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Facilitating Conflict Resolution: How to Avoid Dead End Discussions
Thirteen facilitation tips to help group members work through their differences in an amicable and productive manner.
Approximate reading time: eight to nine minutes.
As a group progresses through the stages of development, at some point conflict will emerge. The forming stage’s general politeness dissolves some as people get more invested in the group’s efforts and each other. They become more comfortable expressing their opinions and challenging others.
Working through these moments helps a group establish the ongoing norms that can lead them to greater effectiveness over time. Even at the performing stage, conflict can emerge when the perceived stakes of a particular issue and/or people’s investment in it, are high.
Effective facilitation can greatly enhance a group's ability to respectfully work through perceived disagreements and reach an agreeable resolution. Here are 13 tips to help you effectively facilitate a group when minor disagreements or conflict emerges, particularly among individuals within an ongoing group like a committee, board, or staff team. A future post will examine how to help resolve major conflicts or more contentious disagreements.
When conflict emerges, the conversation environment (or container) changes. For some, it becomes less certain, more unfriendly, or even unsafe. It is useful to:
acknowledge this shift (participants will have felt it);
remind individuals of their shared agreements about how they want to interact with each other; and
help the group (re)create a safe climate for conversation.
Effective facilitation generally means operating from a position of restraint, but in a conflict situation, your facilitation likely should be more assertive. More actively managing the conversation provides support for people who find conflict challenging or something to avoid. You must not let people speak disrespectfully, inappropriately interrupt, or hijack the conversation for a personal agenda.
It's not unusual for many people to want to speak. To make sure everyone is heard, begin stacking the discussion. The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making specifies four steps to do so: (1) ask who wants to speak; (2) record names in order; (3) call on people as their turn arrives; (4) start another round of stacking after the last person speaks.
When conflict emerges, people often focus on their differences. When facilitating, listen for common ground and agreement—inviting participants to do the same—and help identify when agreement last existed: “When in this discussion did all of you last have agreement or consensus?” Restarting the conversation from a state of agreement generally is a catalyst for more positive discussion moving forward.
Consider how you might change the environment to make the conversation more positive and less divisive. If participants are spread out physically, they may more easily lob aggressive comments. Cameras off during an online conversation make it difficult to gauge people’s reactions. Creating a more intimate or connected setting often interrupts verbal outbursts while also allowing for more eye contact and attention to nonverbal cues. If facilitating conflict in-person, I suggest you move closer to the group and use your physical presence to help hold the conversation space.
If emotions run high, consider taking a short break to clear the air. Be careful to not let individuals lobby you during the break lest you risk losing your perceived impartiality. Another approach to diffusing tension is to do a go around, giving each person the chance to quickly respond to one vital prompt you provide, such as:
“Share the one word that best describes how you’re feeling about the conversation right now”.
“Share the one thing you most need others to understand about your position on the current issue”.
When individuals speak in a charged way, mirror rather than paraphrase what they say. By repeating the person's exact words you reduce the likelihood the individual will feel the need to clarify your remarks (“No, that’s not at all what I just said”). Mirror the speaker’s language, but not the tone. Speaking in a neutral tone can help others hear the content of what originally was expressed when the tone might have turned them off.
Help the group surface the exact nature of the perceived conflict. Is it about incompatible goals or more focused on the tasks and work itself? Is it tied to different belief systems or mental models individuals may hold about what is "right"? Does it surface from personal attitudes and styles among the individuals involve? Groups often lack clarity about the exact nature of the conflict.
Remember the group is bound by the larger (and probably longer) agenda. Managing the conflict in light of other agenda items may require that you call an audible and help the group rethink the agenda: "It seems we are at a stalemate on this particular issue. Are we in a position where we can set it aside for now and move on to other agenda items, should we focus the remaining time exclusively on satisfactorily resolving the current disagreements, or do we need to call it a day and identify how the unfinished work will be completed?"
Anticipate where conflict may arise and prime the participants for the more challenging work to decrease the likelihood of tension occurring at all or in a non-constructive manner. You can use advance surveys to identify potential conversational hot spots, as well as draw on your own experience facilitating comparable agendas.
Remember that comfort with—and diverse perspectives on—conflict likely exist among participants and that different cultures have different beliefs and practices around conflict. Before helping address the substantive nature of the conflict, you may want to help individuals explore effective conflict management in general. I’ve sometimes used this simple approach: “Some people obviously feel strongly about this topic and some significant differences of opinion seem to exist. How might we effectively manage this reality so that we reach a decision you can all sufficiently support?”
Encourage people to listen generously and to inquire about others’ perspectives and positions, not merely advocate for their own. The latter is a critical component of dialogue, a topic thoroughly explored in the book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs. Some of the core concepts are highlighted in this The Systems Thinker article.
Ask the group to reflect and identify lessons learned about working through conflict. Whether it be at the end of the session, in a follow-up evaluation, or both, make the lessons learned explicit to help group members draw on them in the future and feel positive about their progress.
Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of group development, something facilitators must embrace and model during our efforts. Preparing yourself to helps groups manage it is a critical element of a facilitator’s skill development. Our efforts should make it easier for group members to work through their differences in an amicable and productive manner that produces both good decisions and stronger relationships.
Portions of these two posts on dealing with resistance offer additional guidance that may be helpful for facilitating conflict management.
This nine-minute TED Talk by Dorothy Walker, a Welss Fargo project manager, offers three ways to resolve conflict you may find of value.
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