Conflict as Drama

In his book Finite and Infinite Games James Carse talks about the nature of play as it relates to two forms of games. He see most of what we refer to as play as a form of finite game. In order to play in finite games we must veil ourselves of the reality that at any time we could leave the game. In order to remain serious about the game, we must enter the role and be able to convince ourselves that our freedoms are temporarily suspended in order to stay in that role. I see here an analogy with conflict and how we tend to enter and remain in conflict allowing ourselves to self-veil. As Carse notes playing these finite games of conflict then becomes theatrical. If so then what form of theater?

I had the rare opportunity to share in my daughter’s college education when we participated in an event hosted by George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. The seminar was about conflict coaching and was presented by Dr. Samantha Hardy, Director of the Conflict Management and Resolution Program at James Cook University. Although I don’t consider myself a coach, I am often called upon to coach within the large Agile engagement that is my day job. I was inspired by writings of Bob Marshall on Non-Violent Communication to take a deeper look at Marshall Rosenberg’s work. It has been immensely beneficial in my learning to find more constructive ways to deal with conflict in my professional and personal life. I was interested then in other ideas to help my growth and learning. This is a field report of sorts of the ideas presented by Dr Hardy and the insights they offered. The DC traffic guaranteed I was late. Other commitments caused me to leave early before the practical exercises began.I think I grasped the key items. Apologies to Dr Hardy if I missed the mark. You can always go to the source.

Understanding the Different Types of Intervention

Dr. Hardy is a practitioner. It was helpful for her to explain how she sees the different types of therapy to understand why her approach is structured the way it is:

  • Counseling: She pointed out that a counselor offers more than a coach. They are more likely to provide therapy. They might extent into obtaining psychological help for the client. They are  more likely to build a bigger picture of the life of client involving family history in the conversation.
  • Mentoring: A mentor is more likely to share life examples and provide advice from their life experience. Dr Hardy made it clear that this fell outside her model for coaching. She saw her role needing to remain separate from the client in order to remain objective. To establish trust and empathy but not to provide a support mechanism.
  • Conflict Coaching: Dr Hardy’s aim was to focus on everyday people with everyday problems. The engagements were time bound and limited in number. The coach’s aim was to work themselves out of the picture leaving the client with the skills to manage future conflicts on their own. The focus of her approach was to provide a confidential experience for the client but to be able to work with a set of expectations agreed to by the person paying for the coaching.
  • Mediation: Bringing together two parties to work through a conflict. Dr Hardy noted that coaching the individual has become more prevalent due to problems with getting the second party in a conflict to show up. In her opinion a Conflict Coach cannot coach two parties because each party will assume the loss of impartiality and confidentiality with a shared coach.In situations where mediation is needed, she noted that the parties may first require individual coaching in order to make mediation effective.

With these distinctions in mind, Dr Hardy helped frame up her approach to conflict coaching by taking two forms of drama as mental models. She used them to help cast light on how people in conflict view themselves, the person they are in conflict with and the audience surrounding the conflict.

The Drama of Tragedy

One form presented was based on the classical Greek tragedy. The person in conflict sees themselves as a hero. The tragic hero is flawed but continues to act whether they are in the right or wrong. Suffering is seen as a part of life. The hero sees choices and has agency. They accept loss as they make mistakes – they win some and lose some. At least they experience learning and some hope of growth sprouts from the ashes of their actions. In these conflicts fear and pity are amplified.

The Drama of Melodrama

In Melodramatic conflict the protagonists are more simplistic. Dr Hardy’s analogy focused on the following stereotypes from melodrama:

  • The heroine: good, honest, poor, selfless, beautiful, responsible for a weak or elderly relative, in danger. Suffering is forced upon the heroine. The client is of course not necessarily female.
  • The villain: wicked, handsome, rich and/or powerful. The source of suffering.
  • Comic character: devoted to the heroine. Comical and dimwitted.
  • The Patriarch: A father or authoritarian figure representing justice for the heroine. Responsible for defeating the villain and restoring the status quo.

Dr Hardy’s point was that in many of the conflicts she coaches, the client feels unable to remove the suffering and in some way believes it must be taken away by someone else. For them to deal directly with the conflict counters their world view of being “in the right” and being too virtuous to act. They present as being helpless and unlike the tragic hero, see no choices.They talk of the things they could not do. They tend to then focus on the actions done by others to induce suffering. They wait for an ideal choice to appear, a dream justice that takes things back to a more ideal past.

