Matrix Radically Redefines Conflict

by Amina Knowlan | April 2007

Peace is not the absence of conflict
but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict
alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.
— Dorothy Thompson

When we shift to the understanding that we are all inter-connected, any difference being expressed between a given pair of individuals represents a subset of differences that exists between many other pairs in a given territory.
(From the March 2007 Matrix E-zine)

Working with the Whole System of Relationships

In Matrix work we radically redefine the understanding of conflict. Traditional models of mediation and conflict resolution work to help two individuals who are in conflict shift from a fear-based, competitive, win-lose model to an process of curiosity and dialogue. We look at the whole system of relationships. We work with the differentiation that is trying to happen—and indeed, must happen—between many pairs of people in the group. From this lens, conflict arises when there are not enough channels of communication open between enough pairs of people. Conflict gets hyper-charged between a given pair when other pairs are not openly naming and exploring their differences. Once we have formed an inclusive matrix, we facilitate toward increasing the number of pairs that discuss their differences in the open in the group. We want to shape norms that help the group value the creative tensions that are felt in relation to each other. This requires radically changing our relationship to conflict. We are all acculturated to relate to conflict as a fight that someone wins or loses. Our fight-flight brain is wired for experiencing the difference—or the “push”—as a severing clash, competition or battle. When we stay in connection as we explore differences, the push sequences into a yield and we enable the intelligence of the whole to emerge.

The Basic Matrix Process of Facilitating Conflict / Differentiation

In our culture a pair of individuals who have conflict with each other are seen as having a problem to work out—preferably without taking group time. In extreme cases where the conflict cannot be resolved, the pair will be told to seek out mediation or some other form of conflict resolution. These approaches rest in the assumption that the issue or conflict belongs to that pair of individuals. The assumption of separateness is operative. In Matrix facilitation it is crucial to realize that any pair in conflict is providing a role on behalf of the whole. We are interested first, in bringing the conflict into the open. This part does not look different than other models of working with conflict. We facilitate to help the two parties name their experience and really hear each other’s perspective. We encourage a dialogue that generates mutual understanding—not necessarily resolution. It may feel like agreeing to disagree.

Once a conflict is in the open, the basic Matrix processes for facilitating differentiation is to facilitate away from the pair that is expressing conflict. It sounds radical. It does not mean that we avoid the conflict or the issues. It does mean that we often facilitate first, toward getting more voices, more pairs into the exploration of differences. It may include clarifying the territory of the conflict. Often this involves articulating the seemingly adversarial “positions.”

1) Clarifying the Territory / Polarity

Clarifying the territory—or issue or theme—of a conflict is critical to the Matrix process of distributing the conflict (or differentiation) among more pairs of people. For example, when a man and a woman express their conflict with each other, it may become apparent that they are in the territory of gender differences. When this gender territory is made conscious, we can distribute the conflict more effectively. Other pairs can then find and express their versions of gender differences with each other.

2) Facilitate Away from a Conflict Pair & Toward Including Other Pairs

A conflict pair in a group is two individuals who are doing the conflict for the group. When there is a charged or hyper-charged conflict between one pair, it can be an indication that there are not enough channels open for working with differences between other pairs of people. Think of the simple mechanics of a network of pipes. If there is only one pipe open for all of the available water to flow through, the water pressure is higher. If more pipes are open and available for the water to flow through, the volume of water and thus the pressure or charge is reduced in each of the pipes. Similarly when there are not enough pairs of people who are openly communicating about their differences or challenges, a pair that have enough relationship to express differences openly, or a pair that has a historical conflict, is at risk of differentiating for the group. I say “at risk,” because the escalated velocity or charge can be confusing or even damaging. The heightened charge rarely ever belongs only to the pair that is involved in the conflict.

One of the key differences in our approach to working with conflict is this very pivotal intervention, “If these two weren’t doing the fighting for us, who else here might be exploring differences between them?” We facilitate toward inviting additional pairs to name or explore differences between them. I am using the word “difference” broadly here. The difference could be an actual difference of opinion, perspective, a different value or a cultural difference that would dictate a different style of expression. It is also what we commonly call a challenge or “rub”—a reaction to someone else’s behavior that is challenging or personally disrupting. In matrix facilitation, we suspend the need for any one discussion or process to reach resolution or agreement. It is like getting more of the spokes of the wheel in place so that the wheel can actually turn. Or, to use a concept from the native cultures’ concept of a medicine wheel, people can actually move off of their positions and, “move around the wheel,”(2) as they gain perspective from listening to others. As the two “poles” keep relating and “meeting in the middle,” we see a shift from either-or polarization to both-and innovation and wisdom.

In Matrix trainings and consulting contexts there are many applications of this basic process. It can be applied to a particular value difference or to a charged, polarizing conflict. It can be facilitated “in the round” as whole group dialogue, choreographing members to move from one position to another, speaking different voices until the transcendent wisdom of the whole emerges.

(1) Knowlan, Amina. Matrix Leadership: The Art & Science of Creating Sustainable Groups, Communities and Organizations. March, 2007, forthcoming. All rights reserved.
(2) Cogburn, Elizabeth, from talks given at Sun Dance, Taos, New Mexico, 1984.

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The basic model of this training with creating one-on-one individual healthy connections in a group is so simple, and yet proves to be amazingly transformative and healthy change in the groups which I facilitate.
— Stefan
Foundation Training Participant
San Francisco, CA