This video is from a series of four sessions on Interconnected Leadership that I led for the US NGO Commission on the Status of Women in March 2020. This presentation is on Generative Conflict. You can see my presentation on Presence and Connection here, The 4 Skills of Deep Listening here, and Creating a Culture of Care and Wellbeing here.

In the last two posts, I talked about presence and connection and how to practice deep listening. Today I’d like to discuss generative conflict and the importance of looking at conflict and tension from a generative perspective. I will provide some guidelines on how one might approach conflict. Then I will lead you in an exploration of how you respond to fear and anxiety and identify your own habitual patterns so that you can become a more aware leader when you are faced with conflict and tension. You can show up from a place of presence.

I want to start with the idea of interconnected leadership. We’ve been hearing the word interconnectedness a lot recently. I have been very committed to exploring how we can uplift the idea of interconnectedness for some time now. The way I think about interconnected leadership incorporates four components: self, community, systems and the earth. How do we show up and learn how to hold ourselves and our communities? Our communities could be our family, our workplaces, the communities within which we live, or people, the human species as the community. How do we show up and understand the systems and structures that we’ve created that affect and influence our lives? Finally, what is our relationship to the earth itself?

Interconnected leadership is leadership that allows us to hold all of those components together as we make decisions, create policies, and think about how we want to live together on this planet.

Conflict and tension or problems and polarities are an integral part of living life. There will always be situations where we are on different sides of a position; where there’s a clash around an idea, or a decision that we have to make, or there’s ongoing tension around different perspectives or different ways of being. And these conflicts can exist within ourselves. They can exist between us and other people. They can exist between us and larger systems.

Because we have not learned to be present with ourselves, and because we live in a world where there are many structures of oppression and exploitation, we often meet conflict in an adversarial way or in a way that is combative. This ends up playing out in our own relationships, our organizations, or in our communities. Often, we end up destroying relationships or breaking apart communities rather than finding ways that we can address the conflict or the tension and come together.

Three Ways To Practice Generative Conflict

There are many ways in which we can practice generative conflict, but I’m focusing on three.

The first is to be aware of your own emotions, needs and thoughts, which is why having an awareness practice is so important. Know your own situation and how you need to be resourced within yourself. Take care of yourself so that you are not walking into conflict and tension from a place of being depleted or not being aware of what it is that you need.

The second is to understand the power dynamics of the conflict. What’s the social context of the situation that you are dealing with? Is it a family situation – a parent and child? Siblings? A boss and employees? Are there race, gender or other social identity dynamics present?

How might awareness of these things lead to an understanding of a situation that you need to engage in?

The final way to practice generative conflict is to get curious about what’s behind the other person’s position or the other person’s behavior. Instead of just starting out with judgment, can you stay open and curious? We are quick to jump to “that person is an asshole”, or saying, “How dare you, who do you think you are? You’re not revolutionary enough. You’re not radical enough. You’re not this enough. You’re not that enough.” Instead of that quick judgmental palace we go to, can we start with just getting curious?

Conflict Versus Tension

It’s important to first assess whether you are dealing with a conflict or a tension.Is this a conflict that requires a resolution, a yes or a no answer, or is this an ongoing tension or polarity that has to be managed? The answer will determine how you try to come to a resolution.

If it’s a tension, it is something stretched and ongoing, which creates anxiety, fear, and worry. If you are in a tense situation, can you name what it is? Can you name the two ends, the polarity? Examples of polarities are: process versus results; fast versus slow, grief versus joy, flow versus structure.

These polarities can each have a positive dimension and a negative dimension. An example from my own life is flow and structure. I like to be in flow. I like to really feel the energy of the room and I hate structure. When I create slides for a presentation, I’m trying to follow a structure, which pushes my edge. I’m trying to find my balance between my polarity of flow and structure, where I tend to want flow and no structure. What that does sometimes though, is that when I’m explaining a really complex thing on a zoom call with many people who speak multiple languages, not having a slide can create confusion. I’m trying to stay with flow and pay attention to how the group is feeling while also creating a structure to follow during the presentation, when I can’t see the chat.

It creates anxiety because I follow what people are saying to read the energy of the group and figure out what it is that I need to do. But it also stretches my tension. I’m feeling the anxiety as I stand between flow and structure. Think about where some of these tensions might be existing in your own life or where there might be a conflict that you need to resolve through these lenses.

