Stop assuming, start asking questions: from conflict to collaboration


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From DareConf Mini, London January 2014. Penny Walker talks about conflict, collaboration and asking great questions. Watch the sessions here: and find out more about DareConf here

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  • Thank you.*smile*I facilitate conversations about change and sustainability (environmental protection and social progress). Some of you facilitate discussions about digital and change, as least as part of your work.I have learnt a few things about conflict and collaboration, and I’d like to share some of that today so that you can apply it to your work.
  • I was a fighter.Now I’m a collaborator. I’m going to speak about how and why. The first part of my career was spent as an environmental campaigner – this is me at one of the very first days of action on climate change in the UK, in the late 80s. My particular focus was household waste, recycling, reuse. And I got to put on wetsuits which was great and to pose with giant bottles looking really grim. Which was grim. My job was to find out what the bad guys were doing wrong, draw attention to it and to their weaknesses, and put forward solutions. It was black and white stuff. After all, we were right and they were wrong. Our motives were pure and theirs were venal and corrupt, right?
  • Paper made from forests is bad, paper made from old paper is good.And one of the reasons is that in general you get less of the really nasty kinds of pollution from the process of making recycled paper.But you can still get some pollution, and one day there was evidence of pollution from a recycled paper mill. BThis was bad news, but it had an upside – I got to talk with one of the really senior people, a charismatic man who I really looked up to but rarely got a chance to meet with.I can remember standing in the bike shed with Andrew, our senior Water and Toxics campaigner, arguing about how we should respond to this as an organisation. Draw attention to it, because the fish and frogs don’t care whether they’re being affected by a recycling plant or a new paper plant? Downplay it, because we wanted people to get the simple message that recycling is better than dumping and making again from new, and this might confuse them?It felt really horrible to be fighting with a man whose principles and expertise I admired so much. But I had to defend my own campaign area.
  • There was another time when I was being interviewed by the BBC’s Roger Harrabin – a hugely respected and knowledgeable environmental journalist whose work was always thoughtful and intelligent.We were talking about doorstep collection of waste for recycling, which was just about to become a big thing in the UK. I’d been promoting it like crazy: recycling should be as easy as throwing your rubbish away.But, he asked, what about the evidence that this pushes up the amount of fuel used by the local authority lorry fleet? BWell, yes, in the short term, until rounds can be reorganised because there’s less rubbish being chucked in the general bins.But that’s hard to explain and I was worried that to concede even a short term downside might provide lots of ammunition to ‘the other side’. I handled the interview badly – instead of acknowledging the complexity I got defensive and cross, I paused for a long time after his question and I felt I’d been stitched up.What I did learn, though, is that I was uncomfortable with taking a simplistic line and flatly denying the germ of truth behind his question
  • I was beginning to get interested in the grey areas.Let’s just recap.
  • So here’s my campaign area, firing out arrows against packaging companies, the Government, local councils which don’t recycle enough.And here’s the bad guys, firing arrows back at me.And my underlying assumption is: if I’m right (which I am, of course) then they must be wrong. But....Recycling mills can also be polluting. Recycling trucks also need diesel thus add emissions of carbon to the atmosphere.And the arrows I was getting and firing weren’t just from the bad guys – Andrew and Roger were good people, with completely legitimate questions and challenges. They had good points which needed addressing; their aims were also aims that I support.So this was a big problem: it’s all a lot more complicated that I thought. And complicated is hard. How can I do the right thing, in spite of the complexity?How can I accept and integrate the challenges and seemingly competing needs, without giving up my own interests and needs?I didn’t know. But I did know that it couldn’t be by defending the indefensible or pretending the other side were villains.So I kept my eyes open B for things which would help me B navigate this new world which was scarily messy B and uncertain, in which both sides needed to win B because they were actually part of the same bigger team. B
  • And I was introduced to this model: PIN. And the model came from conflict resolution and mediation, and I was introduced to it by a bunch of facilitators.
  • Positions are like the tip of the iceberg – often they’re all you can see when you first start the conversation.
  • So off I went and learnt a lot about facilitation. I read books, went on courses, worked alongside skilled and experienced facilitators.
  • And I pretty much swapped my placards for post-it notes.And I learnt a way of having conversations which slows things down so people can safely climb down from their positions – or even avoid adopting positions in the first place – so that common ground can be found in the interests and needs.This simple approach to conversations is to have the discipline to ‘listen’, ‘reflect’ and then clarify. And I’ll explain it now.
  • Not reloading!Not waiting to speak!But listening with full attention, respect, curiosity and trust.With your eyes, with the nods and encouraging noises. With patience – you’ll get your chance to speak, but right now you are listening.
  • But listening with full attention, respect, curiosity and trust.With your eyes, with the nods and encouraging noises. With patience – you’ll get your chance to speak, but right now you are listening.
  • Reflecting back – to show you’ve heard and to check you’ve understood correctly. So the person you’re talking to may tell you about how they really want to get more people cycling to work but they’re worried about bike storage, accidents, and clients’ reactiond.And you simply reflect back to them: “OK, so I hear that while you want more people to cycle to work, you have three main concerns which are where bikes will be stored, the risks people will be at from other road uses, and whether clients will think less of us.” Which gives them the chance to say: “Actually, I was worried about clients seeing us scruffy and dishevelled. I don’t think they’d think less of us generally – in fact, I think they’d be impressed.”
  • Clarify – asking questions which help the other person tell you more about the breadth or depth of their take on things, about what they need, about what they fear and hope. Not assertions, suggestions, positions or put downs disguised as questions! These are really useful questions:
  • And of course your voice can turn a real question into an attack.So ask out of genuine curiosity, with respect and courage. So I started using these approaches – helping people talk about interests and needs to find common ground, through listening, reflecting and clarifying – and they soon helped with some great conversations which were a privilege to be part of.
  • This is a view of Medmerry, on the South Coast of England, near the Isle of Wight. Helping people find their common ground, and enabling them to explore options without sticking to pre-decided positions has resulted in this pioneering flood defence scheme, which opened late last year just in time for the winter flood season. It protects homes better than before, and provides a new wetland habitat for birds. These techniques have also helped me help environmental groups and the nuclear industry explore common ground over decommissioning nuclear power stations. Another example is helping Human Rights lawyers collaborate over cases to protect and compensate people affected by the changing climate. But I hadn’t learnt quite enough. There was something else. When you give people a safe space to tell you about their hopes and fears, you need to be ready when they do!
  • I was facilitating a workshop on energy use for a multi-disciplinary team which was building a new business park.We were discussing insulation, U-values, low-energy lighting, how to keep servers cool in smarter ways. The team included architects, mechanical and electrical engineers, builders. Pretty much all men. A lot of pragmatic people with faith in technical solutions.There were some areas where finding win-wins was hard but the commitment to do so was there and we had our sleeves rolled up.I facilitated a check-in after lunch: how are we doing, how are people feeling about our progress? And this man looked me in the eye and said “Well, so far we’ve probably managed to reduce our energy use by about 30%, but it’s nothing like enough, is it?”“Uhuh...” (using my great listening)
  • “I mean, tackling climate change requires huge cuts in emissions and we’re just one little construction project....
  • ...It’s a bit pointless. And anyway, it’s too late, isn’t it?...”
  • ...I have two small kids” he said “Is it too late?”
  • And there were tears in his eyes.Wow. I was being put on the spot and I was really uncomfortable. Is it too late? Would this derail the workshop? I said: “Of course not! Look at all the great stuff we can do. We’re at 30% and it’s only lunchtime. We can set an example.”And we collectively turned away from the terrifying prospect of talking seriously about climate change, the man was rescued from his strong emotions and the workshop was saved. The uncomfortable stuff was tidied away into the corner and we ignored it.And the man himself was pretty quiet and disengaged for the rest of the workshop. And I knew I’d taken the easy way out and it stayed with me.
  • In fact, I thought about it so much that I brought it to my coach to talk through. And I had a bit of an epiphany... If the things that are really bothering people are seen as so disruptive and problematic that they need to be fobbed off rather than explored and expanded on – well, we’ll never tackle the things that really matter. I decided I needed to get much better at facing the uncertainty, the complexity, the strong emotions.
  • As my facilitation mentors told me, it’s not helpful to rescue people from this discomfort – it’s disrespectful and it avoids the biggest challenges. It’s in exactly those situations that we need to show up being our best, with respect, curiosity and trust.As facilitators, as colleagues, as fellow human beings. We need to listen, to reflect back what we hear and to ask questions which open up the conversation.Listen to the doubt, the anger, the uncertainty, the fear, the grief, the blame.Listen to the devastating killer information that we’ve been colluding to ignore, that skittles our legs out from under us just when we think we’ve found an easy solution. Show that we’ve heard and that we’re big enough to listen without being overwhelmed by it.Because when we really hear each other with respect and curiosity and trust - THAT’S when we work together to find the best solutions which meet all our needs. That’s when we collaborate.
  • Because I know now that there aren’t good guys and bad guys, there are just guys.Guys whose interests and needs we haven’t understood well enough yet. Guys who we need to listen to, check we’ve understood and find out more about.
  • We move from conflict to collaboration when we listen louder to the things we don’t understand, when we move away from being right and move towards the uncomfortable truths. And that’s what I’d like to invite you to do.
  • Stop assuming, start asking questions: from conflict to collaboration

