Leadership and Conflict Management through Presence

We live in a fast world: fast global transport, fast digital connections, fast bottom lines. As denizens of a digital society, we are often encouraged to function at a pace akin to the growing capabilities of our technologies. Running from one moment into the next, our focus becomes consumed by the dual pressures of meeting deadlines and keeping track of the constantly fluctuating environment in which we seek them.

When it comes to conflict management, running too fast and managing distractions is a recipe for trouble. In his book Leading through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, Mark Gerzon argues that leaders must develop mediator-like qualities to manage conflict. A helpful overview of Gerzan’s book, done by the team at guidingleadersandteams.net, can be found here.

Presence in Conflict 

Gerzon’s third guiding precept for leaders as mediators is “presence.”   Presence requires a leader to be fully aware and centered within the present moment. Conflict scenarios are complex and nuanced in nature, and escalation often occurs as impassioned parties become defensive or aggressive. As turbulence builds, presence allows the mediator to be keenly aware of the multi-dimensional elements of the communicative scenario. Perhaps the parties have misunderstood one another, each perceiving the other as antagonistic when, in fact, there are ample openings in the discourse to build agreement. Perhaps parties are employing different approaches, all valuable, that can be integrated into a constructive strategy.

Such insights are only available to an individual who is cultivating inner stillness, deeply attentive to the scenario at hand. They are aware of the dynamics at play, invested in understanding the interests and experiences of all parties, but can remain cool and thoughtful if tensions or emotions run high.

As such, presence involves a critical element of self-awareness. Not only does a mediator need to be aware of others in the room and the dynamics at play, he or she must be acutely aware of his or her own emotions and responses, and remain conscious of any reactive tendencies. Developing careful observation of the present moment enables a mediator to put even their own responses in context, and act as a constructive voice of reflection and transformation when disagreements head towards conflict.

Leadership Presence

Leadership often comes attached to responsibility, and can thus entail tremendous pressure. Presence is about choosing to be “in the room” where the discussion is taking place, avoiding the trap of projecting into the future or staying stuck in entrenched divisions from the past. Your target may be to move a project or issue forward, but without attentiveness to all parties in the present, your conflict management strategy is less likely to constructively engage disagreements in a way that benefits your end goal.

Presence is also a key ingredient to facilitating other guiding principles that Gerzon suggests, such as exercising “inquiry” or “systems thinking.”

Dimensions in Presence

True presence is an active, reflective state, and thus requires a multi-dimensional commitment from the mind, the heart, and the soul.

The mind. Mental consciousness refers to being awake or aware, and engaging an expansive perspective. Closed, linear thinking often causes further conflict rather than transforming it. Mind presence allows a mediator or leader to think outside of the limited narratives in the room that are in conflict. 

The heart. This form of presence is captured in the books of Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence at Work, and refers to the ability to exercise the understanding that is available to the leader or mediator as an emotional being, without misusing it or becoming reactive. Many leaders struggle with this aspect of presence.

The soul. Presence of the soul refers to the spiritual qualities of inner stillness, detachment, and visioning. Exercising this type of presence offers vital perspective, and the ability to maintain it in conflict scenarios often comes as the result of practicing inner stillness at other times.

Combined successfully, these three dimensions of presence can (along with helping you to cope with pressure or stress) enable a demeanor conducive to managing conflict: agile, flexible, responsive, open, inventive, selfless, adaptable.  Remaining attached to notions of arrogance, defensiveness, self-centeredness or disregard for others will inhibit a leader’s ability to be present, and to transform conflict into progress.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

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