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May 01, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 5

Conscious conflict, compassion, and creativity: Setting the meeting table for everyone

By Marilyn Cavicchia

Think back to the last time you had a conversation that involved some conflict. When the other person spoke, were you listening to understand—or listening to win?

That is, were you really open to what the other person was saying, or were you preoccupied with formulating what your response should be?

If it was the latter, you’re not alone, said Andy Eninger and Butch Jerinic, co-founders of Fairplay Communications, which offers corporate training and leadership development focused on adaptability. It's human nature, they told attendees at the 2022 ABA Bar Leadership Institute—and lawyers in particular sometimes do need to listen defensively.

Conflict should be welcomed, they said, with some care put into how it’s framed and how it’s managed. In fact, Eninger said, if you don’t invite dissent, one person may step in to fill the role of dissenter; instead, open things up for everyone to feel comfortable with dissent.

“We can’t get to the best ideas unless we have discourse,” he noted. “Make sure it’s equitable and not just that the loudest ideas win.”

Listen, affirm, and build

Eninger and Jerinic met at Chicago’s famed The Second City, where they trained in improv and learned one of the theatrical discipline’s core tenets, “Yes, and …” In improv, they explained, one person is never supposed to completely shut down another person’s idea and take things in an unrelated direction; instead, each person in the scene should affirm the previous idea and build from it.

The model they recommend to their clients is LAB: listen (be open to the other person and the information they’re sharing), affirm (acknowledge the other person and what they’ve said), and build (add more information and ask questions).

Eninger and Jerinic are also shaped by their professional experiences outside of Second City. Eninger was the “IT guy” for an advertising agency, which he said was comfortable for him as an introvert but also showed him what it’s like to not be invited into certain discussions. Jerinic once worked as an appraiser for an auction house, which often put her in the position of having to tell someone their family heirloom had little monetary value. This taught her to understand the “human need” behind what another person is saying, so that “even if the information is difficult, the interaction doesn’t have to be.”

Who holds the power?

“The way we treat each other can stop information from moving forward,” Jerinic said. If one person is shutting another person down, she added, it affects not only those two, but also everyone else in the room, putting a damper on productive discussion.

“All of our systems are wired up for bias and power,” Eninger said; to ensure that everyone has a chance to share their ideas during a meeting, it’s important to “make small adjustments, so you’re not just following who has power.” This practice of recognizing and adjusting for power differences is called multipartial leadership, he said.

Look at who tends to hold the most power, Jerinic recommended: Typically, she said, it’s the boss, the chair, the person with the longest tenure, the loudest person, and/or the one who is most comfortable with maintaining eye contact. Implicit bias can come into play, too, she said: A woman or a person of color who is loud and decisive may be seen as “aggressive.”

Eninger suggested being mindful of whoever is taking notes in a meeting: Often, he said, this task falls to a lower-ranking staff person or to a woman—and often, the duty of taking notes prevents this person from contributing their own ideas. Ways to fix this, he said, might be to rotate the notetaking duties or to specifically invite the notetaker to actively participate in the discussion.

Also, Jerinic said, it’s important to “make people comfortable who don’t often speak up”—such as introverts who may have great ideas that go unheard. While brainstorming is great, Eninger added, a statement like “Let’s just throw out ideas” is not welcoming toward introverts, who tend not to be as adept with processing their thoughts quickly out loud. Better, he suggested, might be to say, “Let’s take a few minutes to think, and then we’ll go around the room and share our ideas.”

A comment from the audience that garnered some applause was that the attendee’s bar scrapped Robert’s Rules of Order for its board meetings five years ago because those who knew the rules best were using this knowledge as a way to wield undue power.

By whatever mechanism, Jerinic noted, it’s important to ensure that people are able to bring conflict forward so it can be addressed. As one of Jerinic and Eninger’s final slides said, “If people stop bringing you problems, it’s a bad sign!”

Additional takeaways

In addition to the plenary described above, Jerinic and Eninger also led a workshop focused mostly on interactive exercises to spur creative thinking and problem solving. Here are a few insights they shared along the way:

  • “The human brain has evolved to be on autopilot much of the time,” Eninger said. “Change brings things back up for us to think about. That’s one reason we’re all so exhausted after the past two years.”
  • Adapting to change and coming up with new ideas can be very uncomfortable. While it’s easy to scapegoat one person as being resistant to change or trying to throw a wrench in the works, the truth is, each of us can play that role at times. Stay open to each other, check in, and be compassionate as we all “sit in that place of individual ‘uncomfortableness,’” Jerinic recommended.
  • Before pursuing any change, Eninger said, make sure you’re open to taking action—which is not the same as intention. Of the many people who Google workout programs on January 1, how many actually work out, he asked? And how many are still working out by January 30? By June?
  • Reflection is also important, Jerinic and Eninger said, and it’s often overlooked. In their business, Jerinic noted, she and Eninger are “allowed to fail—to fail fast, and to fail hard.” Then, they talk to each other and reflect on what they learned from it.
  • In any type of creative thinking, Eninger and Jerinic said, there are four distinct phases: clarification (better defining what the problem is that needs to be solved), ideation (coming up with one or more new ideas), development (narrowing down to the best of those ideas and the path forward), and implementation (putting the ideas into action). Each of us tends to gravitate toward one of these phases and away from the others, they said. In any kind of teamwork, it’s important not to typecast ourselves or each other, but to be mindful of these different styles—and not get frustrated with each other when our preferred phase isn’t the one that’s currently being discussed.
  • If the big, bold change you were hoping for doesn’t come to pass, don’t worry, Eninger said: Perhaps one small change will lead to another and another, and “iterative changes are where we find a lot of value in terms of being innovative.”
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