Questioning Forward: In This Together

I’ve been making posts about Appreciative Inquiry, an effective method for studying an existing group of people and discerning how to implement positive change in a way that will be well-received and won’t blow the group apart. As the process was taught to me, it involves ten assumptions about what is necessary for this to happen. One important assumption is that in a change process, all steps should be collaborative.

The word collaboration took on a deeper meaning for me after I got to hear Dr. Randy Lowry, President of Lipscomb University and a conflict resolution expert, talk about what collaboration means in a workshop he conducted for the Doctor of Ministry program at Lipscomb. He described five possible responses to conflict.

The five approaches to conflict vary on a grid that involves two different scales. In conflict, you are either placing high or low value on the relationships involved, on whether you can practice mercy and overlook a wrongdoing, and on the interests of others. Likewise, you are either placing high or low value on achieving your own goals and interests, on the need for true justice in a situation, and on the issue itself, whether it really matters to you or not. The five categories that Lowry provides are:

  • Compete. When we compete, it means we are responding with a strong sense of right and wrong, we care highly about getting what we want, and the issue we’re conflicted about is of great importance to us. We are less worried about maintaining good relationships with the other parties involved, mercy is not as much of an option, and we don’t care if the other side gets what they want or not.
  • Avoid. When we avoid, it means we place a low value on all categories related to the conflict, and even the conflict itself. We don’t particularly want to engage with the people, maintain a relationship with them, and it doesn’t matter who gets what out of the situation.
  • Accommodate. When we accommodate, we are placing a high value on our relationships with the other parties involved. It is important to us to see that they get their needs met, and even if some of us have acted ugly, we are anxious to forgive and move on. We aren’t particularly worried about the issue or about getting our own way.
  • Compromise. Compromising means we are in the middle on all the matters involved. We don’t particularly want to sever a relationship, but neither can we totally ignore the problem. We don’t mind for them to get some of what they want, but we want to make sure we get a little of what we want, too. If anyone has done wrong, we aren’t opposed to showing mercy but are still open to the need for accountability.
  • Collaborate. Collaboration shows the strongest passion for all categories. This issue matters to me, these people matter to me, doing what’s right is critical, as is the practice of mercy, and it is important that all of us get a lot of what we are wanting, somehow.

Every person has their own default way of dealing with conflict. I tend to be the conflict avoider. I have sometimes made my life harder because I tried to pretend that something didn’t matter to me. Later, I realized I should have engaged more because it bothered me more than I thought it did. In a given conflict, it is appropriate to think through this grid and try to respond with the appropriate approach to the conflict. Even if you hate conflict, it may be important for you to engage because the people or the issue is important. Even if you love a good verbal sparring, you need to ask yourself whether it’s worth risking the relationships involved or if the issue is really that important to you.

Getting back to the issue of congregational change, the approach of collaboration is especially important. In smaller matters, we can take a variety of approaches, but when it comes to the future direction of our church, major initiatives, or huge shifts in our protocols, we need to be sure our process looks like collaboration, every step of the way

If the issue you are working through is large enough to warrant whole church involvement, be sure you are allowing for collaboration. Here are some questions you might ask:

  • In this decision process, are all voices being heard? Are there any voices we are intentionally ignoring?
  • Are there alliances forming between parties where deeper connections and relationships should be kindled?
  • What are the steps of the change process? Are we allowing space for a variety of voices all along the way?
  • If there has been wrongdoing, is it being addressed honestly? Are the wronged parties provided with real space to air their grievances? Are the parties who have erred being given the real possibility of redemption? 
  • Is this issue the real issue? What’s happening under the surface that makes this mean so much to people? 
  • When similar changes have been implemented or avoided, what were the conversations surrounding them? What insights might they reveal for how to work through our present situation? 

Where collaboration has occurred, it means that issues have been taken seriously, problems have been faced with honesty, people’s needs have been thoughtfully considered and included, and all that is possible has been done to maintain relationships. In a change process, all steps should be collaborative.

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