By Lynne Kinnucan
Linda Colburn was nicknamed the Red Adair of community crisis intervention for her willingness to intervene in on-scene disruptions and for her unique strategies in pushing them through to resolution. In a telephone interview from Hawaii, she walked us through how talk works, whether it’s when she’s called to a breaking crisis or when she’s slogging through a year-long facilitation with multiple angry stakeholders.
The situations are different, but her emphasis is always the same: helping people make choices about how they engage and how they will handle future conflicts. And then she designs processes that will elevate their skill sets going forward. This transformative emphasis, she says, is critical for people who have to coexist after their disputes have been settled.
Here is Linda on one of her transformative devices: Provocative Dissonance.
“‘One of my favorite strategies when I become involved in a breaking crisis is what I call provocative dissonance: a sort verbal sleight-of-hand that breaks the rhythm of the escalation and throws the antagonists off balance for a moment. I might use humor, or I might say something in a way that is so confusing that they have to pause for a moment to make sense of it.
“For instance, if the conflict involves people from a lower income rural community who may have less verbal sophistication, I create that break by looking at them and saying, “Do you really appreciate the socio-economic ramifications of what you’re doing?” While they’re stunned for a moment, trying to figure out what the heck I’m talking about, the provocation ceases. I have that one fraction of a second to break the momentum and introduce something new and/or redirect their attention.
“It’s all about using that split second to change the odds.
Or if one of them says, ‘He called my wife an idiot,’ I respond with, ‘Is that ‘Idiot’ with a small i or a capital I?’ He will probably say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ There’s that dissonance again. I have created a tiny space where all physical activity literally freezes in time. In that pause I can jump to Plan B and say, “Listen, sit down for a few seconds while I go over and talk to so-and-so to see if we can work this out.” I am now creating an even larger gap, and it is more difficult for them to pick up exactly where they left off. They may return to the conflict, but they will not be able to get back into it at the same level.
“The next thing is I do use open-ended questions to lead them out of the fight and into their feelings. I cast around for anything that works. ‘What’s so important that you would put your family at risk by hitting your neighbor? Are you really willing to get them kicked out of their apartment because of your fighting?’ This invites them to recalibrate the risk they take when they act on their first impulses.
“They’re with me now in the physical sense: they’ve been willing to pull back and sit down. But inside they’re still buzzing. So now comes the unwinding. Like anyone in the early stages of a conflict, irrespective of the culture, they’re blaming, tense, and saying all the things they won’t agree to or the things that the other person won’t do. There’s a lot of energy around that, and I address it right that up front: ‘Wow, it must be really nerve-wracking to be so wound up all the time. Sounds like you could use this time to relax, slow things down, to figure out how to resolve this and make things more predictable in the future.’
“If this brings them to the table, so to speak, I try to manage the process so that they not only resolve the fight, but also will want to use what they’ve learned the next time a challenge comes up. As I do this, I’m continually lowering the pressure in the room. I explain the steps we’ll go through to work through the issue. I share a few basic ground rules for the session so they know what to expect. They know that they will have time to talk about the issue without interruption before we resume discussion of the matter at hand. By enforcing basic ground rules and managing aggressive behavior, space is created for them to listen, reflect, and contemplate solutions. If we are successful at this, they’ll usually affirm it: ‘You said we could work through this and it we did.’
“Exploring multiple solutions - and asking them to imagine how they might actually play out - shifts their attention from the past offense to future actions. They begin to de-escalate and start to process the situation more calmly.
“If they get stuck, we talk about the consequences of failing to resolve the situation informally. They can be in charge of resolving their issue or risk having someone else solve it for them – possibly in ways contrary to their respective interests.
“It’s possible they’ll be uncomfortable with this, so I address that feeling right away. ‘How will you feel later if you don’t take this opportunity now? What would happen if you could work this out to your satisfaction?’