Melodrama is common in our upbringing. Dr Hardy pointed out that as children we are told stories that are melodramatic. They provide straightforward examples of good and bad with the good always winning. As the mind grows it becomes more able to deal with the uncertainty of tragedy. Books for young adults and beyond contain more elements of uncertainty and tragedy.

I found this model to resonate with some conflicts I often see in the Agile world. People dealing with complex contexts come into conflict with their desire to implement ideal Agile, architecture or maybe the perfect set of XP practices. In the face of conflict derived from the constraints, they look to a manager or supervisor to take their suffering from an imperfect world and return order. The are unwilling to compromise, considering that path an affront to the ideals of Agile

The Importance of Narrative

Dr Hardy spent most of the seminar focusing on coaching clients who saw themselves as the oppressed in a melodrama. Key to the approach was the coach realizing that although the heroine seeks the patriarch, that the coach needed to avoid adopting role. She equated a coach’s role to that of the comic character. The coach is devoted to the well being of the client, showing utmost empathy but never looking to provide solutions to the suffering. This stance also allows a coach to ask questions as if they were simple and uninformed, probing the context empathetically.

I had noticed that contrary to the TV stereotype of a therapist that in the videos of the sessions, the coach took no notes. This was by design and reinforced the notion that the narrative of the client was theirs to own as were their choices and actions. I saw this as a useful distinction in what constitutes a coaching stance versus a mentor or manager’s role.

The aim of the engagement was to build a complete narrative. The heroine has typically become locked in a self-veiled viewpoint from which they cannot escape. Dr Hardy’s approach focused on rebuilding the story via a variety of technique to, using her term, “Complexify” the narratives:

  • Recovering the timeline through inquisition, building out detail the client has omitted as they fell into the mold.
  • Recover the choices made and actions taken. This was odd given the caricature of the heroine but is a consequence of self-veiling. The initial story is seldom what transpired. It helps to reveal to the client that they did have choices and took action.
  • Examine the language. We saw in video interviews that language played a large part in reinforcing the heroine’s entrapped state of mind. Word’s like “clearly” conveyed a sense that the client had jumped to conclusions to support their position of suffering.
  • “In the other’s shoes” role play with a twist. The coach acts as the “villain” with the client critiquing her interpretation. The intent is not to critique the villainous nature but again allow the client to gain a more nuanced, empathetic view of of the adversary.
  • Fellow workers view: Try to gain greater perspective by imagining the reaction of those continuously in the blast radius of the conflict.
  • Neutral Third Party: If say the copier repair person was nearby, what would he think? This exercise focused on understanding whether the signals of the sufferer could be perceived by a “villain” if they could not by a innocent bystander.

The byproduct of these and various other techniques Dr Hardy no doubt has in the tool chest, was the story told by the client changes over time. They take what they have learned and mull over it between sessions enriching their understanding alongside the narrative. The biases begin to fall away from the client’s eyes and they can begin to see a new set of hopefully mutually beneficial choices. She was pragmatic. The experience can fail and being time bound may also fall short. Ideally the coach also leaves the client with as portion of the tools so they can continue the journey themselves.

As an anthropology buff working in the Agile space, I see more and more examples of the importance of returning to the the first way we transferred knowledge. Through fellowship and story. I see it more in the way we approach defining software development through a greater desire to understand the narrative of the customer with a Persona. I see it in the way we try and makes sense of the complex world we live in through the works like those of Dave Snowden. His recent blogs on conflict management have a similar sentiment of refining the past to move folks forward.

I see it in the simple moments. Last night, at an impromptu get together after a long day of release planning I had randomly landed across the table from someone I seldom get a chance to speak with. His icebreaker? “Tell me a story”.

Sharing our past as an act of play is an invitation to fellowship. How could you not oblige?


References provided or suggested by Dr Hardy:

Links to talks Dr Hardy has done on conflict coaching / melodrama:

Works by the following the provide a basis for some of the techniques:

“Conflict Coaching: Conflict Management Strategies and Skills for the Individual” by Tricia S. Jones , Ross Brinkert

Sidney Jones: I hope I got this one right. Could not read my own hand writing.


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
This entry was posted in Agile Anthropology, Conflict, Play and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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