Monday, January 28, 2008

On authentic behavior in conflict situations

This is a brief article on the conclusions from a small E-mail-group discussion that Kristel Maassen, Marieke Veeger and Peter Oomen had during the last three weeks of December 2007.


First of all we did agree that in our role as capacity building advisors in many cases we are expected or assigned to make a change in modes of conduct or ways of doing the work. If habits are changed, resistance is often felt. Especially because in many non western cultures 'change' more often is a scary, undesirable thing, while in our own culture it mostly is a positive thing. For that very reason we will often face situations that bear potential conflict.

A conflict should not be a goal in itself, but if we take our work seriously we should be prepared to deal with implicit or explicit conflict behavior and if necessary make a conflict in views, priorities or interests more explicit to help us deal with it more effectively. Sometimes this is needed to make a change that is in line with our assignment.

Before we can manage that kind of situations however, we should have a meaningful and respected position to do so. In most cultures, and especially non western cultures, one should be a respected and valued contributor to the organizations cause and group as such to be allowed to make a change. Engaging in a conflict of opinions, priorities and interests and bring about a desired solution also requires that valued membership of the group..

In order to build up a position that allows us to change habits, views, perceptions or modes of conduct, we try to be culturally sensitive, devoted, strongly committed to the beneficiary and the organization that send us over. We also make sure that an intervention that is or could be perceived as generating conflict is referable to the capacity building goals and serves 'their' process and ownership.
Once we have done all that, we still face the difficulty of the fact that we will leave after one or two years.
This makes very clear why we really need some personal credit to enter the conflict zone effectively.
Now we feel that 'authentic behavior' is an important quality of an advisor to enable him or her to do so.

Authentic behavior, meaning behavior that is:
- based on deeply felt impulses,
- connected to personal values'',
- strongly aware of situational factors,
- loyal to ones intuition, not manipulative like a means to an end.

Authentic behavior is a risky but also powerful and sometimes necessary intervention in the change processes we facilitate. It is an opportunity to enter a clarifying dialogue with the client and create stronger solidarity in achieving ownership and the projected capacity building goals.
This clarifying dialogue might even free us from the donor <-> beneficiary character that underlies so much of our work (like inequalities, blurred responsibilities etc.), or as one of us had so beautifully pointed out:

'Perhaps conflict situations could be a turn-around situation in some cases. Perhaps here, authenticity can help us. If what we say and do represents not our personal interests but our deep beliefs (at the same time leaving the decision to the people that are hosting us) andif these beliefs come to be perceived by colleagues as authentic, it will be the start of a process of change. Then conflict could lead tomutual recognition of striving for the same goal and generate energy for change'.
But then it is followed by:
"But this kind of transformative conflict probably only happens rarely and I don't think it's something that could or should purposely be created".

However, the purpose should not be to create conflict, but to expose authentic behavior. Conflict situations will then come up automatically (if implicit they can be made explicit).
Some other thoughts and positions we exchanged were:

An assignment without conflicts probably missed a few opportunities for sustainable change and sometimes an implicit conflict needs to be solved by making it explicit or even escalating it a bit, professionally though.

While usually there are several conflict situations in an assignment not all of them have a transformative or change character.

Authenticity will never be fully present, it is always mixed with professional or personalinterests, or is not immediately recognised by others as authentic behavior, but manipulative.

Exposing authentic behavior is impossible to attain 100% of time and requires lots of courage and life long cultivation

We wish the reader lots of authentic behavior and lots of good timing (paradox)

Peter Oomen, (e-mail.
Marieke Veeger (e-mail.
Kristel Maasen (e-mail.

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