As promised, I hope to take a peek behind the curtain of the issues I’ve had with authority that I imagine we’ve all had in different ways and at different levels. I’ll speak from the “I” perspective but hope it resonates on the “We” level.
Principles: Most every major conflict I’ve had with the administration in various settings begins from what I perceive as a violation of a Principle. It might be a principle publicly stated in a Mission Statement or an unspoken one that I imagined as an agreement, but perhaps wasn’t felt as such by the other. In either case, the conflict invited a necessary conversation that would bring all parties closer to clarity on who we are collectively, what we agreed upon to value, what we’re structuring our decisions and our work around to uphold and move forward. With this understanding, any conflict or disagreement or misunderstanding should be welcomed as a necessary step to furthering our spoken Mission Statement and/or helping to articulate out loud our unspoken shared values.
Politics: Problems begin to arise when the conversation is held within the parameters of political power. When one of the two sides holds the power to decide the outcome regardless of the logic of the argument, to determine how much they’re willing to discuss the issue, to shut down the conversation if they feel threatened on any level (politically, philosophically, personally) by the issue, things start to veer off course. Instead of a needed and welcome conversation clarifying principles, a conversation that would benefit everyone in the community, it becomes a political power struggle, with one side flexing muscle they didn’t necessarily earn and the other feeling shut down, shut out, or shut up by the uneven power dynamic.
Personality: Everything gets muddied yet further when personality enters the mix, as it always does. Instead of focusing on the actual issue, it becomes a character attack, with one person accused of talking too loud, another of not listening until it escalates into a vicious name-calling that completely ignores the actual issue that needs to be discussed. When things become personal, when discussions about principles are taken personally, the waters get muddied.
Does any of this sound familiar? If we are armed with awareness of this patterned behavior, we have the possibility of steering the conversation back to where it belongs. Refuse to engage in or acknowledge the name-calling, set aside the power dynamic (knowing that at the end, one of the two sides will ultimately get to make a decision) and stay focused on the principle at stake and the effect it will have on the community and the Mission Statement.
Sounds easy, yes? Except for one non-negotiable fact. We are deeply flawed human beings whose emotions almost always wrestle our logic to the ground and whose democratic systems of shared power and checks and balances keeps veering to the right. But at the very least, awareness of the three P’s and their proper order and balance gives the possibility of re-directed the needed conversations we keep refusing to have. And help the whistle-blower understand that their personality and “issues with authority” might be a part of the game, but fundamentally, it is their dedication to inclusive and life-affirming principles that is at the heart of the matter. And we all should be proud of standing up for that, to refuse the shame those in power hurl at us and those passive bystanders agree to by their silence.
So next time some drama erupts in your school, workplace or even family, consider the three P’s.
1) What is the principle at stake here? Are we actually in agreement about the principle and if not, can we agree to disagree?
2) Who holds the power here and how does that affect the conversation? Can we try to equalize the playing field for the sake of a better discussion?
3) While acknowledging the role of personality— different styles of arguing, different relationships with conflict, different histories of hurt feelings— can we lay it to the side and return to the main point? Can we veer away from making it personal or taking it personally and stick to the real issue?
If I were applying for a conflict management position, these would be my talking points. But really, I’d rather just be playing piano as I did today, while people jog, skate, bike by or stop to listen.
PS Of course, some conflicts are entirely political or personal, but even then, there are unseen or unspoken, seen or spoken, principles behind the disconnect that are worth examining and discussing. The above refers mostly to those kinds of decisions that come down from above and make one feel unheard, unseen, undervalued, etc.