By Clayton Horsey, Founder of Working Group Support, Woodstock NY Transition, With support from Karuna Foudriat, Polly Howells, Vito Piccininno, Liam Watt, Dermot McGuigan, Jana Smith, and Tom Cherwin
*Names and locations have been changed to protect confidentiality.
In the fall of 2019, John was looking for help to address a conflict that had caused him to resign from his local Transition group. John is based in Europe so he went to the website of the global Transition network – Transitionnetwork.org – and found a series of articles called “10 Stories of Transition” that Transition US had published earlier that year.
One of those stories profiled the conflict resolution work of the Working Group Support (WGS) team of Woodstock NY Transition. WGS had, over the course of several years, researched, developed, and practiced various conflict resolution models with the goal of providing tools and processes to help Transition groups resolve conflict.
John reached across the pond via email to ask for our help.
John co-founded his group, Transition Milltown (TM), with his good friend Pierre, and together they worked to grow their initiative. In 2018, after extensive advocacy by John and members of Transition Milltown, their town declared a “Climate Emergency” and held an event announcing the declaration.
A short film was made of the occasion and posted to social media. It received over 50,000 views. Encouraged, TM and the town governing body agreed to work together to sponsor a “Community Conversation,” to envision what Milltown could look like in 10 years.
John had dreamed of convening this type of visioning day for Milltown for years.
As planning for the event ensued, some members of TM’s Executive Committee raised doubts about taking on this new responsibility. Some were afraid that the day could go wrong and all they had built could be destroyed. The issue divided them, and hard feelings developed.
Some members wanted to sweep this conflict under the rug; John didn’t. But following a number of angry and ugly meetings, during which he felt excluded and marginalized, he resigned.
Our first step when we received John’s email was to ask him to send a written overview of the conflict story. When we received his write-up, we analyzed the conflict from both an organizational and an interpersonal viewpoint. We reviewed TM’s constitution and developed questions about the group’s decision-making processes and administrative structure.
Then we used a facilitated active listening structure to access the collective wisdom of the group. In this structure, each group member takes a turn expressing their point of view without taking any questions. When each member has spoken, the group facilitator summarizes what has been said. Then another round of sharing is initiated followed by a summary from the facilitator. Rounds continue in this way until all members feel that their point of view has been heard and summarized accurately.
When WGS completed this exercise, we scheduled a phone call with John.
During that first call, we asked John whether he felt the conflict was primarily organizational or interpersonal. He felt the conflict centered on his interactions with Pierre, but there was also conflict between himself and another member. He wanted to focus on Pierre first.
When a conflict is interpersonal, best practice is to work individually with the conflicted parties to de-escalate their emotional reactivity prior to having them engage with each other. One way to do so is to have the person tell the conflict story from what they imagine to be the other person’s perspective, and then to reflect on how it felt to tell the story that way.
WGS provided John with a set of questions to construct Pierre’s story and additional questions for self-reflection after writing Pierre’s story.
We met with John the following week and he reported that there were “gaps” in the story he had been telling. “I became aware that this was difficult for Pierre. This helped me paint a more accurate picture of the conflict.” John said that completing the exercise allowed him to see Pierre with more empathy and reconnected him with how much he missed Pierre’s friendship.
We asked John to imagine the best possible outcome of the conflict if it was successfully resolved. He could use whatever techniques suited him: writing, creating a song or poem, drawing, etc.
John embraced the exercise and responded with a written vision of the future of TM with the conflict resolved.
At our next meeting, John shared his vision and the group facilitator reflected back what he said. Next, the group reflected on what John’s vision had evoked in them using the facilitated active listening process as described above. Each group member shared what John’s vision evoked in them. Then the facilitator asked John to reflect on what he had heard group members share.
John said he felt deeply moved by the listening that the group provided and that, “Only when we (TM) create a safe space can we really work together.”
The WGS team brainstormed how John could create that safe space, knowing that private conversations between John and Pierre had failed in the past. We suggested that a facilitated conversation would be the best way forward.
Over the years, WGS has adapted the facilitated active listening process to work in a dialogue format when two parties are in conflict. The facilitator is a neutral party agreed upon by each participant. In high-conflict situations, it is often impossible for people to really hear one another because they become reactive. The benefit of a neutral facilitator is that it improves the listener’s ability to hear the speaker’s words.
