Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 7;   February 16, 2011: Finding the Third Way

Finding the Third Way

by

When a team is divided, and agreement seems out of reach, attempts to resolve the conflict usually focus on the differences between the contrasting positions. Focusing instead on their similarities can be a productive technique for reaching agreement.
Heiltskuk Icefield, British Columbia

Heiltskuk Icefield, British Columbia, showing the confluence of two glaciers: Silverthrone and Klinaklini. Glaciers that result from the confluence of tributaries carry the flows of their tributaries, but, as in this case, they are sometimes not as wide as the total width of their tributaries. Depending on the relative depths and flow rates, the resulting glacier often must move at speeds exceeding any of the tributaries.

In a divided group, the various factions often fear union because they fear disappearing into the whole, along with their concerns. But just as with tributary glaciers, the united group can produce more — and move more quickly — than the factions can competing with each other. Most often, stable unions confer benefits that all share. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

When a group reaches an impasse, two common configurations are the dead end and division. The dead end occurs when the current paradigm fails and there is no alternative. It's bad news, but at least the team is together (usually, that is).

In division, there are two or more contending alternatives, and the team is often polarized around these choices. People with a talent for finding the "third way" are valuable assets, because they can often find the key element that reunites the team and gets it moving forward again. One such person on a team is good; two are better. Even better than that: an entire team that understands the concept of the third way and works together to find agreement.

Here are some techniques for finding the third way.

Agree that agreement is needed
For a divided group, unanimity is achievable only after all agree that unity is desirable. Achieving agreement about agreement can enhance the likelihood of respectful exchange, and limit the chances of the current disagreement turning into toxic conflict.
Beware ideology
An ideology is a set of principles and ideals that form a comprehensive vision of the field in question. An ideology provides a complete framework for considering that field, reaching beyond any current concrete issues. That's why ideologies have difficulty with concepts that arise outside their scope. When a subgroup of a team forms around an ideology, that subgroup faces obstacles when working with other team members.
Replace ideologies with specifics
What makes People with a talent for finding
the "third way" are valuable
assets, because they can often
find the key element that reunites
the team and gets it moving
forward again
ideologies so exclusive of alternative views is their comprehensiveness. If one or more of the team's coalitions is united by an ideology, invite its members to replace the ideology with specific goals. Specific goals are preferable to ideologies because they aren't constrained by issues that aren't yet on the agenda.
Examine opposing ideas for commonalities
Gather whatever the opposing ideas do have in common, and use that as a fresh starting point. Set aside any elements about which there is polarized disagreement. What remains is probably an incomplete description of the way forward, but try to make it more complete by asking, "What can we add to this that will move us forward?" Add only those bits about which you can gain consensus.
Focus to expand existing coalitions
If the team is divided, work to reduce the number of factions and expand each coalition by narrowing its focus. For instance, given a collection of common ideas on which some team members agree, try jettisoning one of them experimentally, by asking, "What if…" If the result is still acceptable to that group, invite people not yet in agreement to examine the reduced list. Can they now agree to join?

If we can't agree that all these insights are helpful, maybe you've found that some of them are. Which ones? Go to top Top  Next issue: Personnel-Sensitive Risks: Part I  Next Issue

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