Summary of "Reaching for Higher Ground"

Summary of

Reaching for Higher Ground

by E. Franklin Dukes, Marina A. Piscolish, and John B. Stephens

Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: "Reaching for Higher Ground" in Conflict Resolution: Tools for Powerful Groups and Communities. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000.

In Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution, the authors offer a strategy for helping groups reach their highest potential. Specifically the authors show how developing and maintaining a group's shared expectations and commitments are not only tools for group process, but essential to transforming conflict. Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution presents principles and tools for effective group experience that taps into a group's collective higher aspirations. It is set up as a tool kit for practitioners, with specific examples and case studies, intended for people working with families, workplaces, and communities. The authors make a distinction between common ground, where groups traditionally function, and what they have deemed "higher ground." Common ground is where one's self-interest overlaps with the self-interest of another. On the other hand, higher ground is defined as, "a powerful metaphor for behavior that allows us to bring community out of conflict. It is a place where people treat each other as they themselves wish to be treated, and in doing so they come to new understandings about their shared work, their relationships, and their collective potential" (p. 60). Higher ground is a place where groups can productively work together to learn from conflict, "as cobuilders and cobeneficiaries of the public or collective good" (p. 8). Reaching for higher ground helps groups to tap into their collective higher aspirations.

Common Ground is Not Higher Ground

The book begins by identifying some of the problems that stand in the way of groups reaching higher ground. A central problem is that groups bring baggage to conflicts. Among this baggage are a set of unspoken expectations and rules of engagement. These are, "the norms and expectations for conflict behavior that groups may never discuss and, in many cases, do not even realize they are following" (p. 18). The authors have identified seven unspoken rules of engagement that act as traps for groups as they strive to transform a conflict situation. These include: 1) If dissent isn't spoken, it must not exist; 2) conflict is bad, and conflict, or even difference, is therefore to be avoided; 3) anyone whose views differ from mine must be deficient or misguided; 4) because your opponents are deficient or misguided, it is all right -- even necessary -- to ignore their needs and demonize and dehumanize them; 5) tell everyone I know what's wrong with my opponent; 6) because we don't know them, we're not responsible for the impact our behavior has on them; and 7) conflict is a win-lose battle, so you had better win before you lose (pp. 19-24). These behaviors and attitudes often act as an underlying cause of conflict in workplaces, families, and communities, and they make it difficult to engage effectively in its resolution. In many facilitated processes, groups begin to work together towards change by setting up ground rules. Common practice ground rules, the ones that are usually used in group settings, help to clarify the unspoken expectations for engagement, but they fall short of helping set the stage for productive group process. Common ground rules stress problems to avoid rather than opportunities to build strong, positive working relationships. An example of common ground rules include, "don't interrupt" or "begin and end meetings on time." The authors point out that common ground rules are limiting for the following reasons: they are usually developed by the group leader with little input from the group; they are introduced as business items that are inconvenient albeit necessary; they are routinely used to identify deviance from a rule; and they fall short of helping groups learn and grow (pp. 40-41). These ordinary ground rules can be useful because they allow a group to reach common ground -- they develop a common understanding of the expectations of the group. They are important tools that should not be discarded, but they do not offer the opportunity for a group to reach higher ground.