    2. 2. Get interested in the grey areas.
    3. 3. Both sides needed to win.
    4. 4. Positions Interests Needs
    5. 5. Position Interest Need Common ground
    6. 6. I swapped my placards for post-it notes.
    7. 7. Listen
    8. 8. Listening is not the same as waiting to speak.
    9. 9. Reflect
    10. 10. Clarify
    11. 11. Really useful questions: What do you want to see? Can you tell me more about that? What would that give you? What do you want to achieve, that this could help you with?
    12. 12. Not really questions: Have you thought about doing this instead? What kind of dumb idea is that? You haven’t really thought this through, have you?
    13. 13. It’s not helpful to rescue people.
    14. 14. Position Interest Need
    15. 15. We move from conflict to collaboration when we listen louder to the things we don’t understand; when we move away from being right, towards the uncomfortable truths.
    16. 16. Want to know more? Use PWP15 for a 15% discount @penny_walker_sd
    17. 17. Picture credits Thames Barrier – author’s own library, copyright unknown. If this is your picture please get in touch. Bottle – author’s own library, copyright unknown. If this is your picture please get in touch. Recycled paper – Water pollution – Recycling truck – Diesel pump – Castle – Workshop leaves / branches – Dialogue by Design / Sustainable Development Commission. Workshop people – Helen Fisher / Sciencewise Placards – Post-its on better meetings – Author’s own / Sustainable Development Commission Headphones – Glasses - Question mark – Medmerry – The Environment Agency Insulation – Light bulbs – Polar vortex – Flood Aral Sea Scream – Walk – David Caines / Penny Walker Book jacket – DoSustainability / Sedition Publishing