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Constructive Conflict

Having had the opportunity to serve as the leader of numerous volunteer organizations throughout my life, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with is the conflict that always seems to bubble up when diverse individuals come together.  The reality is that no matter whether it’s a personal or professional situation, get two or more people in a room and you get the potential for sparks to fly – and not necessarily in a good way.

Intellectually, we know that conflict is natural and normal.  It actually contributes to the collective health of our homes and community spaces.  Sharing new and differing ideas can bring about some of the best of outcomes, which means that conflict can be a good thing.  Conflict in itself is neither good nor bad.  It is just an expression of difference.

With the gloomy economy, high unemployment, competing interests and general pressure to keep our collective heads above water, there is considerably more tension and stress in our lives right now and less energy to focus on discretionary things.  That being said, conflict tends to build up in climates that have significant constraints, unrealistic expectations and inadequate resources, which is often the environment of any organization, never mind the volunteer one.

Being able to address conflict constructively is crucial, especially in a volunteer-driven organization if you want people to continue to altruistically serve and gain meaning from that service.  While the what of the conflict is important, how we deal with it is even more important.

So, here’s a good way to handle conflict in any type of organizational setting, volunteer or otherwise…

First, try to figure out what the conflict is really about.  Ask yourself:

  • Is it instrumental?  Are folks disagreeing about the goal or the means to get to the goal, such as particular procedures or structures?
  • Is it selfinterest?  Are people concerned about the distribution of things, such as money, time, staff, space, or things like importance, ownership or expertise?
  • Is it personal or relational?  Are individuals feeling disrespected?  Does the conflict seem to be on a question of loyalty, a breach of confidence or a betrayal?

Second, decide on a strategy for handling the conflict.  You could:

  • Fight – if you want to use your power, position or strength to settle the conflict.  This can be a good way to settle things if the power comes from a position of authority and this method has been agreed upon.  Remember however, that using power creates a win-lose situation.  You are going to make the other person feel powerless and that could potentially escalate the situation.
  • Flee – if you want to just avoid the conflict altogether.  This can be okay if the conflict is not really important or if you just need some time to cool off before you come back to discuss.  Remember however, that not dealing with the conflict creates a lose-lose situation.  The conflict is not going to disappear and will have to be dealt with at some point.
  • Freeze – if you want to accommodate the other person or just smooth things over.  This is a good way to handle things if harmony in the group needs to be maintained or if the relationship is more important than the conflict.  However, it can be a lose-win situation.  Evading the issue is also not going to make the conflict disappear.  You also run the risk of losing face or respect.
  • Find – if you want to compromise or negotiate a solution that brings some type of meeting in the middle.  It’s sort of a win-win/lose-lose situation, though.  Each person has to give up something to make it work.  But that may be better than having a clear winner and loser.
  • Face – if you want to collaborate to resolve the problem.  Usually facing the problem and teaming to fix things is the best way to go as it involves people working together to create a resolution.  It creates a win-win situation.  Both parties need to be committed to we versus the problem, rather than us against them.  Each needs to be respectful of the other and be willing to invest the time and energy to work things out.

The bottom line is that you need to deal with conflict in a way that makes sense for the situation.  You also need to understand that not all conflicts can be fully resolved.  Personal or relational conflicts are the most difficult as they involve values, beliefs and behaviors.  So, the emphasis on resolving any conflict should be on the merits of the idea rather than the merits of the person.  It’s okay to agree to disagree.

What really is the key is managing conflict?  Just good, open, honest, respectful communication.


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