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Conflict as a Tension to Steer By

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January 2, 2023
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cross-posted from Sociocracy for All

The unwritten rules in many groups are clear: Be nice, avoid conflict at all costs and, if a conflict arises, see it as a “personal problem” of one perhaps problematic individual. In sociocracy, we have the opportunity to see things differently. A conflict or individual’s strong feelings can point out something the rest of us aren’t seeing, which could be important to the organization as a whole. Perhaps an activity of the group is conflicting with the group’s values or aims. Perhaps a policy is not clear, and the lack of clarity is creating a conflict. Listening to this tension and identifying the underlying needs can lead to a more effective organization that functions better. We can actually use the tension inherent in conflict as a way to steer governance.


Conflict or inner tension can lead to defining a problem statement called in Sociocracy 3.0 parlance, a “driver.”  

Tension in this context refers to an inner state when we see a situation that is different from what we expect or wish to see, which might include a conflict or an opportunity for change. This tension can be seen as a “pull” to steer in a new direction for positive change.

Imagine a sailboat when the wind is changing, and the sails begin to pull tight. The wind direction change means the sails need to be adjusted. Then the boat can be more effectively steered in the direction it needs to go.

To find a driver in a given situation, ask: 

  • What is happening that is creating this situation?
  • What needs are arising for the individual, or for the group?
  • What changes can we make to address those needs moving forward?

Tensions can appear as a conflict, a new opportunity, or an objection to a proposal. All of these formats can contribute to movement in new directions and new possibilities to meet the needs of more people.

This can result in a new policy for the group to address the original conflict. 

Profanity vs Free Speech: Governance at a school using sociocracy

At Pathfinder, a school I founded using sociocracy, we started with a broad agreement to “be appropriate,” and to “avoid profanity.” At the same time, freedom of speech is a protected right for members of the community. One child requested a mediation circle claiming another child had used profanity and hadn’t stopped after asking. The other child said they had not used profanity. After asking in a mediation circle what the other person had actually said (“Crap, crap, crap, crap crap!”) and listening closely, several things became clear:

On a personal level:

  • What was happening: A child was bothered by what someone else had said.
  • What was needed for the child: to exist peacefully.
  • What action was taken: They asked for an agreement for the other child to stop repeating a word when asked.


On a community level:

  • What was happening: The two parties had different definitions of profanity.
  • What was needed for the community: A clearer definition of profanity and appropriateness, consented to and understood by the community.
  • What action was taken: The circle sent the question to the community for a clearer proposal

The circle sent the larger question of what changes were needed to the whole community. “How do we define profanity? What is offensive to the group as a whole? What specific agreements can we make to prevent this kind of conflict in the future?”

Feedback from the community resulted in a much more comprehensive profanity proposal. Spaces were defined as “public” or “private,” and profanity was defined. The final agreement was “No profanity in public spaces. Ask for consent to use profanity in private spaces. No hate speech. Profanity and hate speech will be defined by the community.” Measurements were put in place with a weekly check-in: is everyone comfortable with the ability to speak freely? Are people able to avoid profanity when they prefer to? 

After an initial profanity bonanza, things settled down and the community generally struck a balance everyone could consent to, balancing freedom of speech and protecting people from speech they didn’t want to hear. Parents and staff were impressed by the community’s ability to reach consent over a real-life issue that causes conflict in the wider world of adults as well. Workplaces wrestle with defining codes of acceptable conduct, and figuring out which breaches of conduct are unacceptable. There are headlines in the news daily it seems with people struggling to define and moderate profanity and hate speech while protecting freedom of speech. We were able to strike a balance using restorative practices and sociocracy- with children as young as 5 years old participating.

Staff Meeting Conflict Leading to Policy

 I was once in a meeting with a staff circle where the director brought in a generous proposal to increase sick leave and vacation pay. The administrator in charge of managing the budget hadn’t been informed of the proposal and became quite upset as he objected to the proposal loudly. The staff dug into their position because they had run into precarious situations with their paychecks due to unpaid sick leave, and they had a need to take care of their families. At the same time, the administrator was unwilling to budge as he was the guardian of the financial well-being of the organization. 

To put this into our driver’s format:

  • What was happening: There was a sick and vacation leave proposal that might not fit in the organizational budget
  • What was needed: Security for staff and their families, at the same time the financial well-being of the organization
  • What changes needed to happen: Proposal revision

As reasons for the feelings became clear, feelings cooled down. A solution was suggested to send the proposal back to the finance/ legal circle to run the numbers on the budget, taking staff needs into consideration and striving to be as generous as possible. At the next meeting, an amended proposal that addressed both budgetary concerns and staff needs was consented to. The process of integrating objections in sociocracy helped to resolve the conflict and served as a tension to steer the organization by.

Steering With Conflict Tips

  • Find the appropriate circle for a given situation.
  • Take a detailed look at the situation and ask in one round:
    • What is happening to create conflict?
      • Try to summarize this in a short statement or two.
    • What is needed by the individual or the organization?
      • Try to summarize this in a short statement or two.
    • What changes need to happen next to address the situation at large?
      • Try brainstorming proposals to address the underlying need.

These statements can all be integrated into the Background section of a proposal.

For more on proposal forming, see this video:

Or this article:


Conflict, objections, and strong feelings can all represent tensions to steer by. Conflicts can come in all shapes and sizes. The driver formula can be applied to all different kinds of situations where tension arises, and change is needed. By integrating objections, and deeply understanding what is happening and what is needed, conflict can create an opportunity to change to better meet the needs of an organization. So when conflict arises, lean into it and see what the organization can learn and benefit from paying attention


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