I recently attended a workshop with Professor Nadja Alexander who presented the REAL approach to conflict coaching. This provided new and exciting insights into the understanding of, and dealing with conflict. I was inspired by her holistic approach, assisting clients not only to understand and deal with a particular conflict, but to develop conflict management skills that would equip them better for life.
The importance of stories
As professionals in this area, we work with clients through their stories. We use the story they tell to understand what they see as their problem, to assist them in gaining clarity around this, the choices they have to manage their situation, and ultimately to move to a place beyond this conflict.
Exploring meaning through stories is hard wired into our brain. It has been demonstrated that there is a direct link between the limbic brain and the story brain. Stories have a strong connection to something that is essentially human. They enable us to join the dots between things that happen in our lives in a way that enables us to apply understanding and gain meaning. We can learn so much by considering what sort of story is being told, how the story teller is feeling about this, how this is being read by others involved in the story including the other party to the dispute.
Different types of stories
The type of story indicates the current emotional state of the storyteller, their capacity and likely approach to conflict and future options, and their problem solving ability. Stories can be regarded as continuous and coherent, or discontinuous, disjointed and fragmented. As a general rule, if the story is continuous then this can indicate resilience as a coping mechanism, and if fragmented, then vulnerability will often be the response to the conflict situation.
It is easy to think of a simple story with a villain, a victim, and often a hero. Many of our clients present with a story with themselves cast in one of these roles. Usually they see themselves as the victim, the other person involved in the conflict as the villain and they are looking to the professional as the potential hero, someone who can fix their problem. It is easy from this perspective to take the position as the powerless person, with no responsibility for what has happened to them, or how they can move to a better place. Repetition has entrenched this story in their minds as validating their thoughts, feelings and actions, and over time become a continuous and coherent version to them.
Nadja demonstrated the value of disrupting this continuous story, and of working with the resulting fragments to develop a more accurate and useful story as the foundation for moving forward beyond the conflict.
Often our clients move back and forth between a continuous and fragmented version of their story. I recall a recent situation where a parent was stating that the other was a good father and it was important for the child to have a relationship with that parent, but at the same time that the father had never spent any time alone with the child and the child could not be safe in their care! We need to disrupt the continuous story, to fragment this, and then use this as an opportunity for change, growth and the development of a new story.
Sometimes, the presenting story is fragmented, the storyteller presents as passive, describing all the things that have been done to them. Their vulnerability can reflect an inability to make cohesive meaning out of what they see has happened to them. One way forward is to connect the fragments in various ways, to transfer from the past into the future, and create new meaning. We may facilitate a particular way of linking between the fragmented parts of the story, and from this to connect to a different continuous story on a deeper level.
On other occasions, the story may move from a fragmented story to a continuous story, or from a continuous to a fragmented, and then on to a different continuous story. This can often be recognized as a pattern of thinking. The pattern will need to be recognized, disrupted, and unpacked to locate the fragmented story often underlying the apparently more continuous story. The change to the story will bring about a change to the way the storyteller feels about the events, and create new meaning for them. This in turn will lead to behavior change, a new approach to the situation and new hope for the future.
To understand the story that our clients are presenting with, it is necessary to appreciate how stories are generated in conflict. These do not only reflect the client, but also the others involved in the conflict, as well as the context or relevant systems.
We are all a reflection of the many systems around us. Our culture, religion, upbringing, family, friends, work environment, community, society, and internal world. We access data of what is happening around us depending on these systems, and interpret this data to reflect these systems often without a great deal of rational thought. We create a narrative around these events to justify our actions and generally create an explanation of causation and blame that is a linear story. Our human need is to store this in our memory as a continuous story that is cyclical and self-reinforcing. We develop a frame to suit this story, establishing the important aspects of how we make sense of the world that does not allow room for any other explanation. We connect any fragments, filling in the gaps, reinforcing the existing story, ignoring or discarding any data that is inconsistent.
