Well before I was married, actually even before my first real boyfriend, a very wise man told me something about his marriage. At first I was surprised. This man was my rabbi and I didn’t quite expect him to utter, “In my marriage there are three people.”
We have since become friends. And while I did confess to Rabbi David Wolfman that while I was interning with him in High School, I sometimes let the school think I was shadowing him at the synagogue when I was actually skiing (it was my senior year, after all), I have yet to tell him how awkward I felt when he accidentally began the conversation that way. But not to fear. He then explained, “In our marriage, there is Jane, me and our marriage. The secret is remembering the marriage is like an additional person to be respected and loved. It is bigger than either of us. It is bigger than just the two of us combined. It is like a whole other person.” When I did get married myself, I realized how true this was. It is the same reason I love working with groups.
A group of individuals is like its own individual, its own identity. It has a personality, spirit, and emotions as unique as any single person. And, just like individual human beings, groups are not necessarily the same from week to week. As people, our moods, beliefs, fears, and desires are moving targets. They change depending on both internal and external factors. The same is true for groups. As different members of a particularly self-identified group may be available at my first meeting, my second meeting may see new faces and lose some of the old ones. As people’s feelings and emotions shift and change, the group adjusts as well. In multi-party negation or conflict facilitation, the trick is in understanding the unique qualities of the different groups involved.
When I enter an organization, I feel as though I am providing therapy or pastoral care to a group. Not group therapy, where individuals are able to use the power and insight of a group of people in order to find their own healing. But rather, therapy to a group, where the group is a single entity needing diagnosis and treatment. My job is to help the group see itself; to help the group understand the real issues with which it is grappling, the hidden emotions which usually lay below the surface of the stated ones. In order to do this, I meet with each group involved in negotiation or conflict separately before bringing them together. The number of times with which I need to meet each party depends on the situation and dynamics involved. This is the most important and challenging part of conflict facilitation and negotiation. It is tough to looking at oneself in the mirror, stretch to access one’s truest and most authentic desires (not those blurred by anger or anxiety), and own one’s own part in a situation. Despite how it might seem, this is not made any easier by strength in numbers. As a group begins to learn about itself, the people within the group find self-awareness, as well. While this can be painful, it is a crucial step in being able to resolve conflict or reach an agreement.
After this difficult work is done, I can bring the parties together. This is my favorite part of negotiation and conflict. As I stand in the room, managing the timing of speaking and hearing and listening and responding, as I help each party take in the meaning, story and truth of the others – I feel like an orchestra conductor, bringing separate instrumental sections together in a synchronized mix of harmony and melody. And then at some point, the symphony completes itself, spent and exhausted after a frenzy of vibration. This is when I know it is time an agreement can be reached. Even in conflict facilitation, the parties must commit to next steps. Whether it is a final negotiated contract or a committed way to move forward, after the final crescendo of our joint opus, the agreements write themselves.
When my involvement in a particular conflict or negotiation is over, people feel tired. The emotional work I ask them to do has left them depleted. At this point, I quietly exit. For I, on the other hand, am brimming over with energy. No longer matching their rhythm, I find another way to expend the vigor my excitement has created. I go running or meditate or take my family on a hike (no more skiing, though). It is nice for me to think of all those years ago, sitting in Rabbi Wolfman’s office having a conversation which would inform my future work. Neither one of us could have predicted we would both become consultants in the same field. Though, it does make sense. I felt such a bond with this rabbi that I spent an entire semester following him around so I could learn from him. If you look at our careers, you’ll realize, I still am.