The way we manage conflicts needs to take neurodiversity into consideration

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Hi everyone. This is going to be a long post. And it’s one of the more difficult posts for me to write, because I am not an expert in neurodiversity, or conflict management, or how the two might intersect. And I don’t know enough to know whether I would be considered neurodiverse/divergent or not, though I’ve been told I exhibit some signs of inattentive ADHD. For example, being constantly distracted even during the middle of conversations and tasks (at this moment, for instance, I am trying very hard not to spend the next two hours googling the history of marshmallows, because that’s what randomly popped into my mind ten minutes ago while I was writing this paragraph, and now it haunts me). Colleagues made fun of the fact that I wrote notes on my hands, forgot basic information while remembering obscure facts, doodled and sometimes stared into space during meetings, and that my desk and office were always a trash fire of hummus-stained post-it notes and bags and boxes of miscellaneous stuff. This is balanced out by occasions when I get excessively focused and absorbed in a task, like the one time I was so engrossed in writing this blog post at the airport that I missed my plane even though I was sitting right in front of the gate and they called my name several times.

I know that neurodiversity is a huge umbrella that includes many different types, including autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, sensory integration disorder, dysgraphia, synesthesia, anxiety, and many others. For the sake of this topic, I’m going to simplify it into “thinking and processing information in ways that may not be typical of how most people think and process information.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot because with everything that’s been going on and how stressed everyone is, I’ve been seeing a lot more conflicts in the sector. Some of it is heartbreaking, including conflicts I’m involved in, with and among people I care deeply about.

Unfortunately, the conflict-resolution tools and techniques we’ve been relying on don’t always work, or are actually making things worse, because these tools and techniques were designed with neurotypical people in mind, with the grounding assumptions that everyone involved in the conflict will have the same thought patterns, the same way of absorbing, interpreting, and communicating information.

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7 principles of community-centric boards

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A while ago, a colleague and I, both haggard executive directors with involuntary eye twitches, were having lunch. Our conversation led us to our boards, and he told me of how his board chair scolded him for the egregious crime of forwarding a funding opportunity to another nonprofit. “He was mad that I helped our ‘competition’ by letting them know of a request for proposals from a foundation. I figured why wouldn’t we share RFPs with one another?”

Fast forward to now, several years and a pandemic later, and unfortunately, I still hear stories like this. Boards of directors are truly some of the biggest stressors in the sector, often more harmful than helpful, as I’ve written about here and here. But it’s partly because we’ve trained boards to think and act in certain ways, ways that over time help to entrench siloing, competitiveness, and survivalism.

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How financially stable people have been making life difficult for their lower-income colleagues in nonprofit

[Image description: Closeup on a person pulling out a one-dollar bill from a brown leather wallet. Image by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. Before we get started, here are a couple of awesome videos. This one by Memphis Music Initiative that includes a hilarious (and wince-inducing) skit of how Harriet Tubman would be treated by a foundation if she were to ask for support today. And this poignant musical sketch by Human Services Council vividly illustrating the lack of funding in the sector and how it has been affecting the hardworking professionals dedicated to making the world better.

OK, onto this week’s topic. Will Smith just won the best actor Oscar, which reminds me of another movie where he was nominated. In “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith plays Chris Gardner, who, along with his young son, has been experiencing poverty and homelessness, living in subway stations and public restrooms. There is scene where Chris is asked by his boss at his unpaid internship to loan him $5 in cash for cab fare. He can’t afford to loan his boss $5, but he is in competition for a paid position, so he reluctantly hands over the money. To his boss, this was a simple transaction; the lack of $5 didn’t mean much more than a very mild inconvenience. To Chris, it was devastating, as he may not be able to afford bus fares to get back to his son.

I bring this up because it reminds me of a pervasive phenomenon in nonprofit. I’m calling it “Higher-Income Solipsism Syndrome (HISS).” This is when people who are more financial secure, through a lack of awareness brought on by their privilege, create and endorse philosophies and actions that negatively affect people who are less financially secure. Here are examples of various ways this may manifest:

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It’s still the apocalypse, let’s give ourselves and one another some grace

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Hi everyone. It is spring in the northern hemisphere. It’s my favorite season and love it as much as we all love MYGOD (multi-year general operating dollars). The days are getting longer and the crocuses and daffodils and tulips are popping up and the cherry blossoms will explode like balls of pink snow and it’s all magical.

The last several years have been one long, bitter winter. With the pandemic, the worsening climate problems, the open embrace of fascism, the rise in hate and violence, the banning of conversations about race, the rolling back of abortion rights, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the potential for world war 3, and so many other horrific things, we’ve been living through at least six consecutive years of end times without much of a break.

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The nonprofit sector is not more dysfunctional than any other sector, OK?

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Hi everyone, if you follow my ramblings for the past few years, you know that I point out various flaws in our sector. We have a lot of them, from our ridiculous traditional board structure, to the various time-wasting shenanigans of foundations, to the way we’ve been conditioned to appeal to the ego of rich mostly white donors, to how poorly paid many people are, to our propensity to intellectualize and not take action, to our crappy hiring practices, and to our office equipment that is held together with duct tape and bungee cords. And there’s plenty of other things we need to point out and improve on.

However, although it is not always apparent, I really genuinely love our sector. And I criticize it because I see our potential and I am optimistic that we can change and improve. It’s a lot like visiting your relatives and they just point out your appearance and all the stuff you’re doing wrong, but you know that it’s because they believe in you. When mine are like “You’re getting old, why don’t you find a real job or open a business like your cousins, and also you should try putting this eucalyptus oil on your face for your horrible acne,” I know they say all that stuff because they care.

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