Reaching for Higher Ground

How do groups reach higher ground? The authors explain that to reach higher ground it is necessary to move away from "shared expectations -- common ground rules -- from being used as a precursor to group work, swiftly addressed and quickly forgotten, to being an ongoing and essential part of accomplishing the work" (p. 59). The authors have identified two important steps for groups working to reach higher ground: 1) actively engage in the elements of higher ground; and 2) build a group covenant to support the work of reaching for higher ground. There are six essential elements of reaching for higher ground and each one is described with a snapshot (i.e., example) and reflection. The first element of reaching for higher ground is principled ground which, "means inviting people to create an environment in which principled behavior is demanded and, when agreed to by all, expected" (p. 61). Principled ground encourages truth telling and truth seeking. The second element is new ground. New ground is characterized by "an opportunity to explore and discover that which is as yet unimagined" (p. 63). Higher ground is not always clear right away, so it is important that groups be willing to explore new ground in an effort to reach for higher ground. Thirdly, reaching for higher ground includes a new and enlarged perspective. This perspective is a "new view not only of the whole picture but also of how each individual fits into that picture" (p. 67). The forth element is that higher ground acts as a refuge, or a "safe haven from the incivility and outright nastiness that too often accompany conflict" (p. 70). The fifth element is, shared ground. This is an essential aspect of higher ground because, "groups and communities of all sizes function best when members consider one another's needs"¦.how [does the group] move ahead, while leaving no one behind" (p. 74). Lastly, reaching for higher ground is a challenge. There is no easy way to move past a place where people are comfortable and accustomed to working, and to challenge destructive behavior that is necessary when reaching for higher ground (p. 77). When working towards higher ground it is essential to develop what the authors describe as a covenant that helps groups recognize their "collective higher aspirations." A covenant is comprised of, "principles and specific steps for developing explicit, shared expectations for higher ground in all sorts of groups" (p. 81). A covenant consists of two parts: "a vision which describes the values and desired outcomes that define the higher ground a group seeks, and specific behavioral agreements, or ground rules, that are intended to enact those values and achieve those outcomes" (p. 81). The authors have identified six elements of creating a group covenant: 1) Establish the Need -- the need for shared expectations; 2) Educate and Inspire -- provide sufficient support for the group's efforts to create a covenant; 3) Begin by Envisioning Desired Outcomes -- envision the desired outcomes for the group; 4) Promote Full Participation -- each group member must have a voice in developing the covenant; 5) Be Accountable -- it is essential that group members are accountable to each other for the promises made; and 6) Evaluate and Revise -- it is important to constantly evaluate and modify the group's covenant on an ongoing basis. The six elements of a covenant serve to, "link the group's highest aspirations to clear principles and specific agreements about behavior" (p. 219).

Practical Applications of Reaching for Higher Ground

Chapters Six and Seven focus on the skills and tools necessary to effectively manage a group and its changing dynamics. These chapters include necessary information on, "maintaining an atmosphere in which higher ground is continuously pursued, even as the group's dynamics grow complex or conflicted" (p. 103). Chapter six offers tools for preparing for group facilitation. Some of the key areas identified include: creating and sticking to a plan, how to deal with 'the good, the bad, and the ugly' moments in groups, evaluating group performance -- especially with the use of feedback and participatory methods, and how to integrate new members into the group. Chapter Seven is devoted to addressing issues about working with the diversity and challenges associated with groups. The focus of the chapter is on group characteristics and how to best assess and manage these characteristics, including issues such as group diversity, duration of the group, complexity of the task or problems, group size, significance of the issues, levels of trust, power distribution, and level of aspirations. To effectively manage the diversity of characteristics of a group the facilitator needs to be aware of the level of attention and commitment a group brings to working towards higher ground. Table 7.1 gives a practical overview of the important considerations for any facilitator, based on the six characteristics of their particular group (p. 146). The chapter ends by offering an assessment tool for assessing a group's path in their work towards reaching for higher ground.

Examples of Reaching for Higher Ground

The last two chapters are dedicated to understanding higher ground as it works in real settings. Chapter eight is a demonstration of the Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution approach in action. It gives an overview of the process in a fictitious hospital setting. This example gives an outline of the techniques used during the course of facilitating a group process using aspects of the Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution method. Chapter nine turns to efforts at the community level that support groups and organizations engaged in reaching for higher ground. The authors have identified examples of real-world situations that move beyond intact work groups, and those that might come together naturally to create change, to set the stage for the possibility to work at the larger community level for the type of change that the process of reaching for higher ground can create. The authors conclude with a reflection on their personal learning while reaching for higher ground during the process of writing this book. They outline the process they engaged in, and how they made higher ground a principle for effectively creating Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution across long distances.