International Association of Facilitators
1999 Annual Meeting
Williamsburg, Virginia, USA

January 14-17, 1999

Theard #5: Conflict Resolution & Mediation


Finding Clarity In The Midst Of Conflict:
A Quaker Approach To Facilitating Dialogue

Malcolm C. Burson, Ph.D.
Management Solutions -- An ODi™ Affiliate
24 University Place
Orono, Maine 04473-1825, USA
(207) 866-0019


Consultants and facilitators are increasingly using formal approaches to dialogue as a means to explore the roots of, and productively manage, conflict in groups and organizations. Combining the work of William Isaacs with a model from the Quaker tradition, this paper suggests a tool for skillful discussion that can allow a group to deal with conflict by stepping back into a shared silence that generates critical questions.

The Bohm-Isaacs Model of Dialogue

Drawing on, among others, the work of the physicist David Bohm, William Isaacs of MIT has been exploring the role of conversation and collective thought in human interaction, particularly as these apply to shared learning. Key to his approach is the concept of dialogue, the creation of common meaning through an interactive process of listening, exploring assumptions and differences, and building a context for thinking together. Isaacs offers an evolutionary model that describes the movement of conversation and energy, when groups come together to deal with difficult issues, from cross-purposes and collision through deliberation and discussion toward different forms of collective understanding (Isaacs1994: 357 et seq.). In David Bohmís view, conflict is given birth by fragmented thinking which creates closed mental models (see Bohm1985). This in turn generates polarized, "we-they" communication dynamics, where individuals seek to present positions and ideas in order to win advantages in a zero-sum game. Since entrenched positions are often underpinned by unexpressed or unexplored values and perspectives of real importance to the person holding them, conflict can be understood as a response to threat. The movement toward dialogue, then, allows people to step back from the drive to hammer out decisions or "agreed" positions, and begin to explore the assumptions underlying both individual and group dynamics. In such a process, two critical actions are "suspension" and "skillful discussion." The first involves the willingness of participants to hold their own values, previously held positions, and mental models in front of themselves and others: to say, "maybe my way of seeing this situation is incomplete, and Iím willing to explore that." Participants draw back from assigning "right/wrong" labels to their own and othersí ideas, using the principles of generative thinking (Ganswindt and Vogt1998). Skillful discussion, in a similar vein, invites people to balance inquiry and advocacy in way that invites self and others to make their thinking processes visible, and listening becomes active (Ross and Roberts 1994: 253-59). When these ways being together are operative, thoughts and ideas emerge from and are spoken into the shared space (or container, in Isaacsís language) instead of being perceived as individual property to be defended.

The Continuum of Movement from Discussion to Dialogue

Isaacs proposes a disjunction between the path to skillful discussion and that leading through dialogue to the ultimate stage of "metalogue." The former, he suggests, is a method for working productively when the presenting issue or real world situation which brought people together is paramount. Dialogue/metalogue, on the other hand, has no end except itself: "The group is its meaning" (Isaacs 1994:364). In my own practice of facilitating dialogue, however, I have come to see the relationship between the two differently. Skillful discussion is a collection of methods and tools which can be used in a range of circumstances to balance inquiry and advocacy. As such, it can be viewed as a moment in a larger process. If one is "on the way" to dialogue, skillful discussion can be understood as a necessary step that allows for suspending assumptions, building of collective inquiry, etc. If the expected end is a decision or problem solution, the same tools provide the means. Finally, skillful discussion methods may serve as a fall-back or "safe haven" when the journey toward dialogue is stalled. Particularly when the issues which brought the group together are rooted in divergent values, when sub-groups were in conflict prior to coming together, or where there is pressure from stakeholders outside the group, the group can become bogged down to the point where the flow of meaning (a desired end of dialogue) has come uncoupled from the real world situation to which the group must return. At this point, some participants will express the need to "get back to seeking practical solutions," while others may feel so overwhelmed by the intensity of feeling and mass of data generated by the process that they withdraw. The container may temporarily not feel as safe a place as before, resulting in expressions of frustration or aggressive assertion. A movement "back" toward the cool, measured protocols of skillful discussion provides a place for individuals to check in with their own situational awareness ("whatís going on in me right now?"), and, more importantly, to test the balance between advocacy and inquiry. One tool that may be helpful for allowing the group a constructive "time out" while reminding people of the importance of suspending and exploring assumptions came to me through the medium of the Quaker spiritual community, particularly its emphasis on the value of collective silence and loving inquiry.

The Quaker "Clearness Committee"

