Conflict may be essential to creative collaboration. At the very least, creative collaboration requires candour, transparency, openness. Collaboration is more than just “playing nice”.

“One of the particular advantages of diversity and dissent is that they promote two things that institutions need: creativity and innovation.” Reid Hastie and Cass Sunstein, Wiser

In design thinking they have a model called the Double Diamond. The idea is that creative groups start out together, then diverge, then converge, and diverge again before converging on a final outcome.

The experts all agree. Without difference – creative tension – there’s no spark. And with no spark, nothing new’s created.

“Enforcing order does not stop riots, hinder war or reduce world problems… If we don’t permit hostilities a legitimate outlet, they are bound to take illegitimate routes. Engaging in conflict instead of running away from it is one of the best ways to resolve the divisiveness that prevails on every level of society – in personal relationships, business and the world.” Arnold Mindell, Sitting In The Fire

The requirement for candour can be scary, especially when we’re not in the habit of speaking up.

I’m experiencing that at the moment in one of my online groups. I disagree with something someone’s saying there. As the moderator, I have to say so. I can’t stay quiet, for two reasons. 1. In the specific context, my silence could easily be interpreted as agreement with it and 2. Because it comes along at just the time I’m writing this blog post, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite 🙂

I notice that I feel afraid. Catastrophic conflict scenarios run through my mind. What if people get angry?

The same issue emerges with teams whose members pride themselves on being nice, friendly people. Being “nice and friendly” can come to mean smiling and chatting, so they tend not to speak up about what really matters. As a result, they may withhold their knowledge, views, and feelings – leading to all kinds of sub-optimal outcomes.

My friend Chris Matts adds an even more damaging pattern that he’s seen play out, especially amongst Agilists. (Agile coaches and scrum masters tend to be “people people”, strong on empathy. They often really don’t want conflict.)

You probably know that as teams are developing, they go through a series of stages – described by Bruce Tuckman in 1965 as “forming, norming, storming and performing”. But what happens when the coach, facilitator or manager is so busy avoiding conflict that he won’t let the team do any “storming”? It’s quite likely that the team will miss out on the best of their “performing” stage.

Of course, there are degrees of candour/conflict. Saying what you really think doesn’t have to lead to anger. One person’s “massive argument” is another person’s “storm in teacup”.

But when (like me) you’re nervous of speaking up, it often feels like the end of the world! And because I’m out of practice, maybe my well-intentioned words will be misinterpreted… maybe the catastrophic scenarios will really play out…

“Collaboration means group members embrace the friction, make themselves vulnerable, and allow others to ask the hard questions. Still, even in the best circumstances, these debates, no matter how well intentioned and constructive, can be emotionally draining.” Hill et al, Collective Genius

My Clean Language skills are useful here: after all, they’ve been used to help resolve some of the world’s toughest conflicts.

  • They help me to be aware that my truth isn’t the only truth, and more than their truth is the only truth.
  • They give me some sensible things to listen for. What needs to be true for them, so that what they said  make sense?
  • I have good questions to ask such as, “And when <their perceived problem, in their words>, what would you like to have happen?”
  • In Caitlin Walker’s Clean Feedback model, there’s a specific method to express, and own, my point of view. “What I saw/heard was… The meaning I made from that was… The impact was…”
  • Caitlin also has a couple of lovely facilitation questions for outing difference. “Who’s not like that? Who’s got something different?”

And when all of that, and if there’s a tough conversation brewing in your world… what would you like to have happen? Please comment below.

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