Communication Tools & Conflict Resolution
Organizing against powerful social forces like corporate rule is extremely challenging. It is personally and emotionally difficult to take on these problems, and to do it well we need to work collaboratively with others who we might not otherwise be in contact with or know very well. Even when we are working with close friends and family, communication can be difficult and conflicts always arise. When working in affiliate groups and reaching out to other organizations to collaborate, open and effective communication is essential.
It’s not an embarrassing “problem” if your affiliate group struggles with interpersonal issues and other social stumbling blocks. It is an inevitable part of organizing. What we need to do as people working together on common goals is make sure that we don’t let these inevitable conflicts stand in our way.
This page is a collection of resources that can help your group resolve social conflicts.
Little Tools Can Go a Long Way
Sometimes a simple trick can totally change the mood of an interaction. Use these or be creative in coming up with something that might help your own situation.
Talking Stick... Use an object with the agreement that only the person holding it is permitted to speak. This allows for deep listening and taking turns. You can use a special symbolic object for this that you always have on hand, or just grab a pen off the table to use if you want to try this technique.
A Time Keeping Tool… An old fashioned hourglass & sand timer (sometimes included with games) is one way of timing a contribution to discussion in a subtle way. If the setting is a group discussion, one person can be a timekeeper, watching a clock to make sure speakers limit to a certain amount of time per person (for example, two minutes), and then shaking a rattle-shaker or stick with bells to let speakers know when their time is up in a subtle and pleasant way (common and inexpensive instruments). Other similar instruments like tingshaws or even a harmonica can work for this. Just make sure that all parties are respectful and reasonable with one another when using this practice, so that no one feels policed or cut off rudely, yet at the same time everyone makes an effort to respect the time-limits agreed upon.
Funny Props… Depending on the situation, having conflicting parties wear goofy clothing items like hats or toy glasses can help defuse tension and lighten the mood for smaller conflicts or otherwise unpleasant discussions. When used at the right time, this can work to help us see the bigger picture and take ourselves less seriously.
Trust Games… Starting a meeting with a game, or setting aside a special event where members of your group spend time doing these kinds of activities together can make a huge difference in how people are able to relate on an interpersonal level. A good resource for group-bulding exercises: http://treegroup.info/exercises/
- Basic Facilitation… On the national level, Move to Amend uses facilitation techniques to keep meetings and group communication happening smoothly. We assign a note-taker to record the meeting, a time-keeper to make sure the discussion moves along as planned, and last but not least, we use the “Stack” method for taking turns speaking. Whenever a topic opens for discussion, one person (the “stack taker”) takes down a list of speakers who ask to “get on the stack” to speak by raising their hands (or saying their name if we're on the telephone). The “stack” is really a list of people in line to speak. Once people get in line to speak, it’s important to stick to it so everyone who needs to has the chance to speak without being interrupted.
Here are some links with additional resources:
- Free PDF Download of “The Group Works Card Deck” of tips for working together: http://groupworksdeck.org/deck
- Meeting Planning tools (scroll down) http://treegroup.info/exercises/
Need to work out a conflict between two people? Try VOMPing!
“Vomping” is an simple and effective tool for working out interpersonal conflicts, establishing understanding, and finding our common ground. If you follow the steps, it really works.
A good recommendation is to familiarize your entire group with this process even before conflicts arise. That way, when an issue does come up, every person in the group will have this tool to tackle it—“hey, can we Vomp about this?”—and others will know what they are talking about! No one has to be afraid to bring something up because they don’t know how to handle it. Everyone is equipped with these simple steps to follow.
Vomping happens in four stages—Vent, Own, eMpathize, Plan. This process works best when two people step aside and communicate one-on-one in a private and respectful manner. Each person needs to recognize the process and agree to go through all the steps, alternating turns and listening actively, without interrupting one another.
First, both people “vent” about this issue. This is your opportunity to tell your side of the story completely uninterrupted, and get it all out there. Just make sure you use “I” statements, speaking only from the first person to describe your own personal experience. Be vigilant about not disrespecting your partner, and be honest. Use concrete examples, express your emotions, and get it all out there. One person goes first, then the other goes. While your partner is speaking, listen actively and do not interrupt them at all. Each person should have as long as they need to tell their story.
Now, each person takes “ownership” of their words, actions, and attitudes and acknowledges their part in the story. Even when it seems like one person is totally “in the wrong” a conflict is never entirely one-sided. Be honest, and remember that both of you are motivated to clarify and resolve to problem.
“this is a very exciting step in the process of conflict resolution because it allows each person to assume responsibility for their part in the conflict, and since both people are committed to taking responsibility, much of the fire of hostility is extinguished in this step. We all know what it feels like to be deadlocked in a conflict where each person won't budge, where each person feels he/she stands completely "in the right." No one wants to be the first to "back down" for fear that the other will seize the advantage and take the upper hand in the conflict, dismissing the other as submissive or weak. Ownership is a safe step because both people are committed to this process and to identifying their role in the conflict. Taking ownership of our words and deeds is an important step in the development of human relationships and of personal integrity.” – Leah Wells, http://worldpeace.org.au/vomp.asp
This is your chance to stand in the other person’s shoes, and see things from their perspective. When you do this, you are able to honestly internalize and recognize the other person’s experience and relate to their emotions and both the intended and unintended effects of your words and actions. Empathizing helps us grow in our understanding as people, and brings us closer together.
Now, suggest concrete actions and agreements that can be made to address the issue and solve the problem. Find the common ground here, and make an action plan. The plan doesn’t have to be set in stone, and can always be revised later. Plans are important so we can move forward and feel like we’ve really accomplished something through the process. Plans can also be referred back to for as a mutual basis for accountability in the future.
