The Invaluable Gift of Conflict

Many families that we work with announce early on that they are conflict averse.  In some ways this turns out to be true and in other ways it turns out that these families are not quite as conflict averse as they claim. Often, we find, conflict simmers just below the surface and manifests in a thousand sideways moves that tear at the fabric of family cohesion.  Often the fear is that if overt conflict is allowed to arise, it will rain destruction on relationships.  The unspoken collective sense is that it is better to live with a thousand smaller cuts than to face familial apocalypse.

Often that instinct is spot on.

The problem is not that these families are conflict averse, it is that they simply don’t have the skills to engage in healthy conflict – and they are acutely aware of that brute fact. They are not equipped to handle the conflict in anything approaching a straightforward, productive way. This dynamic puts families in a double-bind. To move forward they must engage authentically, but authentic engagement is rightfully seen as dangerous.

The unavoidable “truth” in all of this – and what makes this double bind classically tragic – is that healthy conflict is as necessary to progress in families as it is in any group.  The way groups grow and change is by facing the challenges they encounter head on – not locked in fear, but with a kind of open acknowledgement of the challenges and the inevitable intra-group conflicts that these challenges bring.  For healthy growth to occur, there is a need to, as one of our client families has put it, “honor dissent”.  Groups (and families) that cannot manage these tensions tend to fall apart either in drama or through drift.

Complexity, Polarities and Paradox

At the heart of almost all productive change on both individual and collective levels is what experts would call “an adaptive challenge”.  This is merely a fancy way of saying that something that was working well enough before is no longer working and that this failure to thrive is now so painfully evident that it must be addressed.  If something important is not working, it usually means that somewhere there is a deep “systemic tension” or conflict in play.  At its root, there is often some form of willful or assumed collective ignorance, or legitimately differing perspectives on an issue, or divergent values driving behavior, or levels of rigidity, or some other form of central tension that impedes the ability of a family to find a deeper harmony.   Robert Kegan, in his book Immunity to Change, calls these tensions “competing commitments.” The family becomes polarized in these tensions as it attempts to address and resolve what it sees as mutually exclusive and competing states of being. What we find is that this underlying polarization is often complex.  The problem is never as simple as either one thing or another. The tensions exist in a number of related issues and even on interlocking levels within the family system.  If it was simple, it would be easy to resolve.  Complexity makes it difficult.

Some of the characteristics that make problems complex are that these situations are chaotic (cause and effect are far apart and the current conditions are the result of interdependent and often unseen variables), they are personal (stakeholders have diverse perspectives, personalities, idiosyncrasies and interests), they are ingrained (the patterns driving them reflect longstanding habitual behavior) and they are indeterminate (the future is unfamiliar and uncertain).

Families tend to avoid or suppress the polarities for as long as possible.  Once that strategy fails and they become unavoidable, the family finds it has no way to manage them (precisely because they are inchoate, personal, ingrained and indeterminate). Ironically, these polarities are very difficult to resolve from within; anyone in the family is inherently part of the system and therefore part of the problem.  Attempts to solve the issues become co-opted by the very system they are attempting to change as the system becomes reactive to such “leadership”.  The family is “blob-like” in its ability to assimilate any attempt at change that comes from the inside. In short, the family becomes swamped and even trapped by its own complexity.

Through this complexity, we have found over the years that Adam Kahane (following Jung, Tillich, King, Wilber and many others) is right in that almost always this conflict boils down to tensions between the impulse to power (autonomy) and the impulse to love (belonging). That said, the manifestations of these impulses are almost infinite in their expression.  Every family “does” power and love differently.

The end result is that these tensions seem unresolvable.  Several times we have been asked by a family member, “Can people really change?”  It is a terrific question.  At its heart lies a poignant divide between resignation and hope. It is the apparently cynical question that reflects the disappointed idealist within.   We believe that there is a hopeful answer to this question which we will get to in a bit.

The Advisor

What we find most advisors doing is avoiding the conflict at all costs.  Their paychecks depend on the family not blowing up and the advisory community is itself terrified of having to deal with the deep emotions that run through the family system. The situation is almost as chaotic, personal, ingrained and indeterminate for them as it is for the family.  The result is that, to the extent advisors intervene at all, they do so with highly structured “solutions”.   These may take the form of legal instruments such as trusts, or family meetings that are downloads of business or financial information and announcements of decisions made by family leaders with assumed and expected compliance by the rest of the family.  Discussion is stifled, questions are perfunctory, agendas are tightly controlled and so on.  Even well-meaning advisors carefully skirt the landmines and the real issues and do everything in their power to ensure that what they see as essentially unmanageable complexity will not erupt in open conflict.

This can even plague professional facilitators.  We know of one facilitator who has as a groundrule that no one is allowed to express any anger in the family meetings and if they do, they are asked to leave.  That kind of extreme denial of family dynamic only impedes any real or authentic resolution of family issues and serves to perpetuate a status quo that is not working.

The Way Out

What is required in these environments is first the ability to understand and appreciate the degree of complexity involved. This requires a deep dive into the history of the family, the perspectives of the individuals, and the patterns of the family system.  It also requires scanning the future horizon for multiple possible outcomes.  Such work takes time and patience.  It takes an ability to develop and maintain trust.  It requires deep insight to connect the dots and see the larger picture.  It takes the capacity to live comfortably with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  It must allow messy human emotions to exist in a state of grace. In the end, and in its most rudimentary form, the advisor must accurately see – with deep equanimity and profound compassion – how power and love are specifically at work within the family system.

What is next required is the ability to design a “container” or environment that will allow the family to productively engage their central tensions and conflicts.  Here is where the secret sauce comes in – the skilled facilitator must call on a host of facilitative techniques and approaches that lighten the mood, lower the stakes, allow “negative” emotions to be re-framed and re-contextualized, engage something other than the reactive reptilian brain, and generate realistic hope while inspiring collaboration.  The path to finding solutions to complex problems must be systemic, participatory, emergent, creative and engaging.  The key is that such experiences are genuine and authentic (not repressive) and simultaneously adopt skillful means to both include and transcend the existing tensions in higher order solutions that require systemic change.

When these conditions exist, positive change is possible.  We mentioned earlier that the question of whether people can change is a key question that each family must answer for itself.  Our experience is that individual change is very difficult in isolation.  The behavioral patterns that exist don’t exist on their own but rather are embedded in systems that perpetuate that behavior.  Thus to change individuals the focus cannot be solely on will-power or coaching (though these can be helpful on an incremental basis).  What is required is shifting key aspects of the systemic nature of the interactions in the group to which the individual belongs.  As this happens, individuals in the group first test the reliability of the new world they are creating, but then – as it is shown to be trustworthy or at least constructive – they begin to embrace it as a way out of their individual and collective suffering.  As the system shift gains momentum, the individuals within the system begin to change.

In our experience, this work occurs within well facilitated environments where the facilitators have the capacities and skills to engage complex dynamic issues in ways that do not suppress conflict, but harness it as the engine of adaptive change and increased resilience.  In this way, conflict becomes not something to avoid, but something to be embraced as an invaluable gift.