“It is important to affirm positive behaviors, congratulate them on clarifying their positions and encourage their efforts to resolve their issue. Modeling calm, non-judgmental and respectful behavior toward the disputants provides examples of new ways to respond to future conflicts and misunderstandings.
These follow-up steps – after the initial confrontation - are steps routinely used by crisis negotiators: move the subject from anger and barricaded actions to trust and understanding to developing a strategy for a way out. Colburn takes the exit strategy to the next level.
“I’ll actually talk with them about their strategies for addressing situation like this going forward. Using the word ‘strategies’ reinforces the notion that they can make choices about how they respond to future provocations or conflicts. I suggest that being strategic is another way of taking responsibility, showing strength, and leadership. This can help them move from assaultive, knee-jerk behavior to more thoughtful and successful problem solving.
“Understanding cultural nuances is important. The earlier example involved neighbors in a transitional homeless shelter. The culture of violence in this particular locale was well established. Other contextual or ethnic cultures also inform dispute resolution methodology.
“For example, in Hawaii local community members may go to great lengths to avoid a confrontation that would cause loss of face for someone. Rather than a crisp articulated list of offenses, a disputant may tell a story that metaphorically references the problem. In public community meetings silence is often interpreted to mean assent as there can be reluctance to openly disagreeing with or challenging another. It falls to the mediator or facilitator to draw the issue out.
An angry crowd of hundreds, gathered in a hall for a facilitation can mean trouble. And Colburn is seeing more of this. Using traditional facilitative strategies, and a brand new one, she has had major successes.
“As our state demographics change I see more examples of clashes of communication styles, especially in public meetings. Louder, more assertive participation eclipses shyer voices in the room. It becomes much more challenging to accurately capture the collective will or broader spectrum of interests in an audience.”
It was this difficulty that led her to a new and highly successful strategy.
“More of my work these days has to do with cross sector working groups or public policy issues of importance to multiple stakeholder interests.”
In one case, the opposing parties filed angrily into the room, speaking loudly about where they would sit to shut out the other party, how they would speak so that the opposition had no time. Given past conflicts between some of the participants, trust levels ranged from low to nonexistent. The room was set for a major disruption.
But behind the scenes, Colburn had prepared a new strategy, specifically for dealing with large groups of hostile people. “With a larger group the possibilities of going down in confusion are always present, as are the difficulties and challenges of having all voices heard. For these, I was lucky enough to find two partners who helped me work out an effective strategy.
She explains it like this:
“In large public meetings a high percentage of participants usually expect to be able to share their comments. But time constraints coupled with domineering or provocative behavior by a few can trigger total chaos in short order. A web-based program solved this in a way that got everyone’s attention and approval.
“Two local entrepreneurs provided access to their new web-based program which enabled people in the audience to anonymously vote, rank, or submit comments and questions prepared by the facilitator.
“The current question or agenda item was projected on a screen for all to see while simultaneously displaying on their smart devices. Comments and votes submitted anonymously via their devices were displayed for the group see in real time.
“These electronic responses augmented a few verbal comments from the audience on each agenda item. Paper surveys were provided for individuals who preferred to hand-write their comments. The combination of live audience comments, electronic device comments, and written surveys enabled everyone to share their thoughts.
“At the end of the meeting, the notes, votes, rankings wereinstantly available in a report that was transmitted via email to people who provide their contact information.”
It was a memorable strategy and a major success.
Cross sector, multi party dispute resolution is interpersonal conflict on steroids, says Colburn. “The complexity of the issues; the local, state, and national regulatory constraints; the multiple cultures; the confusion over jurisdictions (not to mention motives and mandates) all require a much more sophisticated approach to process design. But the same conflict dynamics are in place as in a street altercation: the desire to fight, the tension, blaming, and impulsivity; and the same emphasis on transformation – all are at work here.
“There aren't a lot of road maps for this work, but the potential for positive community/statewide impact make the risks and challenges worthwhile.”