Agreement Isn’t Always Positive: the Power of Conflict within Rural Teams
Coming from the upper Midwest and living in some version of the rural Midwest most of my life has really shaped my view on conflict. As whole, Midwesterners hate conflict—especially Minnesotans. Ever hear of the double edged magic of Minnesota nice? I live in Minnesota now. I can assure you: it’s a thing. In the other rural places I’ve lived, friendliness and agreeable-ness are important, like really, really important. When working with SARTs here in Minnesota and other rural teams, my colleagues and I have noticed how often team members are in agreement. Let’s be real, sometimes it is a relief to see agreement. But, there are other moments when a team desperately needs some disagreement. So…here we are! Let’s talk about the power of productive conflict for SARTs and how to be engaged with one another while experiencing conflict.
- Figure out what the team needs, not what they should do. This ties into the idea of creating a team that has rich participation. You might hold an opinion on what you think your team should or shouldn’t do. However, it is more important to evaluate the whole—what does your team need most in the short term and the long term? So, think through something like, “My team needs a protocol that responds to many types of cases of sexual violence. How can we achieve that?” rather than, “My team has to update their protocol to look like our neighboring SART’s protocol, because that one is better at serving all types of sexual violence cases.” Generally, think of it as an adventure for growth, not a specific destination.
- Use a supporting structure. Hard conversations in groups only works when there are good structures to support the weight. Ground rules for discussion are a great tool in any context. Ask the group to establish rules that should be a part of every meeting. Additionally, think through whether you need small group or large group discussion, an anonymous feedback mechanism (note cards with comments, surveys, whatever), or some other way to get the information. You need a solid structure and as the leader, you know your team’s style best. Use that to your advantage.
- Draw attention to energy shifts. This sounds really touchy feely. I get it. However, in being a SART leader, there is value in “taking the temperature” of the room and acknowledging something is happening. Often, there is verbal agreement and non-verbal disagreement happening with challenging topics. Make sure you don’t point out any individual, but do point out that you sense something is not quite settled and you want to invite further reflection or discussion on the issue.
- Address underlying issues through key questions. Key questions are neutral and open-ended questions that explore an issue by guiding people through the reasoning behind and/or implications of the choice. There is so much value in being able to ask a question that isn’t a value judgment (Are those shoes practical for this weather?) or a persuasive statement (Wouldn’t it be better stop and ask for directions?) dressed up like a question. Your key questions will help people explore the nature of conflict and figure out where and why they hold that perspective.
- Inspire folks to problem solve together. When you can unite people to fix a problem, they are capable of doing really amazing things. Your SART is no different. Perhaps, you provide an example of where you would like to get and ask your team to think through how they could do something similar that would work for your community. The key is, you have to get people to talk about their differences and then, find how to leverage the strength of difference rather than rely on constant agreement.
Conflict can be a really good tool for SARTs, especially if the group spends a lot of time agreeing. Make sure to explore your own feelings, pitfalls, and habits when it comes to conflict; that way, you know what to be on the lookout for when navigating your leadership through team disagreement.
More importantly, what has been your experience in dealing with too much team agreement? What strategies worked best for you in handling conflict? Any advice to others? Leave it in the comments!