As Time Goes By

By: Matt Thompson

I started my career in conflict resolution as an Employee Ombudsperson.  Any success I may have had was largely due to my personal relationships with the individuals in the various levels of the organization; staff workers, technical professionals and administrators.  By reflecting back my understanding of their motivating forces, I was able to successfully bridge many conflicts and create mutually beneficial solutions, all while enhancing the communications processes utilized for conflict resolution.  

These instinctive skills and techniques worked well for me for a number of years, even as I transitioned into the more focused work of diversity.  Back then, employers were asking in-house diversity directors to create a welcoming environment for a diverse population with the actions being largely rooted in Affirmative Action, to hopefully, have the workforce reflect our population at-large. Then R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. published his seminal article in the Harvard Business Review, From Affirming Action to Affirming Diversity.  In that article he states:  The wrong question: “How are we doing on race relations?” The right question: “Is this a workplace where ‘we’ is everyone?”  

When those of us doing this work made the deeper dive as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) professionals, we began to explore and lay bare some of the social and professional problems in the workplace and our society.  There was more articulation of the various levels of racism impacting on us.  People like Elsie Y. Cross began to state, in no uncertain terms, that unless we admit racism exists, we cannot make true gains in our society. 


As I dealt with conflicts and institutional policies I ran into bad cases of the “Yabuts”: “Yeah but Matt, I’m not sure he’s ‘good fit’ “, or “Yeah but Matt, look how much money that manager is generating”.  Or even “Yeah but Matt, we only hire from The Ivy League schools because we know they have the skills we need.”   These highlighted the four levels of racism; internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural.  

By using the Iceberg model, I was able to better understand and articulate the things I saw going on.  First, identifying an event; then a pattern which highlighted an underlying structure and mental model and finally, some of the cultural and institutional values that guided the attitudes and decisions made which perpetuated biases.

My study of conflict resolution and “Positions and Interests” helped me resolve many of the transactional events which I was asked to intervene in, but that did very little to help when I suspected personal bias or racism was the real root cause of the problem.  As an African-American man, I must constantly question my own position and neutrality in cases I believe to be so rooted. Introducing the concept of Implicit Bias has helped me as a facilitator and the conflicting parties who may accept the development of unconscious biases as a normal, natural way of surviving in the world.  The challenge comes when parties are asked to recognize that these biases may be reflective of a negative perspective/opinion towards others.  

A lot of my work now involves helping groups and individuals deal with the notion of White Privilege.  We used to start out in group facilitation by creating a “safe space” in which participants could feel comfortable in their discussions about race and, if they didn’t we could temper the word choices and activities to make them comfortable again. Now we create a “brave space”.  We ask people to get out of the “comfort zone” into the “stretch zone” where there might be discomfort but genuine growth.  We try to avoid the “panic zone”, where the defenses kick in to protect the ego and real dialogue ceases.  Even with these concepts, many people are reluctant to own or acknowledge White Privilege and the structural impact as a result.  

The latest model and approach I am learning about is Internal Family Systems.  According to Wikipedia, the Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz. It combines systems thinking with the view that mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities each with its own viewpoint and qualities. IFS uses family systems theory to understand how these collections of subpersonalities are organized.

In simple terms, under IFS we have three basic parts or subpersonalities.  Managers, exiles, and firefighters.  Each part has its own perspective, interest, memories and viewpoint.  Each part has a positive intent for the “self”.   We have a lifetime of experiences that shape us and how we show up for ourselves and how we react to/with others.

So, all Matt Thompson’s little defenses, hurts, biases, anger expressions and anxieties are just trying to protect him as he tries to help others resolve their conflicts.  Now he’s got to see how others are merely trying to protect themselves with their actions and biases.  

This stuff ain’t getting any easier.  The more I learn, the less I know.