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Managing Conflict (FS1563 (Revised))

This publication will help understand and provide methods to address conflict.

Lynette Flage, Extension Specialist


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Why Does Conflict Occur?

Conflict is an inevitable part of life and exists when people don’t agree on an issue, decision or action. Some conflicts are minor and dealt with easily, while other conflicts can be major and require a significant amount of time and attention. When conflict is not managed appropriately, it can bring out personal attacks and blame, generate distrust, stifle collaboration and encourage those who think they are “right” to feel elevated above those whose are “wrong.”

Conflict is a normal part of working in groups. Conflict is generated from ineffective communication, different perceptions on an issue, or differing personal beliefs or values. It often is thought of negatively because it makes people uncomfortable, but conflict can be a positive force in group work. Conflict can help the group consider multiple options, boost creativity and allow everyone’s opinion to be heard on an issue.

Conflict usually is caused by one of these:

  1. Lack of communication
  2. Differences of opinions, attitudes or beliefs
  3. History
  4. Varied expectations

Managing Conflict

Group leaders or facilitators should be aware that many methods exist for handling conflict situations. By setting simple group rules and clarifying the expectations of the group beforehand, conflict may be minimized or even eliminated before issues arise. Ground rules may include the following:

  • One person talks at a time.
  • Be respectful of each other.
  • Everyone gets a chance to be heard.
  • Stick to the issue.
  • Listen and ask questions to understand.
  • Separate people from the problem.
  • Everyone participates.

Five Methods to Address Conflict

5 Methods to Address

Additional Suggestions for Managing Conflict

Conflict can arise at any time. These tips may be useful when managing difficult situations.

Deal with one issue at a time – More than one issue may be involved in the conflict. If someone in the group starts to get off track or a problem from the past resurfaces, it should be dealt with to help move the group forward.

Keep emotions in check – If emotions dominate actions, taking a brief break from the conflict is helpful. Take five minutes to focus on the issue, not your emotions.

Avoid resolutions that are easy but not satisfactory – People need time to think about all possible scenarios and solutions to issues. Quick answers or accommodating only a few people’s ideas may not give everyone the same satisfaction that the decision was agreed upon by all.

Avoid becoming a threat to the other person – Avoid name calling and threatening behavior. Everyone involved in conflict situations should be able to preserve his or her pride and dignity.

Conflict resolution often has more than one right answer – Don’t insist on being right. By listening carefully and considering all options, conflict often can be resolved and an agreement or compromise reached.

Focus on interests, not positions – A position is something you have decided on. An interest is what caused you to decide on your position. The best way to focus on interests is to ask, “Why” or “Why not?”

Use humor when appropriate to help diffuse an uncomfortable situation – Laughter sometimes can relieve tension in situations of conflict. However, humor should not be used to insult or belittle anyone. Use a humorous story to set the tone or be prepared with a humorous example if the group culture allows.

Discuss the conflict openly. Communicate – Strategies for good communication include:

  • Proper listening – Give your full attention to whomever is talking.
  • Paraphrasing – Test your understanding of what the speaker said by stating it in your own way. “Let’s see if I understand what you are saying.” OR “I hear you say … . Is that correct?”
  • “I” messages – Instead of using “you” messages, (“You never listen,” “You are so mean.”), an “I” message can be a much more positive way to express yourself (“I get frustrated when you don’t listen to me,” “I feel badly when you yell at me like that.”).
  • Use neutral language – Try not to use words that provide judgment to others up front (should or shouldn’t, always or never, right or wrong, good or bad). Some of these words put others on the defensive and can intensify the conflict.
  • Use “Yes, and … .” instead of “Yes, but … .” – The word “but” can cause or increase conflict. It often conveys, “I heard what you said, but I think you are wrong. What I am about to say is going to be better than what you suggested.” The word “but” can sound like an excuse is being presented.

Conflict is unavoidable and plays a part in many groups. A better understanding of conflict, along with learning to manage conflict, can lead to a more productive team and satisfied team members who feel welcome to communicate openly, take risks and exchange ideas.

References

  • Bens, I. (2000). Facilitating With Ease. John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  • Conflict Management Skills. Board Leadership Series. Publication # BLT#2UMCM9 (2016). K-State Research and Extension.
  • Facilitation Resources: Dealing with Group Conflict (1999). University of Minnesota Extension Service.
  • Fisher, R., and Urey, W. (1991). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreements Without Giving In. (2nd ed.). New York: Penguin Books.
  • Managing Conflict in Groups. Board Leadership Series. Publication # BLT#2UMCM8 (2016). K-State Research and Extension.
  • Youth Leadership Curriculum (2004). Green and Iowa counties, University of Wisconsin Extension.
  • Tackling Community Controversy (2005). A Spotlight on Leadership and Poverty – Facilitation Guide. Northwest Area Foundation Horizons program.

February 2017

NDSU Ext Service

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