The TARDIS arrives, a Dr. Who metaphor on navigating healthy conflict

I’m sitting in a parking lot outside the Alamo movie theater waiting for Max’s friend’s Detective Pikachu birthday party to wrap up. I’ve been sitting in my car reading the first chapters of Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. I started at Krispy Kreme with the intention of sitting at a table and reading over coffee, but quickly opted for the car due to the shop’s jangly sugary-sweet oldies music competing with the text for my attention. In the row of cars ahead of me a bright yellow Porsche is parked. Its vanity plate reads, “TARDIS,” and makes me smile.

If you aren’t a Doctor Who fan (My egocentric self struggles with the possibility, but knowing there are infinite equally legitimate personal realities, I concede that this may be the case), the TARDIS is the time machine in which the Doctor travels to various points in space and time.

Lencioni’s book discusses healthy conflict in organizations requiring a culture of trust in which participants are safe to be vulnerable and bring all of themselves to the table.

It was likely the presence of the TARDIS’ yellow manifestation combined with Lencioni’s thoughts on conflict that brought to mind for me a conversation I had yesterday with a friend about science fiction and the need for writers to grasp basic scientific concepts to be able to present fantastic parables that are tethered to reality.

At some point she asked, “What does the C in MC squared stand for? It’s Energy equals Mass times something squared.”

I couldn’t remember exactly and responded eloquently with rapid onomatopoeia, “TICK TICK TICK TICK!” She raised an eyebrow, “Okay, so I don’t remember exactly, but it has something to do with movement, though clearly ‘movement’ isn’t represented by the letter C. That’s the sound for movement in my head, ‘TICK TICK TICK TICK!”

While sitting in my car (I hadn’t had an internet connection to look it up during yesterday’s discussion.) I did look up the formula and C is the speed of light. I knew it had something to do with movement!

One of the greatest takeaways from my training as a social worker, is that desired change often requires conflict. Very few people show up in a therapist’s office because life is flowing along swimmingly and no change is desired, though perhaps if we had a proactive paradigm for health more would. Generally folks show up because there’s a deficit to their ideal state of health and they want to correct this. In therapy as in organizations to move from a state of incongruence or health deficit, to a state of congruence or health, participants must be willing to go through a period of conflict, or cognitive reorganization. To be able to vulnerably engage in conflict you have to start with trust and trust requires a sense of safety.

I imagine the TARDIS. Let’s say that the TARDIS represents a sense of safety (the thing that is necessary to move from one point to another). Outside of the TARDIS is a person or organization in an incongruent/compromised state. The space outside of the TARDIS is unstable and doesn’t offer the safety needed for vulnerability. In order to emerge into a healthy state it is necessary to enter the TARDIS to be able to be vulnerable and engage in potential conflict to work through issues to arrive in a different place.

The therapist, in the case of personal health, or the organization’s leader, in the case of organizational health, becomes The Doctor in this metaphor as they have the responsibility to support the participant in doing their difficult work of seeing previously unseen possibilities the safe space of the TARDIS. The Doctor themselves must feel safe with conflict to create a safe space in which others can be vulnerable and allow conflicts to arise and be worked through.

There are infinite reasons, just as there are infinite personal realities, that individual people may be uncomfortable with conflict. I’d propose that these are generally rooted in our personal histories and the way in which our families of origin navigated conflict. There are families that stuff it, in which it is not okay to express conflicting points of view or engage in confrontation and negative emotions build. There are families in which conflicts are a storm of anger and at the end of a blow-up nothing is resolved. Coming from either of these backgrounds, it is understandable how someone would see conflict as unsafe territory. Sadly, this makes it so that when conflicts come up they go unresolved. Having a healthy orientation to conflict provides a safe space, a TARDIS if you will, in which conflicting points of view can be explored and navigated to reach a point of congruence that can be moved forward from in a healthy way, arriving at an entirely different space in time. Therapists call this metaphorical TARDIS “holding space.”

You may not share my love of the eighth longest running British television show of all time, but I hope that in your organizational and personal life you have the opportunity to work through healthy conflict and to find yourself in a different, and better, place.


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