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How We Can Be Empowered Through Conflict

Using intelligent communication to improve group function

Robert Miramontes /
Source: Robert Miramontes /

An exciting outcome of the authors’ work is the development of a collaborative communication technique that puts interactions in couples and groups onto a new footing that can revolutionize not just interpersonal relationships, but outcomes also.

Our technique, called the 40-20-40 Model, is implemented through a process called Self-Other Assessment.

When using the 40-20-40, instead of conflicting parties arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong, or who to blame vs. who’s innocent, each party examines her or his own experience of the conflicted situation and shares that with the others. This is done not only to understand their own feelings, but equally importantly, so that everybody becomes able to see the effect their individual feelings and behaviors have on each other and on group process. We've seen that being able to tell our colleagues the truth about our feelings is one of the most empowering skills we can learn in the workplace.

Outing your feelings about relationship problems probably seems like the last thing you’d want do to feel safe in a conflict situation. But that’s exactly where the magic comes in. The 40-20-40 creates a space in which everybody involved can feel safe talking about their experience and feelings about their connection with the others.

When sharing, each person focuses only on how she or he is experiencing their relationship with the group. When listening to others’ sharing, responding with advice, feedback, accusations or otherwise taking their inventory is strictly off limits. When these boundaries are respected, everyone is empowered to express anxiety related to the group and their shared work, particularly as it may relate to growing feelings of closeness or investment in one another.

The 40-20-40 schema represents the dynamic of the relationship. Each member is allowed responsibility for no less than 40% and no more than 60% of what happens in the group. The middle 20% is the shared space in which conflict is negotiated, shared and owned jointly. The ultimate goal of the sharing is for the middle 20% to expand so that every member feels safe, validated, and invested in process and outcomes. It's a delicate balancing act, but well worth the time and practice required to change communication habits for the better.

Following are the ground rules for a successful 40-20-40 process:

  • When sharing, all parties focus on themselves only.
  • Each party must able safely to disclose feelings and acknowledge their part in what’s happening in the group or couple, both good and bad, without fear of blame or criticism.
  • Each party listens to hear what is being said without looking for opportunities to place blame or level criticism. Using shared information to manipulate others or the group is also out of bounds.
  • Shares are strictly timed. Three minutes per person is recommended at least initially, but may be lengthened or shortened if the group agrees. Interrupting and cross-talk are not permitted.
  • Participants continue to take turns sharing until all parties are satisfied with the progress that has been made.
  • Ideally, any member of the group may call for a 40-20-40 when confusion or negative feelings is disturbing the group’s shared work.

The effectiveness of the 40-20-40 lies in each party’s becoming able to say what he or she needs to say with clarity and focus, without defensiveness or having to deal with unwelcome feedback. With practice, anxiety and negative interactive habits lose their power as the need to blame or criticize fades. The group members become open to one another in new ways as hospitality to one another becomes part of their “operating system.” Unsurprisingly, this improves group functionality almost without members’ realizing it’s happening. It’s a win-win for everybody.

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Irrelationship Group, All Rights Reserved
Source: Irrelationship Group, All Rights Reserved