated the Agile implementation would be a first step to understand the lay of the land. Then, in individual or group interviews you would talk with people who have very different perspectives on this, making sure that you are respectful to everyone, no matter what their stand is. So instead of saying: “These people are for or against Agile (the good and the bad people)” you would have to frame both perspectives positively, for example by saying that they are for stability or for change… Apart from getting a very fast in-depth understanding of the positive and negative, formal and informal power networks, you would also have a great way of understanding the root causes for people’s hesitations and allowing all of them to feel like they are part of this development within their organization, instead of feeling like this is something leadership is doing to them.

Some of the coaches were really excited about the idea of including initial Net-Map sessions into their approaches, so maybe I can soon write about how this actually worked.

Net-Mapping for Common Ground: Churches and the LGBT community

One of our participants of the Net-Map certification coures last week mapped out the question: “Who can influence a greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Mennonite church?” For everyone involved that is an emotional issue, no matter what stand you take. And it is one of these issues where it is easy to demonize the other side. There is one step in the standard Net-Map procedure where you write the goal of the actor next to the actor and I encourage people to write it in a simple and clear way if possible. In this case it was obvious: Are they for or against more inclusion…

But strangely, writing plusses and minuses next to actor names didn’t seem to do us any good: It didn’t tell us anything new about this situation and didn’t help us explore possible next steps. So I proposed something else: Next to each actor, write their goals in a few words in the way that they would state them. That was a greater challenge: Writing the goals of your opponents in a positive way. And, at least for the moment of writing them down, considering that they might have a point, or, at least, that their intentions might not be all evil. So we found out that on both sides of the argument, there are some groups who are strongly interestes in “unity of the church”. And that there are some that are interested in learning how to deal with diversity in the congregation in general. So instead of feeling: “These guys are not fighting for us, so they are against us.” we started searching for common ground from which we could explore further steps…

If you want to read more about the issue itself, you could start here, on LGTB Mennonite activist sites: Gay Mennonite League, The Brethren Mennonite Coucil for LGBT Interests and read this article on beliefnet which sheds a light at the discussion without taking one of the positions. And if you want to see how this kind of discussion can explode between people who hold different positions, read the comments on this article on a gay pastor’s removal in the Mennonite Weekly.

Having the wrong map can kill you

Your personal conflict map might be full of sea monsters no one has ever seen (source:

Imagine driving through a hostile area in any conflict driven country, let’s say Afghanistan. You would definitely make sure that your physical maps are exact and up-to-date, indicating not just where mountains, rivers and villages are, but also where your friends and enemies are located (as far as you know). Would you get this map by climbing on a hill (or sitting in a ditch) and just looking all around you, drawing what you see and inventing what you don’t see? Not likely.

However, when we look at how we think about our conflict networks, that is exactly what we tend to do: Sit in our own ditch and asses who are friends and enemies, where they stand, how they work with each other and with or against us, where the safe roads are and where the landmines may be hidden. We even tend to draw in our mind’s eye what happens behind our backs or in people’s heads.

That’s bad enough if we do that in a simple office or family conflict. That’s like having a wrong physical map when I walk through Washington, DC. Annoying, but doesn’t kill me. But if you are in a conflict where the lifes of people are on the line, it’s scary. When I Net-Map with people on different sides of conflicts they can tell me vastly different stories, draw maps that don’t look like they are about the same issue. Now the immediate reaction to this is to ask: So what is the true story? Then you pick one side and run with it, thinking that the other side is either deluded or lying. But I have found that the question about the true story is besides the point.  The approach that leads to more progress and opens doors for new strategies is to say: Both maps are true. This is reality as it looks from the perspective of two different ditches when the smoke in the air clouds the view. Each map is real in that it will shape all the actions of the person who sees the world this way. If someone thinks you are their enemy, irrespective of whether you think you are, it is a reality that you need to know and deal with.

Whether we put them on paper or not, we all have more or less complex views of what the conflict network looks like. And we act based on these assumptions, gathered from the bottom of our own ditch (or maybe from the top of our own hill). One of the great theorists of social network analysis, David Krackhardt, talks about developing a common cognitive social structure out of all different network views. That makes a lot of sense if the difference in view is basically just a difference in knowledge and you can add all the different knowledge bits together to have a more informed common view. To navigate a conflict effectively, this “average” view, developed by stacking individual maps, is less useful, as none of the conflicting parties actually sees it this way and you get so much more guidance by being able to understand how the different sides see this differently.

If you want to bring the maps together, bring the people together, instead of just stacking interview results… If you are at a point in the conflict resolution where you can actually bring people together and they are ready to talk with each other, you might want to draw a common map together, where people can negotiate what is true and why they think it is and sometimes just agree to disagree. If you are not there yet, you could sit down with both groups separately and draw one map asking: What does it look like? and another map: What do you think the enemy thinks it looks like? You end up with four highly interesting maps that will tell you a lot about the pitfalls and opportunities for next steps…