John G Bell
Reflective Practicum 1
Spring '04 - Hormann

Weekly – Consider a Conflict?

Read Chapters 9 and 10 (p. 139-204) in The Fifth Discipline. Consider a conflict with a client, colleague, or family member. Recall not only what was said, but what you were thinking and did not say. Can you identify how you contributed to a conflict through your thinking?

In these chapters, Senge talks about the way that mental models limit our responses to systems and that these mental models define and circumscribe what people perceive as a kind of structural limitation to change. The mental model is a construct that helps to define continuity and the ability to perceive and speak of events that are outside that mental model is a way of reality checking the construct. Our experience is what is derived from the interplay between the need to maintain control of understanding new phenomena and the way that new phenomena don't fit our existing experience. Each new experience is a position call that has the potential to question the validity of experience.

I experienced this today. I've been stressing out about how much work I have to do, and I've been falling behind. I've been turning assignments in late, which is something new for me. I've been feeling horrible stress over the level of work I have outside of school, both at my non-profit job and in looking at the things needed for the assistantship. I'm stressing about making ends meet and trying to see far enough ahead to plan for the future in the face of student loans and previous obligations. Balancing these stresses, I'm in a relationship with my partner where we've decided to move in together and I've been trying to keep enough of my time available to do the things around the house and still have time for being together that doesn't involve the mundane parts of living together.

Last night, we decided to not go to a particular activity today because it would require too many hours to do. However, this morning, as I was preparing myself for the work I needed to accomplish, my partner was making plans for what to do today. Slowly one activity was being added to another, then another and another. My response to this was not to tell the truth about how stressed I was and how much I needed to do. My response was to get grumpy and snippy. I was becoming angry in order to create space. If I could get my partner upset, then she would decide to make the space I needed in order to work without me having to admit to needing it. I would then not have to feel like I had failed her by not doing the things that she wanted to do because she would decide to not do them.

This pattern isn't new for me. I participated in my last relationship in a similar way. So, on top of the stress, and the conflict was the realization that I was creating some of the same conditions that led to the end of my last relationship.

In order to keep the curtain drawn around myself, to maintain the illusion of being the all-powerful wizard of Oz, I could not admit to how much stress I am under. I could not speak the truth because I had to manage the appearance of composure and responsibility. However, the very act of maintaining the illusion undermines the goal of maintaining the illusion. I watched myself become annoyed and snippy, but didn't know how to stop myself. The sense of impending crisis was enough to make me want to avoid the current crisis by maintaining the illusion of control.

This is the function of a mental model. I was maintaining, at all costs, control over my experience by maintaining the mental model of myself as completely available and responsible. However, my maintaining of the map did not change the territory. My control over my experience did not change the actual phenomena. The appearance of competence did not lessen the stress level, or actually solve any of the dilemmas that created more stress.

When I realized that this was a pattern, I started to bemoan the fact that I was aware of a system but unable to make any change to it. However, when I finally realized that my anger and frustration was merely increasing the crisis, I managed to make enough of a change in my direction to spend time with my partner explaining the various levels of stress involved and how much I wanted to not have to let her down by doing my work, but needing to do work that was piling up. We agreed to make some adjustments and hopefully I can keep present the way that my desire to succeed created a crisis of failure.