Harnessing conflict in a collaborative conversation

Disagreement during a staff meeting can be a positive thing.

Especially when there is a spread of different understandings on a concept or concepts that a school is trying to enact into implementation, disagreement is bound to feature in dialogs and discussions.

In the Adaptive SchoolsSM literature, disagreement and debate about ideas is called cognitive conflict. The qualifier cognitive in the conflict is key. When professional groups disagree, it is not a personal conflict: not about personality, not about traits. Cognitive conflict is about the dissonance between what is shared and what a person’s mental models allow him or her to understand the idea to be.

Mental models, which humans create with experiences, are based upon assumptions that we have gathered as we experience the world within our own spheres of knowing. We know what we know. Within this knowledge are patterns we have perceived and generalized into our mental models, our ideas of ‘how the world works.’

Sometimes, we disagree with someone else’s mental models; we don’t share similar experiences of the world as another person, so it follows that we might have disconnections between experiences and what we generalize about those experiences.

Our mental models are not just products of our experiences of the world. They can also frame how we perceive what happens and what is presented to us.

Given that the frame of our reality is modeled and may be dissimilar to someone else’s, it is natural that we might disagree on ideas.

Far from closing us off to other ideas, our mental models are pliable and fluid. We are able to change our minds.

So, in a gathering where we might have cognitive conflict, it is the act of participation that allows us to see from a different viewpoint. We may perhaps open ourselves to new mental models as we synthesize the old learning with the new learning and craft a new model of an idea.

Ideas are valuable currency in our work in schools. And, in our collaborative thinking as we gather to dialog and discuss ideas, we are able to stretch and redesign better ideas, informed by the contributions of the group.

Disagreement does not have to be a painful, personal experience. If we keep dialog and discussion at the cognitive, problem-solving level of thought, we may find that we grow ideas and in the process, grow ourselves.

Treating the idea as a third point

Adaptive SchoolsSM authors suggests that we treat an idea as a third point. For facilitators of meetings, the third point is a choreographed positioning of the idea(s), which are separated from the participants in the collaborative conversation.

Separating the idea as its own entity allows the participants to avoid identifying the idea as personal space or personal possessions, which have to be defended. (Defense implies perceived attack.) Intentionally positioning an idea as its own entity allows all participants to examine and understand the idea without meandering into personal spaces.

This strategy of creating a third point creates psychological safety for all in the endeavor.

But there is a prerequisite for this process to work is open-mindedness. The prerequisite is that we need to have positive presuppositions of others. This allocentric (other-centered) mindset is a hallmark of a coach, a growth orientation, and a listener.

In what ways might you use the third point to create safety in collaborative gatherings?

Featured photo: “Berlin wall art” by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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