Finally, how can you make a decision that maximizes the upside while minimizing the downside? In my flow and structure context, I’ve created very few slides that are simple with just three points because that maximizes my upside of being in flow and sharing from a place of flow while also learning to hold structure in these kinds of environments.

How might we make decisions and find some of those upsides while minimizing the downside? How do you go beyond a binary? How do you go beyond black and white and understand all of the possibilities in between if it is a tension or a polarity? If it is a problem or a conflict that requires a yes or a no answer, you can move in that direction.

You might have an employee that you need to make a decision around hiring or firing. Does the person stay or does the person go? How might you make that decision from a generative place? How might you have the conversation in a way that makes the person feel seen? Maybe you could explain it in a way that is positive. Maybe you can make sure that they get one month severance?

To sum up, a conflict situation is usually a resolution, a yes or no decision. A tension situation or a polarity is how we move beyond dualities and find solutions that take into account the positive and negative aspects of the two ends.

Coming Back to Self and Awareness

Most of us have habitual patterns of fear or anxiety as humans. We have a fight or flight response when we get scared, which is very important for our survival. They are important and deeply instinctual responses that are in our nervous systems. However, many of us grew up in trauma situations, or many of us grew up in situations where we lived within a patriarchy or within unjust systems that created inequity. So when we are faced with a threat, like a parent that was hurting us, or an employer that was discriminating against us, or even the police who were treating us in a certain way because of the color of our skin, we develop habitual patterns and reactions to how we face fear and anxiety.

There are five ways in which we play this out, and I want you to notice where you fall in these categories. Do you have one or two habitual places that you go to?

  1. Fight: Are you combative, ready to take someone on?

  2. Flight: Do you run away?

  3. Freeze: Do you get frozen in place, can’t move?

  4. Fog: Do you disconnect and check out with your body or mind?

  5. Fawn: Do you try to appease people or take care of the other person?

I want to emphasize that what we want to achieve as interconnected leaders is awareness of our habitual response so that we can take that breath and make a choice about how we want to either respond or be proactive. It’s not that these responses are bad. These are all ways in which we protect ourselves, and these might be exactly the response that we need at that moment.

What we do want as leaders is to make a choice, and these are some quick ways of making a choice. Try these right now in your chair, or stand up and do them so you can feel it in your body. Imagine something’s coming at you and your habitual response is to fight.

Instead, can you take that fight energy and move it into a dance? Feel that difference. It’s not like you’re shutting down the energy because the adrenaline rush that is coming into your body has to have expression. When you shut it down, that’s not good for your body. How do you take that energy, but move it in another way? If you’re dancing, it gives you play. It gives you a different set of possibilities.

Now the second one. Something’s coming at you and you want to run away.

Instead, can you get into warrior pose? Stand as a warrior, however that feels in your body, open your chest out, open your heart out and take a stand, feel your body taking a stand.

Try freeze. Something’s coming at you and you just freeze.

When you’re frozen and you can’t move, just do a little wiggle. Wiggle your butt, your hips, just feel a little wiggle in your body. Sometimes you can actually do this in the moment. Even a little bit of movement gets you out of being frozen and gives you more possibility.

How about fog? Something is coming at you and you’re totally checked out.

How do you come back into your body? You can open your eyes wide. You can smile. You can tap your leg. Even if you don’t feel it, it’s creating a different neural pathway.

Last is fawning. Something’s coming at you and you respond by saying, “Oh, let me take care of you.”

What do you do? Instead, bring your hands back to your body instead of falling over the other person. You can hold yourself, hug yourself, or even put your hand on your heart.

Take a moment with this because how you make decisions when you are facing conflict or tension is often dependent on how you habitually respond to fear and anxiety. Becoming aware of your responses, and having that little place to shift creates more possibilities. You may even make the choice to stay in fight or flight or freeze or fog or fawn. Please remember those responses may be perfectly legitimate in that situation. Just don’t do it from a reactive place, do it from a place of interconnected leadership of self awareness.

Leading Effectively Staff (2020, November 18). Are You Facing a Problem? Or a Polarity? Center for Creative Leadership.

Leading Effectively Staff (2020, November 17). How to Manage Paradox. Center for Creative Leadership.

Brown, A. (2020). We Will Not Cancel Us: And other dreams of transformative justice. AK Press.