Causation and blame results from a straight story line, with a starting point or action, and an end point or consequence. But systems of contribution are circles with no starting or end point. Nadja described these as like a funnel that circles around the various systems catching input from each as it continues around, and moving in towards or out from the inner voices inside the story teller.
Our inner voices
The inner voices might be those of the mother, the wife, the daughter and friend-each with a different voice making a contribution to the storyteller about the events around perhaps the separation and past parenting, and telling her something different as the preferred outcome in the now and for the future. She also revolves around the various systems that form part of her universe-perhaps her culture and what this says about proper parenting, her upbringing and her own experiences, her husband and her views of her personal relationship with him, her friends and what they are telling her about their experiences, her lawyer and what they are saying about the legal principles, her counselor and what they are saying about the social science and the impact on her child, her DV worker and what they are saying about acting protectively.
The story of this mother may focus on one of these contexts, or on a couple, or meander from one to another. It is easy to see how her story may be fragmented if she is trying to take all of these pressures and influences on board. It is only by understanding all the systems that she operates in, can she be encouraged to tell the rich story essential to assist her to consider for her what would be the most important to focus on, and what would be the most useful for her in her current situation. Only in this way can there be an impact on the inner team that will provide for change, growth, a different approach to conflict and possible resolution.
Disrupting the story
Story telling is the methodology to explore different systems and contexts that might be relevant . Once one thing changes in the system, then this results in a change in the whole. But how do we do this in practice?
The suggested approach is :
- Elicit the goal
- Map the context/appropriate system
- Explore the inner team (congruence, inner conflict, doubt)
- Confirm the coherence of the goal (in the context of the relevant systems and inline with the inner team)
You navigate your way through these steps by using stories. You move from the story to the system by mapping the conflict. You ask about:
- The background story (facts, feelings and interests)
- The issues
- Who are the people involved (in what capacity)
- Where they want to go (their goal)
These are all connected. Clarifying and reflective questions are often required to check that each mirrors the other. This will enable an exploration of the different systems, the appreciation of the right context, and obtain some structure around these tasks. Sensitive questioning begins the disruption, with the evolution of a new structure or way for the client to join the dots.
Nadja gave some very interesting clues about exploring the inner team. She suggests that the client be asked to name her inner voices, such as “fairness”, “justice, or “pragmatist”, and to get a phrase from the client to illustrate what they might be saying to her such as “let it go”, “life’s too short move on”, “principles count”, “you should not have to put up with this”, “you deserve more”, “you need a fair outcome”, “you will not be able to live with this”, “they should not get away with this”, “they should have to pay for what they have done”, “they have never been a parent before, why should they be allowed to now”.
By articulating the voices, and giving the client space to consider them and what they might say, they are then able to consider which voices they are listening to, or which they are ingnoring, where are the coalitions and collaborations, why and what might the consequences be for them. By externalising these pressures, and considering a different volume for the various voices, the client is being empowered to explore their own ability to alter their own story and behavior rather than expect any changes from others. The inner voices could also be mapped for the other party and consideration given to how this also might impact on their conflict and possible better options for the future.
In moving to examine systemic coherence, consideration can be given to whether the goals are coherent, bearing in mind whether there has been sufficient consideration of the relevant systems and the internal and external self.
The main impact for me, is that this approach does not deal with merely finding a solution to this particular problem that perhaps both sides to the dispute can live with. Although this will very likely be a consequence, more importantly it alters the thinking of those you are working with, about themselves, their perceived problem and the choices open to them. It gives them skills to understand themselves in a different way, and to take responsibility for their part in the problem, for finding a solution on this occasion and for dealing with conflict in the future. The storyteller no longer sees themselves as the victim, but is facilitated to become their own hero. As a professional in this area, I find this much more satisfying, and I am sure that those involved in the dispute will also be more empowered, more involved in the conflict management process, and feel a greater sense of ownership of any outcome!