Adaptive Action: Resolving Conflict and Honoring Difference

Adaptive Action Creating the Next MomentMary's blog post about generative engagement is a great starting place for this reflection about conflict at all levels of an organization or community. This week's survey invited responses to three items: 

  1. Describe an intractable conflict - local, national, or global.
  2. What keeps the conflict going?
  3. What can you do/do you do to help those around you deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise when people live, work, or play together?

We find that people are concerned about conflict at all scales of their lives. They often believe that the conflict, itself, keeps people engaged--talking about the differences that divide them, positioning the differences, trying to eliminate the differences. This continuous and self-destructive engagement exacerbates both the instances of conflict and power of the conflict. Many people have come to the conclusion that conflict, as a pattern, leaves us helpless unless we can figure out how to eliminate the differences that divide us.

HSD, on the other hand, offers an alternative position that the differences that divide us are vital to the full functioning of human systems. Glenda Eoyang, in her dissertation, found that difference in the system is one of the necessary conditions for shaping a pattern. No difference? No patterns. So the answer to intractable conflict is not to eliminate difference--that's impossible. Instead, the answer lies in learning to negotiate those differences that have the greatest impact.

How can a leader in any system--an organization, family, community, agency, government--help navigate any diversity that threatens to swamp efforts to move forward? HSD offers a number of models that help us undertand the differences that make a difference in a system.

  • The Decision Map reminds us to consider how our decisions are influenced by the world view of the decision makers, by the rules and regulations that are followed by the decision makers, and the evidence or reality the decision makers consider in their decisions.
  • Conflict Circles help us unbraid the facts and details of an event from the stories we tell ourselves about that event. Often it is our respective stories, rather than the event itself, that cause great conflict in a system. 
  • Generative Engagement, as Mary described it in her recent post, helps us frame the underlying dynamics or conditions that shape the patterns of conflict in our systems.
  • Difference Matrix helps us understand how difference can express itself in the exchanges in a system.
  • Other models are available on the HSD Wiki to help people think about the process and substance of conflict in a system.

Using any of these models/methods, leaders can use Adaptive Action to resolve conflict. Working through the three questions of Adaptive Action gives individuals and groups at all levels of a system greater understanding about the difference that is inevitable in their system.


    • What patterns do I see in how people respond to differences in the system?
    • What differences are more important than others? 
    • What impact--productive or destructive--do these patterns have in the system?
    • What, if any, are the patterns of difference between what people say and what they do? 
    • What are the patterns of difference between how people express themselves or tell stories of or about the system?
    • What has changed in time, relative to how people deal with or perceive difference?
    • What are the gaps in my observations that I need to fil?

    So what?

    • So what is the difference between what I/we see and what I/we want?
    • So what do I see that fits in this time and place? What does not fit? For me? For us?
    • So what actions, perspectives, beliefs, traditions got us to this place?
    • So what might lead us out of this situation?
    • So what is constraining how we deal with differences?
    • So what are the boundaries, diferences, and exchanges that could or would make the greatest difference?
    • So what options for action are likely to help us move forward.

    Now what?

    • Now what actions can I/we take in this situation?
    • Now what individuals or groups should be involved in the steps to resolve this?
    • Now what expectations do we set about how we want the system to change?
    • Now what might happen that we are not expecting--both positive and not?
    • Now what will we watch for to know that we are succeeding? That we are not succeeding as we would like?
    • Now what needs to be communicated to others and how?

    In working with many individuals, groups, and communities in conflict, we have learned  that when individuals and groups embrace difference, they are better able to find ways to shape rich and powerful patterns of interactions, decision making, and behavior. Rather than wasting individual and system energy on maintaining and fueling the conflict, these approaches to holding and exploring the differences help set a path of courageous and wise action that builds adaptive capacity at all levels of the system.

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