Working with Conflict: Lessons for doing Philosophy
Updated: Apr 16, 2019
Training for Facilitating Conflict
What do you do when a group disagree on how to go forward on an issue? I recently attended a three-day training, led by Navigate, aimed at teaching a facilitation method that helps group find a solution they can all get behind.
The training was based on a new, and still developing, method of working with conflict. It aims to create a healthy and efficient environment to guide groups through their disagreements to find a solution where everyone’s desires and concerns are incorporated, and all people in the group are willing for the solution to be implemented. This method has been primarily developed to work with activist groups dealing with social justice and environmental issues, but there is no reason it can’t be applied to other situations.
In some ways, facilitating for a practical solution is the opposite for facilitating for philosophy. In the former case, you want to converge on an answer, and for the answer to be something you can act on. In philosophy, however, disagreement is often relished and, at least in many contemporary western approaches to philosophy, it is often hard to work out how a philosophical answer can help determine a plan of action.
Nonetheless, as someone interested both in philosophy and social movements, I am interested in the relationship between different types of facilitation and different approaches to engaging with conflict. In what I follows I explain a little bit about the first stage of the facilitating for conflict method I learned, before offering some musings on how this relates to philosophy.
In the first stage of this method, group members are asked about the issue they are focusing on, and what matters to them when focusing on a solution. Each participant has the opportunity to speak, but only needs to speak if their concern has not been represented on a flipchart. The facilitator repeats what they think they have understood, checks with the participants, and then turns what has been said into a ‘Noncontroversial Essence’ (NCE).
A noncontroversial essence (NCE) acts as a principle or criteria. NCE’s are statements expressing what matters to someone, that no-one in the group is going to actively disagree with. They focus on what participants’ want, are evaluable, and able to guide decision-making. Most importantly, NCE’s generalise from the specifics of a participants desire only enough to become acceptable to everyone in the group.
For example, if a community gardening group that works with people with mental health problems are trying to work out how to spend a grant, a participant might say ‘I’d really like it to be spent on hiring a new member of staff. Staff are burning out through the emotional labour of working with people with mental health issues’. A NCE might be: the money should be spent in a way that ‘increases the organisation’s capacity to protect the wellbeing of staff members’. This is a more general principle than the original request as it doesn’t require that the grant is necessarily spent on hiring a new member of staff. But hopefully this statement preserves some of the intention behind the idea, and is specific enough that it can guide a solution.
Once the group agrees that everything that matters to them is on a list of criteria, participants are asked whether they have a problem with any of the criteria, whether they are ‘allergic’ to any of the ingredients. Facilitators ensure that they understand the logic behind this and proceeds accordingly, either by seeing whether the participant’s concerns are already represented, or altering an NCE, or adding a new one. Once all the NCEs are collected, they act as criteria for decision-making.
What are we doing when we are doing Philosophy?
How does this method relate to philosophy? I think that it shares something in common with creative and constructive approaches to doing philosophy.
One thing I think I do well when I do philosophy, but am not so good at in practical conflicts, is resisting just pitching supposedly different theories against each other. What is important to me in philosophy is not just focusing on the detail of what a philosopher is arguing, but also what their underlying motivations are. When you do this in philosophy, you can be much more creative, you can show what seems importantly true and complementary about apparently different ideas. For me, this is at least as interesting as showing what is wrong with an argument or theory. And it has the bonus of allowing one to theory-build.
Noncontroversial essences, and their use as necessary criteria for practical problem-solving, have started to remind me of Hegel’s theory of the “sublation” of thesis and antithesis. Sublation is not just a simple adding together of seemingly opposing theories, but a transformation of theories by registering, unifying and developing the important insights of different theories, while discarding the aspects of a theory that leads to contradictions and weaknesses. Like a seed turning into a plant, or a bud turning into blossom and then fruit, sublation involves a forward movement that relies on past theories in some important way, but moves beyond them.
While analytic philosophy often focuses on what is wrong with another’s ideas, perhaps the idea of finding noncontroversial essences could be usefully applied in a philosophical context. If we can find noncontroversial essences underlying seemingly opposed theory, perhaps we are better equipped for philosophical theory building.
We can see this as maybe what the philosopher Merleau-Ponty does to find his third way between ‘Empiricism’ (perception is the result of causal reaction that starts in the world and affects an organism) and ‘Intellectualism’ (perception is the creation of the active mind). Merleau-Ponty rejects both, but doesn’t disregard these theories completely, claiming that perception is a communion between body and world. (What thatmeans, is a story for another time)
While the method of facilitation I have been taught seems to be about practical matters, perhaps underlying it is a similar motivation to a very philosophical idea of sublation. Which is that integration of various insights is ultimately a creative endeavour.