Ruthie and Robin are sharing a bedroom while attending a statewide convergence for Move to Amend! Even though their names start with the same letter, somehow it’s two nights into the trip and they are already driving each other crazy…but VOMPing comes to the rescue!
Ruthie: Robin, can we Vomp before we go to the afternoon meeting?
Robin: Sure, Ruthie, now is a good time for me. It remember how it goes—vent, own, empathize, plan. How about you start.
Ruthie: Ok, I’ll vent…The stinky socks all over the bedroom floor are driving me crazy. Last night, I even tripped over a pair while I was on my way to the bathroom, and banged my knee against that chair! Just looking around us now, I can see six pairs lying on the floor, and that’s not including the ones on the floor of the shower. Last night, the smell was so strong it entered my head while I was dreaming, and I had a nightmare about a giant stinking sock chasing me down the street, and then it morphed into the CEO of Monsanto and attacked me. Everything went black, and I woke up in a cold sweat.
Robin: Ok, now I’ll vent. Everyone in my family has stinky feet, I can’t help it! Right now I am going out running three times a day training for running a marathon next month, so I’m using a lot of socks. This has never been an issue for me before, I always keep them in my travel hamper and wash them every couple of days in the sink. The the ones on the floor in the shower must have fallen after I washed them and hung them to dry. Someone’s dog must be getting in here and pulling them out of the hamper, because when I come back to the room they are all over the place. I’m upset too because my socks are getting chewed up and I’m afraid I might lose some, but I feel out of control of the situation.
Ruthie: Ok, it’s my turn to Own. I own the fact that I have been having a bunch of friends over in the room, and leaving the door open when I go out with the room unattended. I know there are a few dogs here this week, but I still have been leaving the door open because I like the fresh air and sometimes I don’t want to bother looking for my keys to get back in if I close the door.
Robin: I’ll Own too. I recognize that I have not picked up the socks immediately when I have seen them on the ground, because it didn’t really bother me that much and I figured I’d just do a really good search of the room and collect up any stragglers at the end of the trip. I’ve also been throwing them on the floor when I go to use the shower, instead of putting them directly in the hamper first.
Ruthie: Ok, now I can empathize. I didn’t know you were training for a marathon, that’s really great. I definitely understand how important it is to get out and exercise during a conference like this where we are talking and inside a lot. If I don’t do my jumping jacks every morning I feel terrible! I was also confused about the socks on the shower floor, I didn’t realize they had fallen down from hanging. I can understand how you have felt out of control of the situation, too, since I’m kind of a social butterfly and have had lots of people in and out of the room.
Robin: I can empathize, too. I’m sorry you had that nightmare, I hate having nightmares! If I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I can barely function the next day, so I know how important that is. I’m also really sensitive to certain smells, strong perfumes give me a terrible headache.
Ruthie: Okay, let’s plan. In the future, I can keep the door to the room closed whenever I am not here, and when I want to hang out with people I will do it somewhere else. I’ll put a bigger keychain on my keys, too, so they’re not so hard to keep track of.
Robin: For my part of the plan, I will do a thorough clean of all the socks on the floor, and will keep my travel hamper under my bed. I will put my socks directly into the hamper as soon as I take them off. I will also hang my drying socks more carefully so they don’t fall down.
Ruthie: Great! Sounds like a good plan, and we can always talk again if there are still issues.
Robin: Yes, problem solved. So glad we Vomped!
Confronting Oppressive Interactions
It can be very difficult to challenge an oppressive comment or behavior, but when we are committed to working together, it is important to do so.
When challenging another, remember to breathe and stay connected to your own inner strength, while staying committed to your motivation for communicating—opening up the possibility for more understanding and respect. If you are the one whose behavior is being challenged, remember to listen first and foremost. Really consider their speaking up a gift , giving you the opportunity to expand your understanding and ability to connect with and work with others. Remember it’s not easy to speak up when someone is saying demeaning things or acting in a demeaning manner, and it’s also not easy to absorb criticism without feeling, embarrassed, defensive, and attacked.
Everyone’s hard work in this area is important for us in transforming oppressive relationships and mindsets into healthy and respectful ones. Here is a great framework for handling this kind of interaction: http://organizingforpower.org//wp-content/uploads/2009/03/challengingmoments.pdf
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is deeper process and framework for communication developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg offers a comprehensive way of finding the common ground between individuals and groups where both are recognized and common humanity and needs are acknowledged. NVC has been used in to work for peace between conflicting factions in parts of the world affected by ongoing war and conflict, and is also successfully applied on interpersonal levels. The practice focuses on universal human needs as the motivation for all actions.
Rosenberg’s books are very practical, full of simple examples and clear methods to put into practice.
His book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, is highly recommended: https://www.cnvc.org/catalog/nvc_language_for_life
Other materials and workshop information can be found on the NVC website: https://www.cnvc.org/
Web searches will also turn up other books and audio sets by Rosenberg, and possibly even NVC workshops in your region.
Principles, Agreements, & Accountability
A good reference for agreed upon common ground when things are getting rocky is Move to Amend’s core principles, which all Move to Amend affiliates agree to strive towards:
Accountability and responsibility, both personally and organizationally
- Movement building
- Dedication to Move to Amend mission, goals and tactics
- Commitment to anti-oppression within ourselves, communities, workplaces, policies, and representation
Referring back to these principles can be a way to remember and re-center on our common culture and goals when it comes time to resolve a conflict. It’s good to review these principles with the group on a regular basis so they remain a place to come back to. Your group may also wish to create additional ground rules and agreements to keep everyone on the same page.