The facilitator in the active listening dialogue asks the first person to state their experience of the conflict in two minutes. (The speakers are limited to two-minute time frames because we’ve found that is the limit that most people can hear without increased reactivity.)
At the end of the two minutes, the facilitator reflects back what the person has said and asks if that reflection is accurate. If the answer is no, the facilitator gives the person one additional minute to clarify what they stated. The facilitator does not summarize the speaker’s clarification.
The facilitator then asks the other person to speak their perspective and follows the same format. The facilitator repeats these steps until each person feels they have fully stated their point of view and each person feels they have been heard and reflected accurately.
We described this protocol to John and asked him to identify a person both he and Pierre would feel is neutral. He identified Marta and asked her to serve as the facilitator. She agreed and we sent her the protocol.
The group recommended that Marta practice the protocol with friends and introduce it to Pierre before scheduling the meeting between John and Pierre. We also met with Marta to go over any questions she might have about the procedure. Marta said that although she had no experience being a facilitator, the structure was clear and she felt confident she could do it.
At the next WGS meeting, John reported on the active listening dialogue with Pierre.
“I met up with Marta and Pierre on Thursday. Pierre was fine with it though he seemed to be nervous about the process. Marta led the listening session and was good at the role. We probably spent two hours going through the process. It was really good. Marta and Pierre warmed to the task very quickly and kept to the task at hand.”
The gaps in what John imagined Pierre’s feelings to be were filled in. Each man learned a lot about the other’s position. John believed the experience had been invaluable to both of them. “I am looking forward to ‘normalizing’ my relationship with Pierre,” John said.
John told us that he had continued to advocate for the Milltown Community Conversation and to his delight, the town had agreed to sponsor a day-long event. He would be facilitating it. He then expressed concern that Jorge, another member of the Executive Committee with whom he had conflict, would be present. He feared that the experience would be extremely difficult.
The event was scheduled to occur in just over two weeks.
John bumped into Jorge one day as they were setting up for a Repair Café. Jorge hastily left. A decision was made to have Marta approach Jorge to propose a facilitated active listening dialogue. She did, and Jorge agreed to participate.
“It was a very, very difficult session,” John said. “Marta had an incredibly difficult job and did really well, but I didn’t envy her at all.”
John said that Jorge had been hostile to him throughout the exercise and made no eye contact. Jorge told him that the group (TM) was far too busy with “tasks” and had no time for “this sort of thing.” Jorge limited the session to one hour exactly and left without saying goodbye to John.
The next week the WGS group met to review John’s email. We realized we had been lulled into a false sense of confidence by the success of John’s session with Pierre. We had not assessed the level of trust in John and Jorge’s relationship, or the quality of their connection in the past. In the press for time, we had done no preparatory work with John to reduce his reactivity, as we had before he engaged with Pierre. And we had not reached out to Jorge. In addition, we should not have expected a new facilitator like Marta to facilitate an active listening dialogue with reactive participants without preparing her for such conditions.
Outcome and Benefits
When John attended the next WGS meeting he reported that he felt better after the meeting with Jorge. “Before going through the process with Pierre, I’d had the feeling, ‘I wonder if the problem is me?’ But Pierre and I had understood each other [during the process], and our relationship deepened,” he said.
John realized this situation was different. “I wasn’t the problem. Other people had come to TM and left because they couldn’t work with Jorge. The listening exercise gave me more confidence.”
John said the TM Community Conversation had been a great success and the event unfolded without any conflict. Nearly one hundred people participated in the day-long visioning process, which focused on the region’s environment, energy, transportation, economy, and overall well-being. A book is going to be published about the results of the day.
John said, “What I have learned from my work with you is how to listen.”
The facilitated active listening dialogue between John and Pierre had reinvigorated and repaired their relationship. And it had provided an even more valuable and gratifying lesson for Working Group Support: When participants go into the active listening process prepared, with open and nonreactive minds and hearts, it is unquestionably a very powerful tool.
If You Want to Replicate This Project
We work pro bono with people in Transition Initiatives who are experiencing conflict. We work via Zoom, phone and email. People can email the contact person for WGS.