In the Quaker tradition, when a member of the community is unable to see the solution to a problem or moral dilemma, s/he may ask for the help of a Clearness Committee. A small group of wise and trustworthy persons come together with the one asking help, and meet together in a closed room. The person in need poses the situation, usually in the form of a statement such as, "My son has friends from school of whom I donít approve, but Iím afraid of intruding by telling him of my reservations." From this point, members of the Committee have only one option: that of posing questions. They may not offer advice or opinion, make judgments, or even "follow up" on responses made to previous questions. The inquiries are understood to be emerging from the shared silence and the common mind, and are based on the premise that a personís inability to find a way through such problems is often a consequence of information overload and/or competing values. Itís not that the person doesnít have the knowledge or ability to resolve the issue; rather, that s/he may need help sorting and seeing through to the roots of the problem. "Clearness" is achieved when the personís own resources can be focused, and the light of understanding brought to bear. The gentle power of such an approach is manifest. It honors both the pain and the strengths of the person who has asked for assistance. It recognizes how overwhelming internal conflict can be, but also that people generally have the ability to solve their own problems, see their own solutions, if they arenít bombarded with other peoplesí advice, expertise, and even well-meaning suggestions. Instead, participants must practice intense listening to everything going on in the room. And it fosters the same kind of creativity as Isaacsís dialogue model, where collective inquiry creates trust and synergy. I should emphasize that in the framework of the Isaacs model, the Clearness Committee is an exercise in skillful discussion: that is, it is focused on an issue external to the groupís process, something important in the real world outside the room. Without stretching the analogy too far, we might say that the traditional Quaker meeting itself, in which the silence and occasional sharings are the only meaning, is the obverse of the coin. "In dialogueís fourth phase, the world is too full to use language to analyze it." (Rumi, quoted in Isaacs 1994:363).    

Applying the Quaker Model to Groups in Conflict

I find an intriguing parallel between the internal conflict experienced by a person who may seek help from a Clearness Committee, and the inter-personal conflicts that appear in groups, whether they are task-focused or striving for dialogue and shared meaning. In both cases, individuals typically experience frustration at the apparent lack of direction, the sense of being overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings, and/or the disorienting perception that "nothing makes sense;" no ideas or values seem able to lead them out of the wilderness. The facilitatorís obligation at this point is to help the group re-gain enough shared trust and intention to continue. S/he can best do this, according to Isaacs (1994:363) by "model(ing) in his her own behavior some ways to suspend assumptions." In addition to Isaacsís suggestion of pointing out the presence of polarizations in the group, and the opportunity to learn what they represent, s/he might invite the group into a kind of structured silence based on reflection and deep inquiry in the midst of pain. The facilitator might ask the group to take a break, suggesting that participants spend the time by themselves, and not discuss the issues which the group has been considering, and asking whether, when they re-convene, the group would be willing to try a different approach. Summing up all that has happened to this point, the facilitator aims to create as stark and dramatic a statement of the conflict as possible. The statement should be relatively impersonal, but may be deliberately provocative if the facilitator believes it expresses unspoken realities. For example, in a group with which I worked, the statement read something like, "Special ed staff and rehab staff have totally different beliefs about whatís wrong with the children we serve." When the group comes back together, the facilitator offers the statement (advocacy) to the group. Assuming that the group is already familiar, to some extent, with the tools of skillful discussion, the facilitator asks the group to sit in silence for a few minutes to consider the statement. When the time for speaking is open, participants are asked to speak only through asking questions of the statement that seek to uncover and suspend assumptions, test implicit values, or anticipate possibilities ("what would happen . . .?"). Participants are reminded to "speak to the room" and leave space and time after a person has spoken for their words to sink in to the common mind. The facilitator copies down each question as it occurs on a flip-chart. When the silence becomes pervasive, the facilitator closes the speaking space. After a further short period of silence, the group considers and reflects on the questions. In my experience, somewhere near the bottom of the list is a single question that truly reflects the deep causes of the conflict, the heart of the situation, a gestalt shared by all. The subsequent discussion often allows everyone to see the situation in ways they could not before, and provides a way forward, whether toward problem-solving and real world issues, or back toward dialogue. This sort of collective inquiry emerging from shared silence fully demonstrates what I call the "paradox of inquiry:" that in order to speak, you must not speak. That is, the listening skills necessary to honestly pose a question that aims to build meaning for others is rooted in not speaking, either inwardly or outwardly. If, even in silence, youíre carefully crafting the definitive advocacy statement that will demolish your opponent, you will not hear the other. But if youíre striving to listen carefully to the verbal and non-verbal questions that others are posing from their own depths, you invest in the groupís flow in way that allows risk, builds trust, and creates new models of thinking.  


This approach represents a convergence between two seemingly disparate systems of thought and action: the Quaker spiritual tradition, and the contemporary organizational development model that is gathered under the "Learning Organization" umbrella. Practitioners of the latter, however, will not be surprised at this, given the spiritual/philosophical orientation of many of the movementís leading theorists. For facilitators, such an approach is an invitation to add a simple tool to their range of skills, one that can be modified in a number of different ways. I look forward to learning from workshop participants other creative methods of using inquiry, silence, and the creation of shared meaning as ways to manage conflict.

 The Presenter

Malcolm C. Burson, Ph.D., is an organizational development, training, and quality improvement professional. He has recently begun his own consulting office, Management Solutions, and is affiliated with ODi, Organizational Dynamics, of Burlington, MA. Malcolm has presented and published in a variety of fields, including medieval history, response to child abuse, and the practice of organizational learning.

He and his wife have two children in college, and live in Orono, Maine.

Bibliography of Works Cited

 Bohm, David. (1985) Unfolding Meaning. Loveland, CO: Foundation House; rpr. London and NY: Routledge, 1994.

Ganswindt, Gabriele, and Jay Vogt. (1998)"Principles of Generative Learning." (learning materials). Wellesley, MA: Shared Learning International, 1998.  

Isaacs, William. (1994) "Dialogue." in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Ed. Peter M. Senge, et al. New York: Doubleday, 1994.  

Ross, Rick, (1994) and Charlotte Roberts. "Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy." in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, op. cit.