Business Success: Conflict Resolution: A Living Systems Approach

Apr 29, 2013 @ 08:30 AM

Conflict is a natural by-product of the tensions that arise in dynamic organizations. Although it is often perceived as negative, conflict that is handled effectively has the potential to inject new, creative energy into the system.

communicationConflict can be dealt with in a variety of ways. The use of mediation along with the practice of effective listening skills detailed in Chapter 3 is often successful. Organizations are discovering that by inviting individuals to work through their issues in new positive constructive ways that tap into the energy of the group, these techniques deepen the connections within and across their teams.

Eric Brunner, manager of Human Resources at Temple University and his colleague, Marie Amey-Taylor, director of Temple’s Human Resources Department, use a variety of training techniques that provide content in visual, auditory, and kinesthetic formats. They also design their trainings to be active, using both inductive and deductive activities to transfer learning to the participants.

For over 10 years, Brunner and Amey-Taylor have been practicing a combination of improvisational theater and sociodrama to demonstrate appropriate and inappropriate conflict resolution skills and ways to work through conflict and build trust. Sociodrama is a form of improvisational theater based on the “shared central needs and issues” of the audience or participant group and involves dramatic enactments of real-life situations or conflicts so that participants can observe and develop interpersonal skills.

It is presented using trained actors, occasional volunteer audience members, and a highly trained facilitator. In practice, Brunner and Amey-Taylor found that participants became very engaged in the action, would dialogue with the characters in a scene, and might even jump in to take the place of actors to “correct” inappropriate or ineffective behaviors. This unique combination of improv and sociodrama is a powerful technique and has become a staple in their work with employees at all levels within a wide variety of organizations. In the next section, Brunner shares his experience with the process.

Conflict Resolution with Sociodrama

Recently, we were asked to partner with a professor from Temple University’s School of Communications and Theater who was presenting on the topic of cross-cultural communication at a women’s leadership conference at Bryn Mawr College. In attendance were about 80 women, all high-level administrators, from a wide range of institutions of higher education.

Because the group was all women, there was a content piece based on the work of Deborah Tannen, an expert in the different communication styles of men and women. Prior to the presentation of this content area, the theater troupe presented a scene designed to introduce the content and invite participants into the presentation. Because of the actors’ familiarity with the participant group and the program content, they were able to anticipate a scene that would have relevance for the group and introduce content. There were four actors on site for this session, two men and two women.

The scene started with actors playing the four people responsible for planning an event on a college campus. During the enactment, the male actors began acting in ways that were illustrative of how Tannen described men as communicators. And the women in the scene began acting in the ways that she described as typical of women.

As the scene played out, the session participants were able to see the connection between cross-gender communication and the possible conflicts that could be generated. As the group saw themselves and others with whom they work in the characters, they started to react, most with laughter. A few exhibited a heightened desire to rectify the situation depicted by the actors. After watching the enactment for five minutes, the group participants were engaged and eager to explore the topic more fully. The use of theater also allowed the women to release some of the feelings they carried related to the topic and their own experiences. This purely experiential format for generating discussion and learning about conflict has proven to be an effective training technique and a tool for building trust and strong relationships.

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