Interpersonal conflict isn’t a spectator sport.

March 13, 2013

Four Tales, One City.

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The city where I live is in conflict over how to grow sustainably. The issue turned into a war of words the media (especially the Herald’s story Two Tales, One City although four tales are told) fed on for over a month.

While many called the fight an immature power struggle among City Hall’s elected representatives, bureaucrats and industry, I analyzed it as normal. Debates occur at systems’ bifurcation points (the point at which there is no return to try another path if the one taken doesn’t work out). For many reasons, I was delighted that citizens got involved in the high level conflict.

Interpersonal conflict isn’t a spectator sport. We question whose facts are correct, what agendas hide, where strings get pulled, and when/how conflict might end. This can clarify what’s going on and how it got to be that way.

I can use this conflict as a good example of many conflict strategies, such as timely apologies, use of media, public education of change, and the complexity of conflict. In teaching conflict management, I prepare negotiation and mediation role-plays with back-stories for each role. Learners act as the conflict’s parties. I encourage learners to participate from the perspective of their party’s role.

j0149396_2f5b47b02From the role-plays, learners conclude parties’ motives are usually honest, no one is entirely right or wrong, and every party has a valuable perspective contributing to solutions.

Conflicts are data about people who care enough about a system to argue, which makes resolutions robust. Systems exert energy to maintain the status quo, called dampening change. System inputs also amplify, bringing uncomfortable turbulence and uncertainty until we adapt to change, as we will.

Conflict needn’t get personal and often does. That’s normal. Passion, not indifference, builds a great city.

Thanks to anonymous parties, whose facts and names are changed to protect identities, for the gift of rich new material. Here are sample handouts:

people1_fwCommon information: A city grew quickly to over 1 million population with a large footprint and rapid home price increases. The current disagreement is over future growth. There’s lots of land available but some say sprawl is expensive, subsidized and unsustainable. Others like suburban living and deny it’s sprawl. Some city councilors and developers believe proposed changes would limit homeowner’s choices. Some who agree development changes are necessary question what change should happen. Recently, the debate got emotional among four parties, each claiming to have been misquoted and that the others’ statements are untrue. It’s been simplified into a power struggle over suburban growth or inner city intensification. This either/or frame has polarized the conflict. The Mayor has called a meeting of the four main perspectives to resolve the conflict.

The four parties to the meeting individual information:

176402467_5fc369ba58_tMayor: Your election as mayor changed local politics. Your vision city building remains popular. The city hired a chief planner to change development and urban planning processes, which you want, but you don’t agree with freezing suburban development. You’re impatient to get on with transforming the city’s long-term sustainability and will use your power against naysayers. You believe the developer’s representative owes you an apology. Your goal: Defend your vision, make the chief planner earn your support, and get everyone to agree.

chief planner.Chief Planner: You knew the city’s urban sprawl was framed as the buyers’ right to choose where to live. Before you’d accept the job, you requested assurance council supported transforming how planning was accomplished and what development plans were approved. So you were blindsided when a city councilor took shots at you in media and council chambers. You can’t compromise planning principles because that’s what you were hired to do. As an employee you speak ‘truth to power’ including to the Mayor. Your goal: Transform city sprawl, and build citizen support through public speeches about 21st century planning.

councilorCity Councilor: It isn’t the chief planner’s place to make speeches, criticize, and usurp council’s authority to set policy. You believe in housing choices, respect for the way communities have always developed, and clear role definition between employees and elected officials. The Mayor is enamored with change. You stand up for developers who help the city prosper. The development and builders’ industry is a powerful lobby and you’re wary of being perceived as under its influence. Your goal: Silence the chief planner unless he defends industry’s right to acquire developable property and profit, while you want to be seen as objective.

industry repRepresentative of the development and building industry: You speak for the industry. The chief planner says he’s streamlining development approvals but he also criticizes the developments being approved. You called him on his mixed messages and defend the industry contribution to the city’s quality of life. People should not be forced into locations or homes suiting city policies. The Mayor is well educated but doesn’t represent everyone. You want to suss out councilors who agree, and donate to their re-election campaigns. Your goal: Ensure members’ continued right to acquire serviced land, build suburbs, and support growth oriented councilors.

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